Michele Scarponi's season steps up a gear at this week's Giro del Trentino as the veteran Italian stage racer begins his final preparation for a long summer that includes leading the Astana team at the Giro d'Italia and then helping Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour de France.
After years as a Grand Tour team leader at Domina Vacanze, Liberty Seguros, Androni Giocattoli and Lampre, mixed with bans for blood doping while a client of Dr Fuentes and then for working with Dr. Michele Ferrari, Scarponi has taken a step down as he approaches his 35th birthday in September. Yet seems happy to be at Astana after a difficult final year with Lampre because of the still on-going investigation in Padova into Dr Ferrari.
"Age catches up with everyone even if I like to joke about it but there are always new challenges in life," Scarponi said of his new role during the Giro del Trentino pre-race press conference on Easter Monday in a rainy Arco, north of Lake Garda.
"I'm a dad to twins but that gives me extra motivation, it doesn't make racing harder. It's harder than ever to do well and gets results because racing is always hard. Now tiny details are important and so I'm disciplined about everything I do."
To find his own version of marginal gains, Scarponi recently spent two weeks with several teammates, including Nibali, at altitude on Mount Teide.
"This year, I'm doing the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, so I've started the season slowly but Trentino is an important test to see how I'm going. I want to do well. I'm lacking some racing but hopefully I'll have that in my legs by the end of this race."
The mountains of the Giro del Trentino
Scarponi won the Giro del Trentino in 2011. He then finished second behind Alberto Contador in the Giro d'Italia and was crowned the official winner when the Spaniard lost his victory as a consequence of his positive for Clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France.
This year's Giro del Trentino suits him better than ever, with an opening 13.4km team time trial and then three tough days in the Dolomites.
Stage two finishes on the two-part 15km climb to San Giacomo di Brentonico overlooking Lake Garda and the 182km second stage includes four climbs and then the steep 2.5km climb to Roncone that kicks up at an average of 12%.
The Giro del Trentino ends with the 1653m high mountain finish on Monte Bondone. The 19km climb has an average gradient of 8% and is legendary after Charly Gaul, arguably the best pure climber in the history of the sport, won a stage and the pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia in 1956 by eight minutes despite racing in the snow. Monte Bondone now hosts the annual Charly Gaul Gran Fondo, with this year's event held during the weekend of July 17-20.
Scarponi admitted he knew little about the climbs but joked that could be an advantage.
"To be honest, I only know the Bondone. I've looked at the maps and the climbs look long and hard, they're real climbs. The Roncone is short but steeper. I hope stage 2 is easier because I haven't raced much recently and will still need to find my legs," he said.
"Sometimes it can help if you know the climbs because you can judge your effort if you know there's a easy part of the road coming up. But if you haven't got the legs, knowing the roads can go against you, because you know its going to hurt."
A paternal role at Astana
Scarponi is part of a strong and largely Italian Astana squad for the Giro del Trentino. Also in the sky blue Astana colours are talented young rider Fabio Aru, who will be Scarponi's apprentice and understudy at the Giro d'Italia, Valerio Agnoli and veteran Sicilian Paolo Tiralongo. The USA's Evan Huffman is also part of the eight-rider squad, as is Fredrik Kessiakoff, Mikel Landa and Andrey Zeits.
"Aru is an interesting young rider," Scarponi said.
"He only turned pro last year but he's got huge potential and could be a stage race rider. He's already very strong and I hope that Astana will help him develop. I can teach him something too but I've got a lot do this year."
Scarponi made it clear he is very happy with his more paternal and support role at Astana.
Things have been great so far. The team is strong and I'm with Nibali who is one of strongest riders in the world for stage races and other races. I'm honoured to help him. It's a new role but I'll be giving it everything."
"I've only ridden the Tour of San Luis with Nibali for now but we've just done a big training block together. We knew each other as rivals for many years and were also teammates in the Italian squadra last year for the world championships. I know what he needs and how he feels in the blink of an eye."
Nibali dominated the 2013 edition of the Giro del Trentino but is in Belgium this week to target Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Scarponi predicted the names to watch this year.
"I think Cadel Evans will be a big rival," he said teasing and praising the Australian who was sat near him at the pre-race press conference.
"He's a great rider but even if he doesn’t often win, he never gives up. He's tenacious and determined. He's a 'duro'."
"There's also (Domenico) Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Ivan Basso (Cannondale) who is strong and experienced. The level is always high here and there are squads like Movistar too. It's going to be tough four days of racing."