Following the celebrations of the centenary edition of the Giro d'Italia in 2009, this year's race has a more traditional feel and fewer big star names on the start list but promises to be just as spectacular with no dominant favourite for victory and a course that will test riders to their very limit.
Lance Armstrong was the star of the race in 2009 despite rarely being competitive in the key mountain stages. He and Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) have opted to ride the Tour of California this year but the 197-rider start list includes reigning world champion Cadel Evans (BMC), 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre (Cervelo TestTeam), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions), Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), Marzio Bruseghin (Caisse d'Epargne) and David Moncoutie (Cofidis).
Defending champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank) isn't riding this year but names to watch for include Linus Gerdemann (Milram), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia), Thomas Voeckler (BBox Bouygues Telecom), Dan Martin and David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) and Dario Cioni and Michael Barry (Team Sky). There are a total of 33 English-speaking riders on the provisional start list.
Cavendish has dominated the Giro sprints in the last two years and his absence means this year's fast finishes will be wide open. The big showdown will be between Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) but Robbie McEwen (Katusha), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank) and Giro debutant Oscar Freire (Rabobank) will surely be a threat, as will the Team Sky combo of CJ Sutton and Greg Henderson.
Entertaining route, tough final week
In recent years, Race Director Angelo Zomegnan and his staff have created some innovative and entertaining race routes that highlight the beauty of Italy. Many stages remember past Giro winners, re-enact legendary stages and evoke special moments of the 101-year history of the event.
Last year the 'centoanno' edition ended in Rome and so avoided the Dolomites in the final week. This year the unique and breathtaking rugged peaks are back with a vengeance, packing the final week before a final time trial to the Roman arena in the centre of Verona.
This year's Giro begins in Amsterdam, nine years after the Giro began in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands. The 21 days of racing begin on Saturday May 8 with an opening 8.4km time trial around the canals and bridges of central Amsterdam.
The technically demanding course will award the first pink jersey of the race and also create the first time gaps between the overall contenders. Our pick for the first pink jersey? It has to be Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins as he and his new British team use the first 10 days of the Giro as a test for the Tour de France.
The first three stages all start from Amsterdam with stage two finishing in Utrecht on Sunday and stage three finishing in Middleburg on Monday. The second half of stage three passes near the southern coast and crosses several long dykes and bridges.
If there is a strong crosswind blowing off the North Sea, the stage could spark the formation of echelons and some aggressive racing for position as the overall contenders fight to avoid losing important chunks of time.
The riders fly to Italy for the first rest day on May 11 before facing the 33km team time trial on Wednesday. It's on a straight, flat and very fast road between Savigliano and Cuneo and will see the teams of nine riders record average speeds close to 55km/h. Expect Team Sky, HTC-Columbia, Garmin and Saxo Bank to fight for victory.
Two stages take the Giro to central Italy via Novara, Novi Ligure, Fidenza and Carrara. The start of stage five in Novi Ligure will remember Italian legend Fausto Coppi, 50 years after his death, and pass through his birth place of Castellania in the nearby hills.
Stage seven from Carrara to Montalcino will also take the riders back in time with three sections on the dirt roads of Tuscany made famous by the Strade Bianche race. Like the cobbled sections in this year's Tour de France, the dirt roads will be a severe test for the overall contenders and so will create some nervous but spectacular racing.
The Giro heads south towards Rome and the first mountain finish at Terminillo on stage eight. The 16km climb will not decide the Giro but traditionally catches out whoever is not near their best early in the race.
Bitonto is the southern most point of the 2010 Giro and after two probable sprint finishes, the race quickly turns around and heads northward for a finish in L'Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region that was severely damaged by an earthquake last spring. Stages 12 and 13 follow the Adriatic coast with stage 14 including two of the nine climbs that are covered in the Nove Colli Gran Fondo a week later. The stage will also remember the late Marco Pantani, who was born in Cesenatico.
Into the mountains
There is still a week of racing remaining but the final overall contenders will surely emerge on Stage 15 with the mountain top finish on Monte Zoncolan via the tougher Ovaro side. The climb is only 10.10km long but has an average gradient of 11.9 percent and two short sections at 20 percent.
The riders can enjoy the second rest day on Monday May 24 but then face the Plan de Corones mountain time trial the following day. It is 12.9km of pain, with the final 5.2km on a specially laid dirt track up to the ski station. The views are spectacular from the top and it will be a great stage to watch; the riders will be in too much pain to enjoy it however, and only one rider will be crowned the king of Plan de Corones.
Three stages take the Giro west from the Dolomites to Aprica, with a flat stage to Brescia on stage 18, the last chance for the sprinters that have made it this far.
Stage 19 and stage 20 are the final mountain stages and with multiple climbs on each one, they will be a double test for the riders still fighting for overall victory. Stage 19 climbs the Mortirolo before the finish in Aprica and will offer another spectacular day of climbing and suffering.
Stage 20 is a real 'tappone', as the Italians call the big mountain stages. It is only 178km long but includes five major climbs, including the Passo di Gavia, the Cima Coppi (highest climb of the race), 50 years since it was first covered in the Giro.
The long descent and steady climb to the finish at Passo del Tonale might not split the best climbers, but if it snows like in 1988, when Andy Hampsten took the pink jersey, anything could happen.
The riders will be punch drunk after so much climbing in the final seven days but will need to make one last final effort in the 15km time trial round Verona. Stage victory will be a battle between specialists like Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) but the technical course, covering the 2004 world championship road race course in reverse direction and ending inside the Roman arena, could also decide the final overall winner of the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
In 1984 Francesco Moser gave Italy a special victory and helped revive cycling in the Bel Paese. The tifosi will be reeling after another of their favourites - Franco Pellizotti - became embroiled in scandal but an Italian winner could help the nation's cycling emerge from a troubled past.
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