In what, thanks to the presence of Team Sky and the promise of blanket TV and online coverage, is possibly the most eagerly anticipated Grand Tour ever for British cycling fans, the Giro d’Italia gets under way tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon with an 8.4-kilometre prologue around the canal-flanked streets of Amsterdam.
While the opening three days of the 93rd edition of La Corsa Rosa – ‘the Pink Race’ – may take place on Dutch roads with only the odd canal bridge or speed bump threatening to punctuate an appropriately pancake-flat terrain, there is plenty of climbing ahead once the race resumes with a team time trial back in the Bel Paese next Wednesday.
That includes summit finishes on the Zoncolan and Tonale and ascents of the Mortirolo and Gavia, as well as a time trial on the gravel roads and vertiginous gradients up to Plan de Corones that, to borrow a word from my old Italian teacher that you won’t find in any dictionary, can only be described as bastardissimo.
The race finishes with an individual time trial ending at the Roman arena in Verona in three weeks’ time, but ahead of that the white gravel strade bianche of Tuscany promise an absorbing close to the first week’s action as the race heads down the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian side of the Italian peninsula to Campania before swinging back up the Adriatic coast towards the race-deciding final week in the Alps.
As for who’ll be up there at the top of the General Classification as the race reaches its conclusion, it certainly won’t be any of the trio who stood on the podium in Rome as the Giro celebrated its centenary last year – winner Dennis Menchov isn’t defending his title as he focuses on July’s Tour de France, runner-up Danilo di Luca is serving a two-year ban after testing positive for CERA 12 months ago, and earlier this week, third-placed Franco Pellizotti was excluded after the UCI announced that his blood profiles had been found to be inconsistent with his biological passport.
Like Menchov, former winner Alberto Contador has decided to concentrate on the Tour de France and will be spending much of May undertaking a recce of July’s route, while the rescheduling of the Tour of California has led to the absence of team RadioShack’s Lance Armstrong, who will seeking to help Levi Leipheimer defend his title there.
Meanwhile Team Saxo Bank will be without the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy, as well as Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner – not to mention World Time Trial Champion – Fabian Cancellara. Current world number one, Caisse d’Epargne’s Alejandro Valverde, is of course persona non grata in Italy and is currently midway through a two-year ban from racing in the country.
All of which leaves Cadel Evans as the pre-race favourite. Winning the World Road Championship in Mendrisio last September laid two myths to rest –that he was a wheelsucker who couldn’t attack when it counted, and that he lacked that extra something to win a truly big race. A perfectly timed attack to overhaul Contador and win last month’s Flèche Wallonne, his first classic, certainly won’t have done his confidence any harm, either.
Moreover, Evans is at home in the Alps, and not just while on his bike; he and wife Chiara live in the Italian-speaking Canton Ticino of Switzerland, and being married to a local may also provide a boost, with the tifosi able to claim the Australian as uno dei nostri – one of ours – by proxy.
Evans has proved himself a Grand Tour contender in the past – twice second on the Champs-Elysées podium, and third in last year’s Vuelta, a race in which a disastrous wheel-change cost him the race leader’s jersey – and is a past wearer of the maglia rosa. He may never get a better chance than this year to wear it all the way to the race’s conclusion.
Another rider entering the race in a decent vein of form is Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov, competing in his second Grand Tour after his return last year from a two-year doping ban, who would doubtless be a controversial winner given his apparent unrepentance for his past transgressions.
Winner of last month’s Giro di Trentino and Liège-Bastogne- Liège, the Kazakh is riding strongly, but with Astana decimated by departures at the end of last season, notably to Team RadioShack, there is a question mark over whether his team-mates have the experience to support him.
For British fans, huge expectations surround Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, racing his first Grand Tour since his surprise fourth-place finish in last year’s Tour de France.
In public, Team Sky says that Wiggins’ target is the Tour de France, but that could be a bluff – and if Wiggins is up near the top of the General Classification as the race enters its final week, with a final-day time trial looming, the temptation to go for glory could be hard to resist, particularly with Sky Italia being one of the team’s sponsors.
Elsewhere, Carlos Sastre of Cervelo TestTeam, promoted to third last year after di Luca’s disqualification, could run Evans close, and while the chances of Wiggins’ former team-mate, Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Transitions, certainly can’t be dismissed, his principal target is the Tour de France.
The Italian threat
Of course, the Italians can never be discounted on home roads, and particularly so in a year when the Giro celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passing of the great Fausto Coppi, marking the event with a stage finish in his home town of Novi Ligure.
While Liquigas have been thrown into disarray through Pelizotti’s exclusion, that could prove a boon to his team-mate, 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso, who will now be sole team leader.
The other past winners – Damiano Cunego, who achieved his victory in 2004, and Gilberto Simoni, triumphant in 2001 and 2003, who last month signed a contract with Cunego’s Lampre-Farnese Vini to allow him to ride his 15th Giro as he brings down the curtain on his career – are potential stage winners, but it’s difficult to see either mount a serious challenge for the overall title.
Other Italian riders looking to make their mark on the race will include Katusha’s Pippo Pozzatto, racing in the national champion’s tricolore jersey, who you’d expect to pick up a stage or two, as well as Androni-Diquigiovanni’s Michele Scarponi.
Team Sky also has something of a local flavour in its line-up for the race, with Dario Cioni, born in Reading of Italian parents, iikely to be a key lieutenant to Wiggins and the climber Morris Possoni from Bergamo also selected.
Turning to the sprinters, there are also some notable absentees. Mark Cavendish is racing in the Tour of California, Milan-San Remo winner Oscar Freire has succumbed to sinusitis, and Daniele Bennati of Liquigas, winner of the points jersey in 2008, is out with a muscle injury.
That leaves opportunities before for the likes of Cavendish’s team-mate-cum-rival André Greipel, 25-time Giro stage winner Alessandro Pettachi of Lampre-Farnese Vini and Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar to lay their claim to the red points jersey.
However, unlike in the Tour de France, in which the points competition is biased towards the sprint stages, the Giro attaches equal weight to all stages, meaning that in recent years the jersey has been as likely to go to the overall runner-up –di Luca last year and Paolo Bettini in 2006 –as a sprinter, something that could leave its destination in doubt right up to the final day’s time trial in Verona.
Racing starts tomorrow at 12.55pm UK time when Matthias Russ of Milram rolls down the start ramp in Amsterdam, with the last rider, HTC-Columbia’s Andre Greipel, due to set off at 4.34pm.
A little earlier, at 4.10pm, Bradley Wiggins, sporting the colours of British National Time Trial Champion with custom painted Pinarello to match, will have begun his Giro campaign, setting off immediately after David Millar of Garmin-Transitions.
Tomorrow’s full start list can be found here, and over the next three weeks, we’ll be bringing you all the news from what promises to be an absorbing race right here on road.cc.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.