May 6, 2011 7 Comments
The 94th Giro d’Italia starts tomorrow (Saturday) without its defending champion Ivan Basso and several other leading riders such as Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Samuel Sánchez, but nonetheless boasts a strong field. Four previous winners – Stefano Garzelli (2000), Danilo di Luca (2007), Alberto Contador (2008) and Denis Menchov (2009) – will take the start line in Turin, along with reigning Vuelta a España champion Vincenzo Nibali and several other contenders who all have the potential to wear the maglia rosa in three weeks’ time.
But who are the genuine contenders, and who are likely to be exposed as mere pretenders?
The top two
At first glance, it’s hard to look beyond Alberto Contador, with Vincenzo Nibali a pedal-stroke ahead of the rest in terms of offering the most serious competition to the Spaniard.
Contador has not raced at the Giro since winning in 2008 – for the last two years he has focussed on the Tour de France – and comes into this race as the overwhelming favourite with good reason (Ladbrokes are offering miserly odds of 8/11 at the time of writing). He has won each of the last five Grand Tours he has entered (three Tours, one Giro, one Vuelta). And despite an impending Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing hanging over his head, he has been in sparkling form this spring, winning the Vuelta a Murcia and the Volta a Catalunya stage races and looking strong in both the mountains and the time trials. He is unquestionably the strongest and most consistent stage race rider in the world, capable of launching savage accelerations on the steepest climbs and competing with the top men in individual time trials. At his best, he has no discernible weaknesses.
In his ‘home’ race Nibali (9/2) is the best all-round threat to Contador. He finished third last year while riding in service of Basso, but spent three days in the maglia rosa and took a fine solo win in Asolo after breaking free on the descent from Monte Grappa. As Liquigas‘s team leader at the Vuelta, he went on to take his first Grand Tour win last September, underlining his pedigree and consistency. While riding well, he has had a quieter start to this season, placing fifth at Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing in the top ten at both Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Nibali lacks the ability to launch the big attacks on the harshest gradients but is nonetheless both an excellent climber and descender, and will also feature strongly in the time trials. On paper, his Liquigas-Cannondale squad looks superior to Contador’s Saxo Bank-Sungard line-up, and Nibali will most likely emerge with a useful advantage from the opening team time trial. If the Spaniard fears any other rider, it will be him.
Waiting in the wings
For me, the top two are a sizeable but not insurmountable distance ahead of the chasing pack. But should one of them suffer a dip in form or a badly timed mechanical problem, there are five prominent riders capable of taking advantage.
Possibly the best placed is Denis Menchov (12/1, fourth favourite). The Geox-TMC team leader’s Grand Tour record is second only to Contador among current riders, having previously won both the Giro (2009) and Vuelta (2005 & 2007), and finished third twice at the Tour. His season so far has been fairly low profile – third at the Vuelta a Murcia behind Contador – which is very much in keeping with a style which is largely defensive in the high mountains and relies on a combination of consistency and strong time-trialling to ride stealthily to success. His key weaknesses are an inability to attack on the climbs and a tendency to be involved in crashes. His 2009 Giro win was almost lost at the death when he came off his bike on slippery cobbles outside the Colosseum in the final kilometre of the final stage time trial.
The next best all-round rider is probably Astana‘s Roman Kreuziger (25/1), who is making his Giro debut. A talented young rider – he turns 25 today – who has spent the last few years riding in the shadow of Basso and Nibali, the Giro marks his first Grand Tour as a team leader. A good climber and a strong time-trialist, he has the potential to take the step up to lead a GC challenge over the course of three weeks, but has yet to prove it. A relatively weak Astana team won’t help either. His best Grand Tour results to date are a pair of ninth-place finishes at the Tour. So far this season he has won a stage and the mountains classification at the recent Giro del Trentino, and was fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In reality, a top-five finish would be an excellent result for the young Czech.
Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Igor Antón (16/1) has shown early form in the Vuelta Ciclista a Castilla y León (where he finished third) and the one-day classic Flèche Wallonne (fifth), as he seeks to overcome the disappointment of crashing out of the lead of last year’s Vuelta, where he had won two stages. A punchy climber who is also strong in the time trials, he has never finished higher than 83rd at the Giro. He is certainly capable of a high placing, although his ability to endure to the end of a three-week race – where the Giro is at its toughest – remains a question mark. And he is likely to start the race on the back foot, as Euskaltel are historically weak performers in team time trials.
The other two top contenders are pure climbers who have a distinct weakness when it comes to individual time trials. Katusha‘s Joaquim Rodríguez (18/1) is a fantastic climber who finished eighth at the Tour and fourth at the Vuelta last year, but threw away his hopes of a win in Spain after losing at least four minutes to most of his main rivals with a catastrophic performance in the individual time trial. He does, however, bring great form to the Giro, having been bested only by the unstoppable Philippe Gilbert at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne last month and won a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country.
And Lampre-ISD‘s Michele Scarponi (6/1, second favourite) has been even better – winning the Giro del Trentino, second (behind Contador) at the Volta a Catalunya and third at Tirreno-Adriatico – but is also vulnerable against the clock.
Both Rodríguez and Scarponi are capable of taking large chunks of time out of other contenders in the mountains, but they will also be closely marked and both can expect to lose 1½ minutes or more in the final stage time trial. The overall win is probably beyond them, but a podium place is a definite prospect.
The rank outsiders
Beyond the top seven, it is difficult to make a case for anyone else seriously threatening the podium. Domenico Pozzovivo (who finished ninth in 2008) and José Rujano are strong climbers in relatively weak wild-card teams (Colnago-CSF Inox and Androni Giocattoli respectively). RadioShack‘s Tiago Macado has good current form but no pedigree in three-week Grand Tours. All three are rightly ranked as 50/1 outsiders.
2007 winner Danilo di Luca has the pedigree but is still rehabilitating himself back into the sport after his doping ban and will not be given free rein unless Katusha teammate Rodríguez falters. Rujano’s Androni Giocattoli teammate Emanuele Sella (80/1) won four stages and finished in the top 12 four times between 2004 and 2008, but has done little of note since. Sky‘s Thomas Lövkvist (200/1) is a strong time-trialist but no more than a competent climber. Carlos Sastre (100/1) finished eighth at both the Giro and the Vuelta last year and is a reasonable long-shot for the podium, but a repeat of his 2008 Tour triumph now looks well beyond the 36-year old and he will ride primarily to support Menchov. Finally David Arroyo (100/1) will be supported by a very strong Movistar squad and was runner-up to Basso last year courtesy of an early breakaway, but lacks consistency and is probably best considered as a potential stage winner rather than a podium contender.
Giro d’Italia preview