The 95th Giro d’Italia starts tomorrow (Saturday) without the man who won last year’s race ‘on the road’: Alberto Contador. Indeed, the race begins with only the newly crowned Michele Scarponi present of the three current Grand Tour champions – the 2011 winners of the Tour de France (Cadel Evans) and Vuelta a Espana (Juan Jose Cobo) are also absent.
This makes it one of the most open and unpredictable Giros in recent memory, with any of ten or more men in with a shout of claiming the storied maglia rosa in Milan in a little over three weeks’ time, and at least as many more eyeing a possible podium finish. But who are the genuine contenders, and who are likely to be exposed as mere pretenders?
The big favourites
Two names stand out in terms of having the pedigree to stay the course over a three-week schedule which keeps its powder dry until the final eight racing days. (For more details, see our five key stages preview.)
Lampre-ISD’s Michele Scarponi will be keen to prove a point by successfully defending the title he inherited as a result of Contador’s suspension. Fourth in 2010, last year he entered the Giro on the back of outstanding spring form, having taken overall victories at the Volta a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino. But even that was not enough to propel the Italian to a stage win, and he finished over six minutes behind Contador.
Scarponi’s 2012 form has not been stellar. He was decent but not great in finishing in the top ten at both Tirreno-Adriatico and Vuelta al Pais Vasco, with his best result of the season an impressive eighth at the one-day Classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege. At his best Scarponi ranks among the very best climbers in the world, possesses a deceptively fast sprint and is more than competent against the clock. Teammate and 2004 winner Damiano Cunego will provide formidable climbing back-up, but Lampre’s stated aim here is for the Little Prince to pursue individual stages rather than the overall.
Scarponi is deservedly the bookies’ favourite at 5/2, although those odds do not look at all generous to me.
2006 and 2010 winner Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) is the only other previous champion in this year’s race, although his odds of 4/1 are representative of past achievement rather than current form. He skipped the Giro last year, but his last three entries in the race have resulted in two wins and a fourth place. He will benefit, as ever, from exceptional team strength in the mountains, where he will rely on Sylvester Szmyd, one of the most dependable mountain pace-men in the peloton.
But what raises the most questions is his 2012 form, which has been singularly appalling. He has yet to achieve a significant finish, and at one stage was considered doubtful for the Giro. However, teammate Vincenzo Nibali says his conditioning was much improved at Liquigas’ recent training camp. [But then he would say that, wouldn’t he? – Ed.] It might just all come together for Basso, as he uses the first half of the race to ride himself into form. Equally, it may go horribly wrong. Will he climb onto the top step of the Milan podium, or will he climb off his bike long before then? I remain sceptical for now.
Where I have placed the VeloVoices shilling is on a former Liquigas teammate of Basso’s, Roman Kreuziger. Now with Astana, the 25-year old Czech is already experienced and still building towards his peak. With a fifth-place Giro finish last year and two top-tens at the Tour, Kreuziger has consistently demonstrated the stamina to thrive in the Grand Tours. This year he was third at Tirreno-Adriatico and also placed well at the Giro del Trentino and last week’s Tour de Romandie, which included an impressive fifth in the mountain time trial. He’s a fantastic all-rounder with convincing form, and while the top step may be too far this year, he’s a very strong each-way proposition.
I’m less convinced by two big names floating around just below Kreuziger. Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) was a surprise late inclusion. He has only ever entered the Giro once (way back in 2005) and has barely raced in Italy at all during his career. [Maybe he doesn’t like pasta? – Ed.] His 2012 form-book is virtually blank – as is his record of good performances in time trials. I’m expecting a fairly anonymous performance. 10/1 to win? Don’t make me laugh.
My thinking on Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriquez is somewhat different. An even more inept time-trialist than Schleck, he has always compensated by being a thrilling, punchy, attacking climber. His form is good, with wins at Fleche Wallonne, Vuelta al Pais Vasco (twice) and Tirreno-Adriatico. And he has pedigree, having finished fourth last year, and with top-ten placings at the Tour and Vuelta. But he has never won a stage at the Giro, not even last year when his form throughout the rest of the season was superlative. Maybe that will change in Contador’s absence. But I’m just not sure he has the consistency for a three-week GC challenge. He will burn brightly one day, and burn out the next. Then he will lose two minutes in the concluding time trial to ensure he misses out on the biggest prize. He will certainly finish high in the top ten, but odds of 12/1 overall are probably fair.
More interesting to me are a pair of riders from two of the Italian wild-card squads. Venezuelan Jose Rujano of the appropriately named Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela team is the best non-European podium hope, reflected by 10/1 odds. The 30-year old is an exceptional climber who was the only rider who could consistently go wheel-for-wheel with Contador in the mountains last year. A former podium finisher and King of the Mountains, he inherited stage nine after the Spaniard’s disqualification and won stage 13 outright en route to sixth place. He will get plenty of support from a climber-heavy Androni team which includes compatriot Jose Serpa (150/1) and the experienced Emanuele Sella (66/1).
Colnago-CSF Bardiani will back Domenico Pozzovivo, arguably the in-form climber of the moment. He is a former top-ten finisher who was the dominant force on the savage climbs of the recent Giro del Trentino, where he emerged as the overall winner after taking the queen stage. At a mere 53kg, he will be looking to the steepest slopes of the toughest climbs for an opportunity to pursue a stage victory and a final week push for a high GC finish. At 14/1, he’s good each-way value and has a realistic shot at the overall win.
The rank outsiders
Damiano Cunego (20/1) is Lampre’s plan B, but if Scarponi falters he can still step up to the plate. Similarly, Liquigas have Sylvester Szmyd (33/1) as Basso’s backup, a great team man who has yet to achieve any notable individual results.
French former cyclo-cross star John Gadret (25/1) ever so quietly pedalled to what eventually became third spot, but a repeat is unlikely, as his preparations have been disrupted by bronchitis and his AG2R La Mondiale team looks ill-equipped to support him. His odds seem too short, whereas those of Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Mikel Nieve (66/1) look positively generous. Winner of last year’s stage on the Passo Giau, the 27-year old Nieve went on to finish tenth at both the Giro and Vuelta. If you’re looking for a speculative each-way punt or a mountain stage winner, he’s my top tip.
Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal (40/1) has yet to build on his sixth place at the 2010 Tour, but showed signs of a resurgence with a strong ride to ninth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege last month. And once Mark Cavendish has climbed off his bike – it will happen before or during stage 14 – look to Sky’s pair of young Colombians, Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao (both 50/1), to be let off the leash in search of stage wins.
See someone you fancy? Happy hunting and good luck!
All odds are taken from Ladbrokes and were correct at the time of writing yesterday (Thursday).
Giro d’Italia preview
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