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93rd Giro d'Italia - Favourites Preview
By Giles Belbin
Date: 5/6/2010
93rd Giro d'Italia - Favourites Preview

© 210 Gazzetta dello Sport

With the Tour of California moving to May, this year the stage race specialists have had a tough choice to make of whether to race in the US sunshine or try their luck in the first Grand Tour of the year. Despite the clash this year's Giro still boasts a very strong field. There may be no Contador or Armstrong, no Schleck brothers and there may be no defending champion in the form of Denis Menchov, all of whom are keeping their powder dry until July's Tour de France, but there is plenty of top level talent still on view, including the 2008 Tour winner and reigning World Champion. So let's check out who the movers and shakers in this year's Giro d'Italia are likely to be.

Carlos Sastre
Team: Cervelo Test Team
Nationality: Spanish
Age: 35
Best GT Performance: 2008 Tour de France - 1st
Best Giro Performance: 2009 - 3rd
2010 Form Guide: 94th Volta a Catalunya, 115th Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Sastre on his way to winning the 2008 Tour de France
Photo © 2008 Foto Sirotti

It’s difficult to gauge the current form of the 2008 Tour de France winner due to the limited racing he has under his belt this year. Sastre has just 9 days of racing in his legs, and 72nd in stage 6 of Volta a Catalunya represents his best result so far this year. However, the Spanish climber is known to be targeting this race and will be keen to add to his single Grand Tour victory so far.

Always consistent in three week races, Sastre tends to grow in strength as the race develops and is invariably at his best in the final week of a three week race. He won the 2008 Tour on Alpe d’Huez which came in the final week and in last year’s Giro won on Vesuvius, again in the final week, on his way to third overall. This year’s Giro is back loaded with tough mountain stages, when the road will rarely point anywhere other than to the sky, and the race as a whole has relatively few Time Trial kilometres. When it was announced Sastre must have looked at the route and rubbed his hands in glee, it couldn’t be much better for him had he sat down with a coffee and sketched it out himself. If his team can look after him Sastre will be a strong contender to add a Maglia Rosa to the Maillot Jaune already in his wardrobe. He is my favourite for the win.

Cadel Evans
Team: BMC
Nationality: Australian
Age: 33
Best GT Performance 2007 and 2008 Tour de France - 2nd
Best Giro Performance: 2002 - 14th
2010 Form Guide: 1st La Fleche Wallonne, 5th Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Evans in his World Champion's Rainbow Jersey
Photo © 2009 Foto Sirotti

The bookies favourite at the time of writing, Evans has been nothing short of a revelation in the last nine months or so. A dogged performer, always consistent in the Grand Tours (last year’s Tour de France aside), Evans had been plagued by accusations of defensive riding, of following and not leading, of being unable to cease the moment and attack his opponents.

No more though. After only losing the 2009 Vuelta a Espana through ill-luck (an unfortunate puncture robbed him of victory when he was in the leader’s Gold Jersey and left him in third place overall) he completed a highly impressive ride at Mendriso last autumn, which brought the Rainbow Jersey on to the shoulders of the Australian. And this season he has done the World Champion’s jersey justice, riding impressively in Liege-Bastogne Liege and winning La Fleche Wallonne in April.

His BMC racing team has faced some disruption of late and Allessandro Ballan will not be in Italy to support him. The lack of a really tough Time Trial will harm his chances as will murderously steep climbs like the Zoncolon. But Evans has demonstrated resilience on really tough climbs before and it could well be his time to add a Grand Tour title to his already impressive palmares.

Ivan Basso
Team: LiquigasDoimo
Nationality: Italian
Age: 32
Best GT Performance: 2006 Giro d'Italia - 1st
Best Giro Performance: 2006 - 1st
2010 Form Guide: 5th Giro del Trentino

Basso crosses the line in last year's Giro
Photo © 2009 Foto Sirotti

Forever to be linked with Opercion Puerto, Basso’s 2006 Giro win will, in many people’s minds, always have a doubt placed against it, although it should be stressed that Basso has always denied actually doping and has always tested negative.

The LiquigasDoimo rider will therefore be keen to prove his detractors wrong and add to his 2006 win. Before Puerto he was hailed as Lance Armstrong’s successor. Signed by Discovery, it was thought the Grand Tours were his for the taking before being suspended. After serving his ban Basso has impressed without quite hitting the heights of his earlier years.

A 4th place finish in last year’s Giro was a great achievement following his time out and he stands a good chance of improving on that this time around. This year he has been in steady form, 5th in the Giro del Trentino being his best result. Following Franco Pellizotti’s withdrawal from the race Basso would hope to now be LiquigasDoimo’s undisputed leader and to enjoy full team support in what is probably the Italian team’s number one target this year. However, the inclusion now of Vincenzo Nibali gives the team other options. Basso is good in the mountains and solid in Time Trials, and although he may may need others to slip up if he is take a second Maglia Rosa, he is sure to there or thereabouts.

Bradley Wiggins
Team: Sky
Nationality: British
Age: 30
Best GT Performance: 2009 Tour de France - 4th
Best Giro Performance: 2009 - 70th
2010 Form Guide: 3rd Vuelta a la Region de Murcia

Wiggins with Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford and the Pinerallo steed he will trust in Italy
Photo © 2010 Mark Sharon

If this time last year we had put Wiggins on our list of Giro favourites we’d have been laughed out of town, possibly even by the Brit himself. But Wiggins’ transformation from track and TT specialist to genuine Grand Tour contender was probably the revelation of the 2009 season. His performance in last year’s Giro perhaps should have given us an indication but his displays in Alps and Pyrenees during the 2009 Tour de France took the breath away. Simply no-one expected the multiple Olympic Track gold medallist to be fighting it out in the mountains with Contador, Armstrong and the Schlecks.

So far this year his performances have been steady rather than spectacular, but with the real aim of the season still a couple of months away that is to be expected. A couple of good performances in Time Trials are a solid indicator that Wiggins is pretty much where he wants to be.

The question is where is the Giro in his and Team Sky’s list of priorities? Publicly at least the party line is that the focus is all on July and that Wiggins riding the Giro is in preparation for his assault on the Tour in the summer. But privately it might just be a different matter. The Giro may have limited TT kilometres and the climbs may well be tougher than those the peloton will face in France in July, but even though the Tour’s route may favour him, the Brit may stand a better chance of recording a win in this race than in the Tour, simply because the Tour’s peloton will be that much stronger, with Contador, the Schlecks and Armstrong all looking to peak in July.

It comes down to whether you consider another top five placing in the Tour is worth more than a overall victory in the Giro. Some might say yes, others might say no. Team Sky's Manager, Dave Brailsford, has vowed to give the race the respect it deserves, telling the Team Sky official website, “"You can't go to a race like the Giro and not take it seriously. You go to the Giro to race the Giro and that's what Bradley will do."

Given the route it is more than possible that Wiggins will be still be in contention as we get into the final week, and if that’s the case it will surely be very difficult not to go all out for glory in a race a prestigious as the Giro.

Damiano Cunego
Team: Lampre-Farnese Vini
Nationality: Italian
Age: 28
Best GT Result: 2004 Giro d'Italia - 1st
Best Giro Result: 2004 - 1st
2010 Form Guide: 5th La Fleche Wallonne, 6th Amstel Gold

Cunego makes chase in last year's Giro
Photo © 2009 Foto Sirotti

,p>The Little Prince promised much when, in 2004, when he danced his way to victory in this race. Despite classics wins in the intervening years , he has never again quite reached similar heights. A favourite with the Tifosi, he is a perennial fixture on pre-Giro favourites lists (so who am I to disappoint?) but sometimes with little reason.. His performances since that 2004 win have been: 2005 – 18th, 2006 – 4th, 2007 – 5th, and 2009 – 18th, varied to say the least. After a run of decent results in 2006 and 2007 (he didn't ride the 2008 race favouring to target the Tour), 2009 represented a disappointing return to the race, something he will be looking to address.

He is in good form, with solid results in the Ardennes classics confirming he is approaching the race in good condition. The Giro is Cunego’s favourite of the Grand Tours and the one where he surely feels most at home. He tends to climb better on Italian soil than anywhere else, handy because and he will need to climb as well as he ever has and dig deep if he is going to match the likes of Sastre when the race gets into definitive final week. Like Basso’s Liquigas team, the Giro represents Cunego’s Lampre team’s most important race and so he will have the full disposal of the team’s resources behind him. Italy and Lampre still have faith in Cunego in this race, time will tell whether that faith is well placed.

Alexandre Vinokourov
Team: Astana
Nationality: Kazakh
Age: 36
Best GT Result: 2006 Vuelta a Espana - 1st
Best Giro Result: Not ridden before
2010 Form Guide: 1st – Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 1st Giro del Trentino

Riccardo Ricco congratulates Alexandre Vinokourov on his win in this year's Giro del Trentino
Photo © 2009 Foto Sirotti

Astana’s leader for its assault on the first Grand Tour of 2010 will be Alexandre Vinokourov. With Alberto Contador diligently preparing for July’s Tour de France, the Kazakh rider will carry the full weight of high expectation from his team and country. To some controversially back in the peloton following his suspension for doping practices, Vinokourov has enjoyed a good deal of success so far in 2010. A win in the Giro del Trentino was followed by a second victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a win which was met with despair by some media.

The media’s reaction appears to have taken Vinokourov by surprise, prompting him to publish an impassioned open letter on the Astana Team website in which he pleads for equality saying, “While reading the press comments regarding my last victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege I felt a deeply saddened. I don’t understand this persecution against victory in Liège seems to revive old jealousies for which I am not if I had to be forbidden of success on my bike to leave everyone with a clear conscience. In which sport are we allowed to be at the start of a competition without the right to win?... Since my come back I have been the subject of more than 30 doping tests, all negatives, including 21 in the context of the Adams. This allows me to validate my biological passport and therefore to run.... Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling. "

A proven performer in three week races, Vinokourov won the Vuelta a Espana in 2006 and has finished in the top five of the Tour de France twice, coming third in 2003 and fifth in 2005. An attacking rider, he will be sure to look to animate the important stages. If he feels the other favourites are riding defensively his instinct will surely be to attack, if nothing else leading to some exciting racing. He clearly feels the world is against him at the moment and will look to use that to his advantage and try to make a point. Astana’s main goal this year may be for Alberto Contador to defend his Tour de France crown but, as a Kazakh sponsored team, the chance to put the country’s most famous ever rider on the top step of the Giro’s podium will be a delicious prospect for them. It'll be Alexandre and Astana against the world! And would you bet against them?

Stefano Garzelli
Team: Acqua e Sapone
Nationality: Italian
Age: 36
Best GT Result: 2000 Giro d'Italia - 1st
Best Giro Result: 2000 - 1st
2010 Form Guide: 1st Tirreno Adriatico, 18th Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Garzelli signing in at last year's Giro
Photo © 2009 Foto Sirotti

Perhaps more of an outside bet, Acqua e Sapone's veteran rider, Stefano Garzelli, could well be in amongst the race's leading contenders, as the race heads to Verona. The 36 year old knows the race well and has consistently placed high in GC. He won the 2000 edition and has finished in the top ten on no fewer than four other occasions.

His 2010 form has been good so far. A highly impressive win in Tirreno Adriatico has been backed up with a strong second place in the Giro del Trentino's openingTime Trial and 18th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But even if Garzelli has the legs to improve on last year's sixth place, whether his Pro Continental team will be strong enough to support an assault on the very top of the GC must be in some doubt.

The team does boast some talented climbers though including Francesco Masciarelli, who finished the 2009 race in 17th place. Acqua e Sapone are based in the Abruzzo region of Italy that was badly hit in last year's earthquake. One of the worst hit areas in Abruzzo was L'Aquila and with stage 11 finishing in the town this year, it is bound to be an emotional Giro for the region and the team. This is without doubt the team's biggest race of the year and another high placing for the Italian could well be once again on the cards.

Other riders that could feature prominently include Liquigas-Doimo's Vincenzo Nibali, Androni Giocattoli's Michele Scarponi, Garmin-Transitions Christian Vande Velde (although like former team-mate Bradley Wiggins he may have an eye on July) and two time winner, seven time podium dweller, Lampre Farnese Vini's Gilberto Simoni. But whoever takes the ultimate glory, we should be in for a fantastic three weeks of racing.

Be sure to stay with the Daily Peloton for live stage tickers, reports, reactions and all the news from this year's Giro d'Italia.

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