While the so-called orange warriors of UCI Pro Tour licensed team Euskaltel-Euskadi were struggling to get their first win of the season (an unsuccessful struggle, as our Andy mcDobbin reports), their non-Pro Tour colleagues at Panaria were rocking the field here and there. While riders from the Basque team were losing to both cycling powerhouses and small continental teams, to the Fassas and Spiuks of the peloton alike, their perhaps lesser-known fellow orange jersey wearers were busy racking up wins against both big and small teams, against the Lampres and Miches of the pack alike. And building a season tally only few other, selected squads can boast. Sixteen (s-i-x-t-e-e-n) wins, and countless other top results in the space of about three months of racing is what thay have been able to collect to date.
It all began with Panaria's southern gems Graeme Brown of Australia and Guillermo Rubén Bongiorno of Argentina making the most out of the southern emisphere summer training and turning most of the Tour of Langkawi (which was mostly made of bunch sprint finishes) into their own affair, with also other fastmen such as Brett Lancaster and Paride Grillo playing their part in the team's great start to the season. Then came the rest of the roster, with the Freddies, Mazzantis, Perez Cuapios and Tiralongos continuing the orange team's winning streak. Which was completed by Grillo's first seal as professional rider this past weekend.
Such that, even if their early season most winning machines Brown and Bongiorno will not be at the startline at Reggio Calabria, the boys coached by Bruno "The Uncle" Reverberi, one of the most accomplished Direttori Sportivi around, have got everything they need to storm the Giro - it wouldn't be their first time - and made their names known to a broader audience worldwide. And the lack of a real GC contender among them would just become their strong point, making them all able to go for the glory, to go for stage win(s) or other top daily performances, and to top results in "minor" classifications.
The "orange power" might come to the Giro since the very first day (better, night). Courtesy of Brett Lancaster, a strong Aussie who has got the skills to do well in Saturday's unusual TT prologue, a "sprint" of 1,400 metres on the Reggio Calabria seafront. He's fast, and a good rider against the clock, and with a bit of luck (like good weather conditions, as the wind is supposed to be a real factor in this kind of mini-prologue) could be the first rider able to stamp Panaria's authority on the race, perhaps not by getting that coveted stage victory he barely missed at Paris-Camembert and (twice) Langkawi, but still having a good result. He's expected to be given stiff opposition from the other members of the Aussie contingent in the Giro (Renshaw, Stuey, McEwen) anyway.
Should "Big Bird" fail, he'd be given some chances for redemption in the next stages, as the first week provides the fastest Girini with plenty of opportunities. But in this case Panaria's first appointed "blanket finish man" should go under the name of Paride Grillo, the newest name in professional cycling sprinting. We had the pleasure of following the Lombard when he was still an Under 23 and used to dominate the sprints with another "orange" jersey on his shoulders, that of the Pagnoncelli team. In the past September the boy from Como made his debut against the "big guns" as a stagiaire and immediately made the headlines, and his name known to some English-speaking fans, with a second place finish (behind Tom Bonnen only) and more top 10 results at the Tour of Britain.
After completing his successful season (he tallied seven wins, equalling his 2003 record) as an Under 23 Grillo (Italian word for cricket) could start his first full season as professional cyclist. And immediately got back showing off his legs to better-known gun sprinters, giving the likes of McEwen, O'Grady etc. a run for their money on their home soil at the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, where he took second - twice - and got more top 10 results, also finishing eighth overall (the boy is a better climber than other fastmen) and taking the runner-up spot in the points classification.
Grillo's string of excellent results continued throughout his early season campaign, earning him the status of ... the first still active rider able to beat Petacchi in a sprint finish in 2005! When Mario Cipollini got the last victory (nobody at that time could know it was the last one though) of his career at Lucca on March 07th all the headlines were - obviously - about the Big Lion King roaring back, and only few could hear the "little" Cricket from Como chirping. But previously unbeaten Petacchi finished just third that day, 'cause actually also Grillo pipped him. And this past Saturday, curiously a couple days after SuperMario's retirement anouncement, there was no Cipo around to stop him from winning: Paride Grillo could finally open his account in a Circuit de Lorraine stage. Was it a symbolical thing? Should we really regard Grillo as the "Cipollini of the 2010s"? Are we gonna have a Lion Cricket? It's too early to tell. Paride displayed a lot of talent and great legs throughout his first months on the professional scene, but this Giro d'Italia - one of the few Pro Tour races this Panaria rider is allowed to take part in during the 2005 season - with most top sprinters (among whom Petacchi, McEwen, Stuey and even Grillo's idol Erik Zabel) around, will be the first real, big test for him, and tell us how much we could hear his name, and see his bizarre haircut, in the future.
Besides Lancaster's and Grillo's, the Reveberi boys have got another pair of fast legs: those of Luca Mazzanti. Another often overlooked rider, the man from Bolonia deservedly stole the spotlight in recent weeks, thanks to victories at Giro d'Oro and GP Industria Artigianato and top results at Tour of Trentino, Settimana Internazionale and Giro dell'Appennino. Showing an excellent condition that could be much of help to him at Giro d'Italia time, perhaps not in field sprints ("Mazza" has few chances against the likes of Petacchi or McEwen, and even Grillo and Lancaster should be better at sprinting than him), but certainly in smaller bunch sprints, where he could make the most out of his talent, so that we wouldn't be surprised at finding this combative veteran - at his ninth season in the pro ranks - in winning breakaways.
Even though Panaria's appointed "breakaway man" should go under the name of Paolo Tiralongo and Emanuele Sella. Sicilian Tiralongo had some good performances in the first months of the current season, though he probably reaped lesser rewards than he deserved. The man from the deep south of Italya hit the podium twio times in as many one day-races, and the top 10 four more times. But is still looking for his first victory, and the Giro could provide him with the opportunities he needs, and the best place to get it. Emanuele Sella is the man who put in a great, "old-fashioned" breakaway in the past Tour of Italy, and got a great, "old-fashioned" solo win in a tough stage finishing into Cesena twelve months ago. A young neo-pro at the time, Sella (Italian word for saddle) surprised many with his winning move, but not those who already knew of his immense talent, or those who saw him as a protagonist in previous tune-up races such as the 2004 Rund um den Henninger Turm. The 1981-born athlete from Vicenza is now back in the ... sella to stun again, though he's supposed to have more eyes on him this time, and enjoy less freedom than he could have in the past Giro.
Sella is a good climber too, with chances to do well also as he road tilts upwards. But Panaria have many options for the several mountain stages this hilly Giro has in store. The "lesser" ones should go under the names of Domenico Pozzovivo and Luis Felipe Laverde Jiménez. Another guy we watched rocking the Under 23 field in past seasons (unlike Grillo his "hunting reserve" were the mountains though), tiny neo-pro Pozzovivo could be as surprising in this Giro edition as Sella was in the past race. Not just because of his good legs, but also of the fighting attitude he displayed often, notably in tough races like the Freccia dei Vini 2002, or the past World Champs at Verona, where he took the silver medal in the U23 Road Race, staying with future winner - the mighty Belarusian Aliaksandar Sioutsou - as much as he could, on a route that didn't suit small climbers, and with just little support (mainly due to tactical mistakes by the coach) from the rest of the Squadra Azzurra. With big names such as Cunego (Pozzovivo has at least one thing - but probably more - in common with Damiano: the two guys raced for the same Under 23 team Zalf Desirée Fior), Simoni, and Basso competing, and the likes of Rujano and Danielson also wishing to make the mar k on the race, it would be pointless to put excessive pressure (and expectations) on him. But - again - don't be that surpsied if you see this little climber from the Southern Italian region of Lucania up front when the going gets tough.
The 1979-born Colombian Luis Felipe Laverde Jiménez also can climb quite well (of course, he's a Colombian after all ...). He made it to the top 10 once, and the top 20 several times, in the hilly stages of the last week of the 2004 Tour of Italy, when racing for Formaggi Pinzolo. And why shouldn't he keep doing it again - or do even better - in the hilly stages of the second half of this Giro, with the same amount of - of even more - uphill racing on the hills of Veneto, Trentino and South Tyrol, Lombardy and Piedmont?
It would be even less surprising to find Panaria's Latino mountain goats at the front on the Appennines, Dolomites and Piedmontese Alps anyway. Mexican Julio Alberto Pérez Cuapio recently found back his winning legs as he won the Tour of Trentino overall, and got some good results at the Settimana Lombarda stage race. A welcomed comeback to the top of the podium for a man who rocked the mountains in the early 2000s, but lost much of his good condition in the past two seasons. And now that he's back to the race which made him famous worldwide, he's given the opportunity to prove that his recent accomplishments were no fluke. Many a good ones (especially the managers of the team he's been racing for since his debut on the pro scene) are looking forward to seeing him back to the top on Giro d'Italia roads.
If "Lucky" (Pérez Cuapio) has a perfect knowledge of the mountains of Italy, the same thing can be said of Fredy Excelino González Martínez. Or simply Fredy González, as it's often referred to as.You may call him as you want to, but things wouldn't change, he would remain one of strongest climbers around, two-time winner of the KOM classification's Green Jersey. (in 2001 and 2003 respectively). Factors like Casagrande's great form in the Y2K edition and unfair decisions by the Gods of Cycling in 2004 (in other words, a pile-up he was involved in during an early stage forced him out of the Giro) prevented the South-American from scoring the hat-trick. But this time could be the good one. He recently showed good legs (as he won a Settimana Lombarda stage and the KOM crown at the Catalan Week), after all. And other top climbers are supposedly saving their legs for their Maglia rosa - or top place overall - bid. So that the biggest danger to his Green Jersey bid might come from inside his own team (Pérez Cuapio) or his former teammate José Rujano.