In the late days of May 2005, while a certain Paolo Savoldelli was deservedly busy removing the cork from a spumante bottle in Milan, at the end of an hard-fought battle, someone else was busy thinking about what was going to happen twelve months later. Someone else
was nobody else but Danilo Di Luca, the mighty Liquigas rider who, after stamping his authority on more than one early season Classic (also as a way to give the first steps on the road of his future Pro Tour overall win) surprised many "pundits" (and perhaps himself too) by putting in a serious challenge to the other Corsa Rosa contenders, and even came close to victory, eventually missing the podium by just a whisker. He had to give up his overall chances on the very last climb of the race but, after being capable of staying with presumably better climbers like Gilberto Simoni and José Rujano on the terrible, unpaved Colle delle Finestre, at the same time the man from the Italian region of Abruzzo realized that, with a proper build-up, and a strong team around, he could well have a go at hitting the big target the next time.
The "next time" is here at last! The most significant Tour of Italy (thus far) in Di Luca's career is gonna get underway Saturday, and Danilo will be at startline, with a whole team ready to support the guy in his Maglia Rosa bid. He set the 2006 Giro as his season objective, and all of his winter and early spring training were focused on that, from the long time he spent on the Mexican hills to his spring schedule, that contained significant "test races" like LBL and the Fleche but not other leg-consuming contests he was used to take part in, thingies like Milan-Sanremo, Amstel Gold Race etc. And after the Doyenne the man from Spoltore was back to his Abruzzo to fine-tune his preparation on home roads.
"I'll be at Seraing startline well aware that I did everything I could in order to have the best Giro of my career" (featuring 37 wins in the space of nine years, btw) the Liquigas team leader said a couple days before the kickoff "it's the first time that I take in such a challenge, and this makes me even more enthusiast". And well-determined to match the strong opposition he'll certainly going to have from the likes of Gibo Simoni, José Rujano, Ivan Basso, Savoldelli The Falcon, Damiano Cunego and others: "I think that in 2005 I showed that I've got what I need to win a Grand Tour, plus I know myself well enough to be confident in my abilities to get the eventual win. I'm sure it won't be easy, but I think I can play my part".
Team leader Danilo Di Luca.
The man supposed to step on the Liqui-gas at the 2006 Giro d'Italia.
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
And there's no doubt that he can rely on a solid team of helpers: "That's one more reason for me to be serene. We haven't got anything less than our rivals". Even when it comes to next Thursday's (perhaps key) Team TT? "Well, I think that only Team CSC and Discovery Channel can do better than us. Plus, I made some specific training against the clock, also recently, on the ITT bike that Bianchi built for me right for this Giro. A bike that suits me". Talking of the parcours, Danilo says that in his opinion there's no real key stage though: "The whole final week is gonna prove decisive". And talking of his main rivals, the man rates Basso and Simoni (slightly) above the other top challengers, even though "if you wanted to win a Giro, you shouldn't be influenced by anything or anyone in particular".
As we just said, Danilo is gonna have a solid team at his service, with guys like Dario Andriotto (Ita), Patrick Calcagni (Swi), Dario David Cioni (Ita), Vladimir Miholjevic (Cro), Andrea Noè (Ita), Franco Pellizotti (Ita), Alessandro Spezialetti (Ita) and Charles Wegelius(GBR). All, or at least most of them with the sole task to assist their leader. Riders like Andrea Noé (just ask Pavel Tonkov and Cadel Evans) and Danilo's loyal domestique and fellow Abruzzese Alex Spezialetti are a guarantee in this sense, and the Cioni-Pellizotti duo of good climbers is expected to be around when the going gets tough, with the latter (but perhaps also the former) ready to take over the team leadership should Di Luca falter. The multi-ethnic "working machine" of Wegelius, Andriotto, Calcagni and Miholjevic is expected to be up to the task too: they are meant have what it takes (basically as in "good legs and a steely will to work for their leader") to provide the man with proper assistance.
Liquigas' other best-known rider Stefano Garzelli is not gonna be there: after getting a surprise (?) victory at Rund um der Henninger Turm this past Monday, the man from Varese is gonna skip the event that saw his as winner six years ago, and take some time off just to be back in the saddle come May 31 (e.g. at the start of the Tour of Luxembourg stage race) and continue his Grande Boucle build-up at the Tour de Suisse and the Italian Nationals in June. Team manager Roberto Amadio and the Directeur Sportif pair of Stefano Zanatta and former pro rider Mario Chiesa will be at the Giro instead, coaching Di Luca and the others on the way to the Milan podium, and on the way to redemption after a comparatively poor start to the season, with Garzelli's aforementioned triumph and Nibali's Settimana Coppi e Bartali stage win (the young boy from Calabria will not be at the startline either) as only successes.
And coaching the Di Luca Army throughout a challenge that, however you slice it, will no doubt prove extremely tough: even though the man had a helluva performance twelve months ago, the 2006 Giro suits both good TTists and mountain goats. Danilo proved that can do well both against the clock and when the road tilts upwards, but he's no specialist in either field. And this could be his Achilles' heel. On the other side of the matter, regularity is meant to be his strong point (at least if you look at what he showed off in the 2005 race), and the first part of the parcours provides him with enough chances to make early some gains (bonus seconds, perhaps the fruits of some good breakaway attempt) over his rivals, or give their legs a hard time. Whether Di Luca will be able make the most of them or not, whether the man will fulfill his promises to be a real maglia rosa contender until the very end of the race or not ... the road will tell.
Here's the Liquigas roster for the 2006 Tour of Italy (click the rider names to get full images):
131. DI LUCA Danilo (Ita)
132. CALCAGNI Patrick(Swi)
133. CIONI Dario David(Ita)
134. ANDRIOTTO Dario (Ita)
135. MIHOLJEVIC Vladimir (Cro)
136. NOE' Andrea (Ita)
137. PELLIZOTTI Franco (Ita)
138. SPEZIALETTI Alessandro (Ita)
139. WEGELIUS Charles (GBR)