HERNING, Denmark (VN) — The 95th Giro d’Italia opens Saturday looking for a hero.
With no clear favorite and a return to a traditional formula that sees the hardest and most decisive climbs packed into the final week, the Giro should be a wide-open and unpredictable affair.
The absence of last year’s winner Alberto Contador – who saw his Giro victory stripped as part of his clenbuterol case dating back to the 2010 Tour de France – means there is no five-star favorite lining up for victory Saturday in Herning for the season’s first grand tour.
That could mean wide-open and wild racing as someone tries to impose his will on the race.
Start list >>
Previous Winners >>
Complete 2012 Giro d’Italia coverage >>
Course Maps and Profiles >>
Not counting Michele Scarponi, who received the 2011 pink jersey in a ceremony Thursday, only two former winners line up, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) looking to recapture their past glories.
Basso has endured a rough and tumble spring, marked by crashes at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, but the veteran Italian says he’s ready to rumble.
“I feel as good as I had hoped to at this point of the season,” Basso said. “I will be there for the fight for the pink jersey.”
Cunego, meanwhile, is Lampre’s second bet as the Italian team rallies around Scarponi, who was the only rider to keep Contador on a (relatively) close tether in last year’s Giro blowout. Cunego is coming off his best-ever Tour de France ride, with sixth overall in last year’s race, and will be ready to step in if Scarponi stumbles.
Behind them are a handful of riders hungry to take their chances.
Foreigners Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and John Gadret (Ag2r La Mondiale) will all be looking to disrupt the Italian stranglehold.
Hesjedal, seventh overall in the 2010 Tour, could be a dark horse for the final podium. The Canadian will enjoy support from a deep Garmin squad and has been targeting the Giro since the team decided to push his candidacy back in November.
“I go there with GC ambitions. It’s about taking the opportunities and using them in a positive way. There are only so many chances to ride for GC in a grand tour during your career,” Hesjedal said. “The team first suggested it. They felt it was a good race for me and it was time for me to take that challenge. I have embraced it. And to have the team put me forward like that, it’s a huge compliment.”
For the first time since 2007, this year’s Giro also does not include a climbing time trial, meaning that the favor will be tipped more toward a traditional GC rider. The only problem is; there are not very many of those in the race.
Cycling’s biggest GC stars are saving their legs for the Tour de France, leaving the Giro open for aggressive racing and primed for someone to take the initiative and ride away with the maglia rosa.
Rodríguez, hot off victory at Flèche Wallonne last month, has been nipping at the edges of a Giro breakthrough the past several years. The Catalan climber believes this could be his year to make a run for the podium.
“I start the Giro with good sensations, with the idea of making a good GC, to win a stage and aim for the highest result,” he said. “The podium would be a nice result, but why not dream for more? It’s a good route for me. We come to the Giro with a strong team and our morale very high.”
Of the Giro’s three time trials, the final-day showdown in Milan should have the most impact if the GC isn’t already sorted after a string of demanding stages in the Dolomites.
The race opens and closes with time trials – 8.7km in Herning and 31.5km in Milan – with one team time trial in stage 4.
Tilting away from the brutal courses that have marked the Giro over the past few editions, this year’s route will provide more chances for the sprinters and a return to the familiar blueprint of having the most challenging and decisive climbing stages packed into the final week.
The penultimate stage, which tackles the Mortirolo and ends atop the Stelvio, has all the makings of a classic. Of course, that means the race’s crescendo is still three weeks away — just what the Giro organizers are hoping for.
After Contador blew the doors off the GC fight last year with one knock-out punch on Mount Etna at the end of the first week, course designers have come up with a route that should leave the pink jersey still up for grabs heading well into the final weekend.
Sprinters should have plenty of chances to strut their stuff as well, with at least seven stages ideal for a mass gallop. Those chances diminish dramatically in the final week of the Giro, a signal that most of the top names will use to abandon to recover in time for the Tour.
Mark Renshaw leads a strong Rabobank team that also includes Theo Bos. The pair will split the stages between themselves and try to knock world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky) off balance.
Renshaw punched his way into the winner’s column during last week’s Tour of Turkey and later led out Bos to a brilliant race-closing sprint victory in Istanbul on Sunday.
“We want to win at least one sprint stage at the Giro,” Renshaw said. “The field will be very competitive. Almost all the top sprinters will be there, so it will be difficult to win. There’s no problem between Theo and I. We talk about who the parcours favors and the team rides for them that day.”
A handful of North Americans round out the field. In addition to Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde will return to the Giro after skipping it the past few years to race the Tour of California. With eyes on the Tour de France in July, Vande Velde will try to replicate the same form he had coming out of the 2009 Giro, when he wore the pink jersey.
“That year I came out of the Giro with the best form of my life, in part because I was fighting so hard for the pink jersey,” said Vande Velde, who later went on to ride to fourth overall in that year’s Tour. “There’s no better training than racing. The Giro is always hard, but hopefully it will not be as brutal as last year.”