When the calendar turns from April to May, it can mean only one thing for cycling: It’s time for the grand tours to begin.
The festivities kick off with the Giro d’Italia starting today in Venaria Reale with a 19-kilometer team time trial ending in Turin. To commemorate the first major event of the season, here’s the obligatory preview looking at the contenders in each of the events.
General classification: Defending champion Ivan Basso’s eyes are set firmly on the Tour de France, meaning he won’t be defending his Maglia Rosa on the streets of his homeland this season. Thanks to a registration quirk that listed riders by team name alphabetically, the number 1 bib falls to Stefano Garzelli of Acqua e Sapone. He’s not an altogether unworthy holder of that honor, as the 37-year-old did notch an overall win in 2000. He has eight career Giro stage wins, including a triumph in the mountain time trial in Stage 16 a year ago, though he didn’t finish in Milan.
Perhaps the most worthy wearer of the No. 1 bib, however, would be Vincenzo Nibali (111). Basso’s Liquigas teammate rode in support of the eventual champ to a podium finish last season. Il squalo is the highest returning finisher from last season, and he is also the holder of the last grand tour contested thanks to his win in last fall’s Vuelta a Espana. He’s been in excellent form in the spring classics season, finishing eighth at both Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege plus a fifth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The favorite, though, in any race he enters will be Alberto Contador (No. 201) until someone proves otherwise on the slopes of a big mountain pass. He’s won the last five Grand Tours in which he has entered, including the 2008 Giro in the face of a snub from the Tour de France that season. He shook allegations of doping last season without penalty and has won four races already this season, including two time trials, a discipline in which he is quickly becoming one of the world’s elite. He’s also scored overall victories in two stage races in his native Spain this spring, the Vuelta a Murcia and the Volta a Catalunya. He’s getting used to a new team in Saxo Bank Sunguard, though the presence of familiar lieutenants Dani Navarro and Jesus Hernandez will ease the transition. It’ll be interesting to see the help afforded him by domestiques such as Volodymir Gustov and Richie Porte, last year’s best young rider and one-time wearer of the Maglia Rosa.
Rinaldo Nocentini (11) has proven his ability to be a factor in Grand Tours in the past. Michele Scarponi (91) will also fly the Italian flag after a strong early season that includes two stage wins, an overall win at the Giro del Trentino, second at Volta a Catalunya, third at Tirreno-Adriatico, and sixth at Milan-San Remo. Italian road race champion Giovanni Visconti (150) will draw eyes in the mountains, and not just by virtue of having the honor to wear such an unusual bib number as the Italian champ during the 150th anniversary of the race.
Denis Menchov (61) has a third place finish in the Vuelta a Murcia under his belt this season, and he managed to stay within five seconds of Contador on the decisive mountain stage. The dynamic between new teammates Menchov and Carlos Sastre (62) on the newly-formed Geox team will be one to watch, and it’ll be interesting to see who takes the lead there. Joaquim Rodriguez (81) could be a dark horse; he’s did finish in the top 10 in two Grand Tours in 2010 and has second-place finishes in the Amstel Gold Race and La Felche Wallonne to his credit already this season. Igor Anton (55) will be carrying the Basque hopes, and he boasts two stage wins in the 2010 Vuelta as well as a fifth in La Fleche Wallonne and third overall in la Vuelta a Castilla y Leon this season. Roman Kreuziger (141) gets a chance to prove himself as a team leader, now with Astana, and appears to have is climbing legs after a strong Giro del Trentino. Perhaps RadioShack’s young Tiago Machado (211) could surprise some by continuing a fast start to the season.
Sprints: A thin field of fastmen starts and ends with Alessandro Petacchi (82). He’s got two wins already this season and is hoping to add to his 24 career stage victories. He doesn’t have the strongest supporting cast on Lampre, but he knows how to make due. AleJet will probably seldom stray from the wheel of the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish (71), who also enters with two wins this season and is hoping to add to the total of nine Grand Tour stage victories in 2010. Cavendish will benefit from the presence of leadout man extraordinaire, Mark Renshaw. Look for his HTC-Highroad teammates to try and put him in a Grand Tour leader’s jersey with a strong team time trial Saturday. Garmin-Cervelo is hoping Tyler Farrar (201) will offer a challenge to the two veterans after three early-season wins. RadioShack brings a sprinting presence for the first time in, well, ever thanks to the dawn of the post-Lance Armstrong era with what they hope will be a resurgent Robbie McEwen (213) with veteran Robbie Hunter (217) in support. BMC’s Chad Beyer (32) and the Quick Step duo of Francesco Chicchi (161) and Gerald Ciolek (163) could also play a factor in the bunch sprints.
Time Trials: A dearth of true specialists opens this discipline up to the big GC contenders, especially Contador or Porte. Five-time and current Italian time trial champion Marco Pinotti (72) is a likely pick. The HTC-Highroad man will drive the efforts at a team trial, and at age 35, he would love the elusive win in a Giro time trial (though he has two other stage wins). Teammates Lars Bak (three-time Danish time trial champion, 75) and Frantisek Rabon (three-time and current Czech time trial champion, 76) could also contend. Movistar’s unwieldy-named pair of two-time Belorussian champ Vasili Kiryienka (124) and four-time Lithuanian champ Ignatas Konovalovas (121) could each breakthrough for a Grand Tour stage win. Garmin’s David Millar (207) and Cameron Meyer (206) are also threats against the clock, as are Team Sky’s Dario Cioni (194) and Thomas Lovkvist (191).