The 94th Giro d’Italia begins in Torino this Saturday with a 19.3-kilometer team time trial. This year, the Giro commemorates the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification by visiting 17 of Italy’s 20 regions and several of the peninsula’s most stunning scenery. Fittingly, the unquestioned star of this year’s race seems to be the course itself—especially the uphill portion of it. With over 40 important climbs and seven summit finishes, the 2011 Giro promises to provide some of the most stunning racing we’ve seen in quite some time—assuming all of the favorites survive long enough to see the end of it.
But despite its fearsome parcours, several men come to this year’s Giro with ambitions to be wearing the maglia rosa by the time the race ends a little more than 3 weeks from now in Milan.
Here’s a look at the ten best, in their predicted order of finish:
10. HTC-High Road’s Marco Pinotti has specifically targeted the Giro over the past few years, winning a stage in 2008 and finishing 9th overall last season. This year, the Italian heads into the race in top form, to which his fourth-place finish in Romandie can attest. Pinotti might be ranked a few spots higher were it not for the difficult nature of this year’s event. A talented time trialist, I expect him to linger just outside the top-10 heading into the final stage’s ITT in Milan, at which point he’ll likely leapfrog a rider or two to score his second consecutive top-10 result.
9. It’s been 11 years since Acqua & Sapone’s Stefano Garzelli won the Giro d’Italia for Mercatone Uno. He’s since won seven stages and finished in the top-10 three times. While not a contender for the overall victory, Garzelli should profit from a parcours that rewards consistency and aggression—especially in the final week when time gaps could be substantial and several other riders will be doing their best just to finish. In fact, don’t be surprised to see Garzelli give-up on a high overall result early, in favor of scoring a prestigious mountain stage win or two during the race’s intense final week. Garzelli’s also one to watch in the Stage 16 uphill time trial to Nevegal—he won last year’s uphill time trial to Plan de Corones (interestingly, also held as Stage 16).
8. Euskaltel’s Igor Anton looked ready to challenge for the overall victory in last year’s Vuelta a Espana before a crash and broken collarbone ended his race prematurely (for the second time, I might add). Anton has since planned the first half of his season around the Italian Grand Tour, forsaking an all-out assault on the Ardennes Classics in order to arrive at the Giro rested and ready to contend. Anton is one of the race’s greatest unknowns (his Giro track record offers little insight as to how he might perform): at his best, he could easily finish inside the top-5. If I were Anton, I’d bide my time during the first two weeks, following the wheels of the top favorites before making a bid for the podium—or an important stage win or two—during the race’s difficult final weekend.
7. Another Spaniard hoping to add the Italian Grand Tour to his resume, Geox-TMC’s Carlos Sastre developed a fondness for the Giro after winning two stages and finishing third overall in 2009. At that point in his career, Sastre was using the Giro as preparation to defend his 2008 Tour de France title, but has since shifted his focus to Italy. Last year, Sastre finished eighth overall, a result boosted by the large amount of time he gained thanks to being a member of the mammoth breakaway in Stage 11. In other words, this might be the 36-year-old’s last chance for overall success in a three-week race. While I don’t expect him to light the race on fire, I do expect his experience will carry him through a difficult race that should reward those able to ride at or near the front from start to finish. Sastre also should benefit from the presence of his more-favored teammate, Denis Menchov. A supporting role might give Sastre a bit more freedom to seek stage wins and perhaps improve upon his result from 2010.
6. Stuck behind Ivan Basso and Vicenzo Nibali on Liquigas’ Grand Tour depth chart, Roman Kreuziger joined Astana this past off-season for a chance to ride for himself in a 3-week event. At 24, the Czech already has two top-10 Tour de France finishes under his belt and several other impressive wins. This season he won a stage at Trentino and finished fourth Liege-Bastogne-Liege—the form is clearly there. The question remains: can Kreuziger handle the weight of leading his team? Astana has the experience and firepower to help him—Robert Kiserlovki accompanied Kreuziger in the off-season move and will be a valuable ally in the mountains. Should he prove able to withstand the pressure, Astana might have found their next great champion.
5. Like many riders to have won both the Giro and the Vuelta, Denis Menchov spent 2010 putting all of his eggs in the Tour’s basket. And not without success—he finished third overall and had many thinking he would return in 2011 ready to challenge for the win. Unfortunately, the Russian made the mistake of signing with Mauro Gianetti and Geox-TMC, a team that’s had a hard time earning invitations to major races. As a result, the Giro could very well be the 2009-winner’s only 3-week engagement of the season. Unfortunately, this year’s course does not play to Menchov’s strengths. In 2009, he took the lead by winning the Stage 12 time trial (on an undulating and technical course), then defended his advantage by clinically neutralizing attacks in the mountains. This year’s course—like last year’s—does not favor such a strategy. In the end, look for Menchov and his conservative tactics to take a back seat victim to those climbers with bit more punch.
4. Speaking of punchy climbers, look no further than Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez. The world’s #1-ranked rider last season, consistency was the key for this Spaniard. He placed at or near the top of the results from March through September and finished in the top-10 at both the Tour and the Vuelta. At the Giro, Rodriguez has a far less impressive track record—he’s participated four times and his best finish was 17th in 2008. Despite his past performances in Italy, the abundance of climbing should suit Rodriguez this year; he’s likely to be one of the race’s most aggressive riders when the road tilts upward. But despite his talent, he’s likely to experience one bad day in the mountains (probably early) and any stage run against the clock could spell doom for his podium chances. I expect to see him spend most of the third week on the podium, only to lose his spot during the final day’s ITT.
3. Michele Scarponi finished fourth last year while riding for Androni Giocatolli, a result that might have been one higher had the Italian performed better in the Verona time trial and/or had second-place finisher David Arroyo not fought so valiantly to defend his own high placing. This year, Scarponi heads to the Giro as captain of Lampre, a squad looking for a reason to forget its troubling spring. Scarponi’s clearly in good form: he won the Giro del Trentino, finished second in the Volta a Catalunya, and took third in Tirreno-Adriatico. That said, Scarponi’s clearly a rung or two below the men likely to finish ahead of him and perhaps not quite a climber on par with Rodriguez. In the end, experience, savvy, and grinta should prove decisive for the Italian’s overall chances. He’ll need to ride within himself while others (most likely Rodriguez) blow themselves while trying to win the race outright. Look for him to ride himself into the top-3 during the penultimate stage over the vicious Finestere.
2. The hopes of a nation rest on the wiry shoulders of Liquigas’ Vincenzo Nibali, Italy’s best hope to defend Ivan Basso’s 2010 title and a man with the potential to be the country’s best Grand Tour rider in maybe two decades. (He finished seventh in the 2009 Tour de France before his stunning Grand Tour performances of last season.) Ironically, Nibali seemed content to let Alberto Contador dominate the Tour de France for another year, instead choosing to try and add the Giro to his Vuelta title from last year—little did he know Contador would be racing this year’s Giro as well. But despite the imposing presence of the diminutive Spaniard, Nibali has two things going for him: a strong team and the ability to ride down hills as well as (if not better than) he rides up them. Several have noted the abundance of narrow, technical descents in this year’s race—many of which consist of dirt or gravel surface. Look for Nibali to use these—along with the final time trial—to gain time on his rivals and improve upon his third-place finish from last year.
1. The fourth and final Spaniard inside the top-10, Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador is a perfect 5 for 5 in the last five Grand Tours he’s entered, winning three Tours de France (2007, 2009, and 2010), the Vuelta a Espana (2008), and the Giro d’Italia (2008). This year, perhaps worried about a possible suspension, Contador has again targeted the Giro, perhaps the first event of what some have rumored could be an assault on all three Grand Tours…in succession…in one season. While they didn’t know it at the time, the Giro’s organizers have created a perfect canvas for the Spaniard. His Saxo Bank team will likely be one of the five fastest in the TTT, while Contador himself is arguably the best individual time trialist of the GC favorites. Add seven summit finishes to the mix, and you have the makings of a Giro that Contador could win by several minutes.
And there have it, the ten riders we expect to see at the top of the general classification by the end of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Share your picks and comments below.