By Andrew Hood
GILBERTO SIMONI (I)
SAECO: WINNER 2001, 2003
The two-time Giro champion took his time finding his racing legs goinginto May. Typically firing on all cylinders by early April at the Tourof the Basque Country, “Gibi” was still pack fodder at the Tour of Aragon, just three weeks before the Giro’s start. Simoni blamed rain andcold weather for his sluggish start, but that’s all part of his plan. Afterstorming to victory in the Giro last year, Simoni suffered an equally dramaticmeltdown in the Tour de France, despite his confident declarations thathe would derail Lance Armstrong.
“This year we are having Simoni come into form later, with less racingin his legs, so he can be stronger for the final week of the Giro and bea little fresher for the Tour,” said Saeco’s directeur sportif, GiuseppeMartinelli.
Saeco was hopeful its bread-and-butter rider wasn’t taking too longto hit his stride, however. Last year, Simoni came back with a vengeancefrom his controversial expulsion from the 2002 Giro after
testing positive for cocaine (he was later cleared of all charges)to confirm his place as a true Giro champion with a solid victory in 2003.
Lacking a major sprinter, Saeco will bring a top team built entirelyaround delivering Simoni to his third Giro title. Simoni turns 33 in Augustand wants a third win here so the Saeco brain trust will let him have afree pass to the Tour de France in 2005, without the handicap of ridingthe Giro under pressure to win.
STEFANO GARZELLI (I)
VINI CALDIROLA: 2ND 2003, WINNER 2000
Garzelli gave Simoni his toughest challenge last year and certainlywill be the defending champion’s most dangerous rival. Still haunted byhis controversial expulsion from the 2002 Giro while wearing the magliarosa, Garzelli seems to have entered the 2004 season with a clearerhead. In April, the 2000 Giro champion used tactical savvy to win the Tourof Aragon by snagging a final-stage time bonus in a bunch sprint to claimhis first victory of the 2004 season.
“I want to win the Giro this year,” Garzelli said in Spain in mid-April.“It’s my top goal of the season. Last year I was still coming back, butI think this year I am stronger than I was before.”
The addition of 1996 Giro champ Pavel Tonkov will help make up for theloss of Eddy Mazzoleni, who left to join rival Saeco. Like Saeco, ViniCaldirola will build its entire team around pushing Garzelli back to thetop of the final podium.
YAROSLAV POPOVYCH (UKR)
LANDBOUWKREDIET-COLNAGO: 3RD, 2003
The tough Ukraine clawed his way to the podium last year and has hiseye there once again. Just 24, “Popo” was called the Eddy Merckx of theespoirs after he chewed up the field during his amateur days. The 2001U23 world champion showed some aggression in the Amstel Gold Race, butwill have a tough challenge to get back to the top three if some of theother top Italians show up in their best form.
ANDREA NOÈ (I)
With the absence of Pietro Caucchioli (third in 2002), leadershipduties on Alessio fall to Noè, fourth overall last year. Noè may well be up for the task. He is a consistent climber and will benefit from the lone time trial in this year’s Giro.
JUAN CARLOS DOMINGUEZ (SP)
With team leader Leonarodo Piepoli not making the start, the team is putting its hopes on Dominguez. American Tim Johnson didn’t make theGiro squad after he was sidelined by illness early in the spring and misseda month of racing.
JULIO PEREZ CUAPIO (MEX)
The diminutive Mexican abandoned last year’s Giro but won the Kingof the Mountains jersey and two stages in the 2002 Giro. Perez Cuapio ishoping for a return to form to take on Colombia-Selle Italia in the fightfor the green mountain’s jersey.
TheComplete Start List for the 2004 Giro d’Italia