The 2008 Giro d’Italia: the best field of the year?

With a world champion, winners of all three of last year’s grand tours and a top-notch field of sprinters, does the Giro d’Italia boast the best lineup of the season? If you ask the riders ahead of Saturday’s start of the 91st Giro, they seem to agree. “Without any shadow of a doubt, this year’s Giro has the best field of any race,” said defending champion Danilo Di Luca (LPR). “We have a deep field in the Giro this year. Whoever wins this Giro can be proud of what they achieve.”

By Andrew Hood

Di Luca at the 2007 Giro

Di Luca at the 2007 Giro

Photo: Graham Watson

With a world champion, winners of all three of last year’s grand tours and a top-notch field of sprinters, does the Giro d’Italia boast the best lineup of the season?

If you ask the riders ahead of Saturday’s start of the 91st Giro, they seem to agree.

“Without any shadow of a doubt, this year’s Giro has the best field of any race,” said defending champion Danilo Di Luca (LPR). “We have a deep field in the Giro this year. Whoever wins this Giro can be proud of what they achieve.”

Di Luca is joined by Vuelta a España champ Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and the surprise presence of Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Astana).

Add the presence of two-time world champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and Colombian climbing sensation Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) with such sprinters as Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Mark Cavendish (High Road), Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) and Erik Zabel (Milram), the Giro can rightly stake claims to having the most complete field of the season.

Former Giro winners also lining up include Paolo Savoldelli (LPR), Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni-Androni).

Contador’s unexpected presence, along with teammates Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer, has sent a ripple through the peloton. The team is expected to change the dynamic of the race with three candidates for victory.

Contador said the deep Giro field only fuels his motivation to make the most of the unexpected opportunity to race the Giro.

“This Giro has what will be the best field of the year,” Contador said. “This Giro has the winners of the past three grand tours. The Tour de France won’t have me or Di Luca and the Vuelta won’t see Menchov or Di Luca, so you can say this Giro is better.”

While Giro promoters like to boast about the start list, several big names are bypassing the Giro prepare exclusively for the Tour de France.

Former Giro winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre) is skipping the Giro for the first time to take on the Tour while CSC’s best GC riders – Carlos Sastre and the Schleck brothers – also bypassed the Giro.

Giro organizers also left out former winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) and French teams Crédit Agricole and Bouygues Télécom when issuing invitations and only decided to include Astana on a last-minute change of direction last week.

The Giro also starts with two U.S.-registered teams for the first time in the history of the race.

Slipstream-Chipotle and High Road both bring motivated and enterprising teams guaranteed to liven up the race.

Slipstream lines up with four Americans (Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, Pat McCarty and Danny Pate) and one Canadian with Ryder Hesjedal, and High Road brings an international team without any North Americans, but a diverse squad that includes last year’s pink jersey-holder Marco Pinotti, sprinter Cavendish and recently crowned Tour de Georgia champion Kanstantsin Siutsou.

“We’ll see if we can surprise some people. We’ll be trying to win some stages and try to get some time in one of the jerseys,” High Road sport director Tristan Hoffman told VeloNews. “Mark (Cavendish) will be our man in the sprints. We’ll see how the guys hold up in the mountains.”

The 1989 Giro almost had two American teams. 7-Eleven lined up with defending champion Andy Hampsten while Greg LeMond raced on the ADR team, which, in theory, was part American (LeMond had a contract to race for Coors Light in the U.S., while Coors Light riders rode for ADR in Europe). On that 89 Giro ADR-Coors Light team were Americans LeMond, Chris Bailey and Michael Carter.

Morabito in for Astana

Team Astana had some last-minute changes to its lineup after Spanish rider Benjamin Noval came down with a bad stomach. Steve Morabito will replace Alberto Contador’s favored roommate and lieutenant for the Astana team.

“We waited as long as possible to make a decision,” said Astana sport director Sean Yates. “Friday at 10 a.m. was our deadline. Benjamin did a test (Friday) morning and the result was negative. A team time trial is such a demanding, hard discipline, it was not safe to let him be part of the team. Steve had the right condition. He proved that already in the Tour de Romadie, where he was one of the best helpers for overall winner, Andreas Kloden.”

Arroyo KO’d for Caisse d’Epargne

Spanish rider David Arroyo broke his left wrist in a training crash on Thursday and was a last-minute scratch for Caisse d’Epargne. Arroyo crashed with teammates Fran Pérez, Joaquim Rodríguez and Vladimir Karpets, but Arroyo was the worst off.

Arroyo was 10th overall in last year’s Giro and wanted to push into the top 5 this year.

Mathieu Perget, a 23-year-old French rider, is his replacement.