Giro d'Italia
The big names at Wednesday's Giro d'Italia press...

Giro favorites agree: There is no Giro favorite

Big names turn out for pre-race press conference and say they expect a wide-open, explosive Giro d'Italia

BELFAST (VN) — Six top pink jersey challengers at Wednesday’s pre-race press conference agreed there is no favorite for the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

Without a singular, dominant rider or team to control the season’s first grand tour, the Giro’s main protagonists are expecting a wide-open, explosive fight from Belfast to Trieste, Italy.

“The table is too small for all the favorites here,” said Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). “I don’t see it as a fight between just two riders. With this demanding course, I think it’s going to be a wide-open Giro — entertaining, and one at a very high level.”

Rodríguez, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) line up as the top contenders, but stacked up behind them are another dozen riders who could fight their way into the pink jersey.

Some of cycling’s biggest stars are skipping the Giro to prepare exclusively for the Tour de France, including last year’s Giro winner, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Others bypassing the Giro include Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and reigning Tour champ Chris Froome (Sky).

That vacuum creates opportunities for veterans like Evans and Rodríguez, as well as for emerging GC contenders, such as Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Quintana.

The Colombian, who is leading Movistar in an all-out push for the pink jersey, backed away from suggestions that the Giro is his race to lose.

“Everyone here have equal chances to fight for the Giro,” Quintana said. “Every grand tour produces a surprise, and maybe someone not sitting here will end up winning. The road puts every one of us in our place. Now we are starting from zero, and I believe that we all start with the same chances.”

After focusing on the Tour for more than a decade, Evans, the 2011 Tour champion, comes to the Giro to race to win, and will not start the Tour later this summer.

For Evans, 36, the 2014 Giro provides a chance to recalibrate his priorities. The Giro was his first grand tour in 2002, when he switched from mountain biking to road racing full-time. Evans’ spell in the pink jersey confirmed that the Australian could someday challenge in grand tours. Now, more than a decade later, Evans returns to the Giro determined to win.

“The team wants me to race the Giro and not the Tour, so here I am,” Evans said. “On a personal level, that’s fine for me. It came together for me on one of my Tours, and I don’t know if I will race the Tour again. I can leave that behind reasonably satisfied, and now I am putting all of my energy into the Giro.”

Evans is among a handful of former grand tour winners in Belfast for the race’s first venture to the Emerald Isle. Others include Michele Scarponi (Astana, 2011 Giro), Ivan Basso (Cannondale, 2006, 2010 Giri), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp, 2012 Giro), and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida, 2004 Giro). Whether those veterans can rise to the challenge presented by younger challengers remains to be seen.

It’s the younger riders, such as Quintana and Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who have yet to win a grand tour, that are expected to light up the roads when they point upward in the race’s second week.

Urán gives Omega Pharma-Quick Step, the Belgian team renowned for its success in the one-day classics, its first legitimate grand tour contender. The team is rallying around the Colombian climber with hopes of reaching the podium.

“Last year, I was second, and now everyone expects me to win, but it’s not so easy,” Urán said. “It’s consistency that wins grand tours. The regularity will be very important in this Giro.”

Katusha’s Rodríguez knows better than anyone how costly a lapse in concentration can be. He lost the 2012 Giro by just 16 seconds to Hesjedal, and one bad day late in the mountains cost him the Vuelta a España against Contador later that season.

“In a grand tour, the key is to be solid day to day. In the Giro in 2012, and the same in Vuelta, I lost both races in the space of a single day,” Rodríguez said. “Anything can happen, and you never give away a second. You lose a few seconds in a sprint or a tricky finale, you might not think it’s a big deal, but as was the case in 2012, I lost the Giro by 16 seconds.”

Katusha, BMC, and Movistar are among the few teams that are putting all their eggs into one basket, building their respective squads around just one captain.

BMC, for example, is hoping to replicate its successful Tour de France model, and has loaded its entire team with riders to support Evans.

In sharp contrast, many teams are opting for two or even three GC options for the often unpredictable Italian tour. Lampre-Merida is splitting leadership duties between Cunego, Diego Ulissi, and Przemyslaw Niemiec. Astana is backing Scarponi, a confirmed podium contender, but will also give Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa a chance to test their mettle in the GC.

Garmin will start with Hesjedal and Martin as their dual GC captains. The Irishman, who won a stage in last year’s Tour de France, said the Giro is the only thing on his radar right now.

“It’s all about this race. I am not thinking beyond June 1. I am here to lead the team, whether that means stages or GC, we don’t know yet,” Martin said. “It’s been the goal for my season to do this Giro. We’re here to do the best possible result.”

With so many challengers, it’s hard to predict who will emerge as a legitimate pink jersey contender until late in the race. That’s just how Giro officials want it.

“There are many favorites for this Giro, and we are satisfied with that. It is not just one rider or team who will dominate,” said Giro director Mauro Vegni. “The list of contenders is long. The Giro course is interesting and difficult, and we do not expect the race to be decided until the final mountain stages. The fans can expect a big spectacle.”