Giro d'Italia
Astana's Fabio Aru stood on the final Giro podium...

Italy celebrates Giro start without much hope for home win

Italians once dominated the Giro, but now, the tifosi may have to wait another year for a native son to claim the pink jersey

SANREMO (VN) — Italy celebrates the start of its grand tour Saturday along the Mediterranean coast in Liguria, but in three weeks, when the race finishes in Milan, the odds favor another foreign winner.

Sicilian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) last won the race for Italy in 2013. Instead of returning in 2014, he aimed for, and won, the Tour de France. His agenda is the same for 2015.

Without Nibali, Italy lacks a strong contender for the overall classification. Its major hope, Fabio Aru (Astana), raced little this year and fell sick before an important tune-up stage race, the Giro del Trentino.

Last year in May, Astana gave Aru the green light to lead the team in Nibali’s absence, and he rode to third place overall behind two Colombians, winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step) in second.

Out of the 198 cyclists set to start in San Lorenzo al Mare on Saturday, 59 are Italian. The U.S. counts five: Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Nathan Brown and Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin), and Chad Haga and Caleb Fairly (Giant-Alpecin). The Giro even celebrates its first Ethiopian, Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre-Merida).

The favorites, however, are from Colombia and Spain.

The oddsmakers have Spaniard Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) or Australian Richie Porte (Sky) to win the overall on May 31 in Milan. Urán is also given a good chance for the winner’s pink jersey and spiral trophy.

Website SkyBet gives Contador 5/6 odds, Porte 2/1, and Urán 15/2. It lists Aru at 9/1.

The Giro began rolling through the peninsula country in 1909. It was not until 1950 when the first straniero or foreigner, Swiss Hugo Koblet, won. That was an odd occurrence at a time when Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Fiorenzo Magni dominated the Italian grand tour. It became more and more the norm in the 1980s and 1990s with winners like American Andy Hampsten in 1988.

Since 2000, the scales have tipped in favor of foreign riders thanks in part to the globalization of the sport that has strong roots in the Bel Paese. Remember, Italy gave birth to Da Vinci and his bicycle, Campagnolo and his derailleur, and heroes Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

Though Italy counts 68 Giro victories, the number of foreign wins now stands at 29 and is pushing hard toward 30.

The Giro d’Italia is partly to blame.

Race organizer RCS Sport pushed to include foreign cyclists and teams to globalize its biggest race. Its idea is to try to match some of the success that ASO has with the Tour de France, where a local has not won since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

In recent years, encouraged by the organizer, Tour winners Australian Cadel Evans and Brit Bradley Wiggins came and raced for the overall. A Canadian, Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), won for the first time in 2012, and last year, Colombia celebrated its first victory.

With its wildcard invitation to Professional Continental team CCC Sprandi-Polkowice, RCS Sport is also building a bridge to Poland for future deals. In the same vein, the race has started abroad nearly every other year since 2010.

Its moves are smart given Italy’s financial crisis that is trickling down to cycling. For 2015, Italy counts only one top team, Lampre-Merida — the worst since the governing body began ranking teams in divisions.

For 2015, Italy must pin its hopes on Fabio Aru with 9/1 odds or Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) at 16/1. In the coming season, it can hope for rosier times as Aru develops and with new talents like 22-year-old Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Garmin).