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Giro d'Italia

Andrew Hood previews the 100th anniversary of the Giro d’Italia

Weeks of hype and anticipation culminate Saturday as the centennial celebration of cycling’s most colorful and emotional race finally clicks into gear. The Giro d’Italia is celebrating its 100th birthday with all the raw emotion, intense passion and hard-edged racing that makes the Italian grand tour one of the season’s highlights. Stepping center-stage with aplomb is Lance Armstrong, back in his first grand tour since winning the 2005 Tour de France.

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By Andrew Hood

2009 Giro, Castel Brando: Cannondale introduced its 2010 models here ahead of the Giro start. Watch for a report by Lennard Zinn

2009 Giro, Castel Brando: Cannondale introduced its 2010 models here ahead of the Giro start. Watch for a report by Lennard Zinn

Photo: Don Karle

Weeks of hype and anticipation culminate Saturday as the centennial celebration of cycling’s most colorful and emotional race finally clicks into gear.

The Giro d’Italia is celebrating its 100th birthday with all the raw emotion, intense passion and hard-edged racing that makes the Italian grand tour one of the season’s highlights.

Stepping center-stage with aplomb is Lance Armstrong, back in his first grand tour since winning the 2005 Tour de France.

Racing in his first-ever Giro, Armstrong has already admitted he is not expecting to have the legs to battle for final victory when the corsa rosa ends in Roma on May 31, but instead has set his sights on winning a stage and helping teammate Levi Leipheimer.

Behind him are a cast of characters poised to battle for the prized maglia rosa, win stages and otherwise liven up what’s expected to be an intense battle from the gun.

Course for the ages

Race organizers pulled out all the stops when designing the 21-stage course. Except for two days, when the race enters Austria on stage 6 and through Switzerland on stage 7, the race stays entirely within Italian borders for the duration.

2009 Giro, Venice's Grand Canal. Venice hosts the TTT. Getting around is a bit of a task ...

2009 Giro, Venice’s Grand Canal. Venice hosts the TTT. Getting around is a bit of a task …

Photo: Don Karle

Things ramp up Saturday with the prestigious team time trial on the Lido island, where teams will scuffle for the first pink jersey and even more importantly bragging rights.

With six summit finishes spread over the Dolomites, Alps and the southern mountains, things go vertical right from the gun, with summit finishes in stages 4 and 5.

The epic-in-the-making stage across the Izoard in the French Alps was canceled due to access problems, taking the guts out of the “queen stage” in stage 10. Though still hard, the climbs over Cenis and Sestrière just won’t pack the same drama.

Weather has also taken the edge off another highly anticipated summit finish at Blockhaus in stage 17 (see note below), but the summit finish to Mount Vesuvius should be nothing short of spectacular on stage 19.

Sprinters should have their chances in stages 2, 3 and 9 in the first half of the Giro while only stages 13, 18 and 20 look promising for a mass gallop in the second half, but weary legs and aggressive breakaways might fend off any organized chases.

In between are packed plenty of undulating, hilly and downright difficult transition stages ideal for the breakaways and attacks that could derail the best-laid plans of the GC favorites looking to explode the race.

2009 Giro. The view of the Valmareno valley from the Castel Brando.

2009 Giro. The view of the Valmareno valley from the Castel Brando.

Photo: Don Karle

More than anything, it’s the time trials that should mark this year’s Giro.

At 60.6km, the incredibly difficult, two-climb course along Cinque Terre in stage 12 is one of the longest time trials the peloton’s seen in a decade and should produce race-deciding time gaps.

Any uncertainty in the GC will be settled in the technical, 14.4km time trial in Rome that takes in some of the eternal city’s most famous sights, including the Vatican, Castel Sant Angelo, Piazza Venezia, the Roman Forum and the finish line wrapping around the Colliseum.

As it stands, the route seems tailored for an Armstrong victory, but the Texan said his crash at the Vuelta a Castilla y León, which sidelined him with a broken clavicle, set back his preparations.

Perhaps an emblematic climb like the Mortirolo or Marmolada should have been included in this year’s itinerary, but even without them, the course serves up a fitting backdrop to the Giro’s 100th birthday bash.

Plenty of favorites

The big favorites are Ivan Basso and Leipheimer, two riders who are quick to deflect the pressure.

Basso — back in his first grand tour since winning the 2006 Giro and serving a racing ban for his role in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal — says he might be inclined to let Liquigas teammate Franco Pellizotti take the lead, while Leipheimer is content to let Armstrong gobble up all the attention while he rides under the radar.

Italians can always be counted on to fight tooth and nail for the maglia rosa. Former winners Stefano Garzelli (Acque e Sapone) and Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) might each be in their final Giros and neither should be counted out, especially for a run at the podium.

Garzelli, especially, has looked strong this spring and he will be doubly motivated after being snubbed from last year’s race.

Damiano Cunego (Lampre) is back to familiar territory after skipping last year’s Giro to focus on the Tour. The Little Prince is confident he still has the goods to compete for final victory, but he needs a strong ride to quiet cynics who say he’s not GC material and should focus on one-day races instead.

The foreign contingent is represented by Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who rode to fifth last year in his first Giro, and Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), who will be bucking for the podium, if not more.

There are another half-dozen outsiders who could step up, including Tadej Valjavec (Ag2r), who always rides well at the Giro, Joaquin Rodríguez (Caisse d’Epargne) and inconsistent Colombian climber Juan Manuel Soler (Barloworld), who is looking to forget his forgettable 2008 campaign.

Michael Rogers (Columbia-Highroad), back in his first grand tour since crashing out of the 2007 Tour de France, is hoping for a top 10. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream) is also hoping for a strong ride to underscore a resurgence following a tough patch.

Sprinters spar

Only paper, only six stages seem suited for sprinters in this Giro, there still should be a few exciting clashes for what’s anticipated as one of the biggest showdowns of the year between Alessandro Petacchi (LPR) and Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad).

Cavendish admitted he’s not quite in top condition after a short break following his impressive spring that included his breakout Milan-San Remo victory, but he’s still expecting to bag a few wins. Petacchi, meanwhile, is hungry to regain his status as king of the Giro sprints following his ban for high levels of salbutamol.

Others will be looking to squeeze in on the action, including Robert Forster (Milram), Allan Davis (Quick Step), Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank), Ben Swift (Katusha), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream), Giovanni Visconti (ISD) and Robert Hunter (Barloworld).

Wild cards

The Giro’s dynamic course lends plenty of opportunities for breakaway specialists and the Giro seems stacked with riders champing at the bit for their chance at a stage victory.

Columbia-Highroad is stacked with opportunists and will look to try to put Ghent-Wevelgem winner Edvald Boasson Hagen into a break in the second half of the Giro.

Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) also wants a stage win and a run in the maglia rosa. Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto) will want to use the Giro to make up for a disappointing spring while the likes of French rider Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and Alexander Efimkin (Ag2r) will be on the prowl.

It’s almost guaranteed that Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) will be on the attack in the transition stages while teams like Garmin-Slipstream, Cervélo and Columbia promise to be aggressive.

North American factor

No fewer than 11 North American riders from five teams will start the 92nd Giro d’Italia on Saturday.

Lance Armstrong (race bib 21) is, of course, the big draw, starting his first Giro with Astana. Also with Astana are Levi Leipheimer (24) and Chris Horner (23). Michael Barry (171) is the lone Canadian with Columbia-Highroad while Jason McCartney (204) gets a nod for Saxo Bank.

Ted King (68) makes his grand tour debut with Cervélo TestTeam while Garmin-Slipstream starts with five Americans: Tom Danielson (81), Tyler Farrar (83), Danny Pate (86), Christian Vande Velde (87) and David Zabriskie (89).

Giro notes:

  • Blockhaus reduced: One of the most decisive stages in this year’s Giro is being dramatically reduced. Due to more than two meters of snow at the summit of the decisive Blockhaus in stage 17, race organizers have reluctantly lowered the elevation of the finish line and cut nearly 5.5km out of the course. Instead of climbing to 2,064 meters, the stage will now finish at 1,631 meters. With the change, the highest point of this year’s Giro will not be the Blockhaus, but the Colle de Sestrière in stage 10 at 2,035 meters.
  • Garzelli No. 1: With the absence of defending champion Alberto Contador, Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) has been given the No. 1 start bib by race organizers. Garzelli, a Giro winner in 2000, was given the honor because he’s the oldest active former winner in the race. Other ex-Giro champs here include Damiano Cunego, Gilberto Simoni, Danilo Di Luca and Ivan Basso.
  • Start order: Columbia-Highroad starts first in Saturday’s 20.5km team time trial, rolling out of the start gate on Lido island at 3:35 p.m. Defending TTT champion Garmin-Slipstream is fourth out of the start house, rolling off at 3:50. Ivan Basso’s Liquigas team starts 12th at 4:30 and Cervélo TestTeam is 14th at 4:45. Astana, with Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, start last at 5:20.

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