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By John Wilcockson
With Operación Puerto eliminating defending champion Ivan Basso and potential contenders Michele Scarponi and Tyler Hamilton, the list of potential winners is much shorter. This will lead to a more uncertain Giro, but the podium is almost sure to be contested by the big four: Cunego, Simoni, Savoldelli and Di Luca.
Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre-Fondital
Giro highlights: Overall winner, four stage wins and 11 days in the maglia rosa in 2004, 4th overall in 2006 (but almost 20 minutes back), 18th in 2005, 34th in 2003.
The skinny: After being zapped by mononucleosis in 2005, Cunego had erratic form in 2006. He had a strong final week in his debut Tour de France to win the young riders’ white jersey, and he returned to winning form at the mountainous Giro del Trentino this April.
Why he can win: While retaining his excellent climbing skills, Cunego showed greatly improved time-trial strength at the 2006 Tour, which he has conformed this year. He has a strong team to support him and his sprint will net him valuable time bonuses.
Why he might not: His health has been fragile in the past.
Gilberto Simoni (I), Saunier Duval-Prodir
Giro highlights: Two overall victories (2001 and 2003), five podiums (1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006), six stage victories and 24 days in the maglia rosa.
The skinny: Simoni was the only climber who could match overall winner Ivan Basso in the final week of last year’s Giro. He has worked hard on his time trialing with Saunier Duval and has the motivation to win the Giro for a third time.
Why he can win: Simoni can win the mountain stages to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and Monte Zoncolan that will likely decide this year’s Giro. His team is stronger, with the excellent Riccardo Riccò to support him in the mountains.
Why he might not: His time trialing is still a slight handicap.
Paolo Savoldelli (I), Astana
Giro highlights: Two overall victories (2002 and 2005), one podium (1999), three stage wins and 14 days in the maglia rosa. After winning the opening time trial, he didn’t finish last year’s Giro because of sickness.
The skinny: “The Falcon” has renowned descending skills and great tactical savvy, which offset his erratic climbing strength. But he loves riding the Giro.
Why he can win: Prior to finishing second at this month’s Tour de Romandie, he had a light early season, riding for the other Astana team leaders, Klöden and Vinokourov (who aren’t starting the Giro), so he as plenty of gas in the tank for a strong Giro challenge.
Why he might not: His only wins in the past year have been in very short time trials.
Danilo Di Luca (I), Liquigas
Giro highlights: He has had four career stage wins, had five days in the maglia rosa, and placed fourth overall in 2005. But Di Luca failed last year, placing only 23rd overall and didn’t win a stage.
The skinny: Di Luca is the unconditional leader of Liquigas and has shown much improved form this spring, both at the Tour of the Basques Country and the Ardennes classics. He should be in the right mood for the Giro, as he was two years ago.
Why he can win: He has a very strong team (including Franco Pellizotti, Vincenzo Nibali and Andréa Noè), and showed in 2005 that he can maintain strong form through the final week.
Why he might not: His time trialing is still relatively weak, and he has to overcome his poor performance of last year.
Stefano Garzelli (I), Acqua & Sapone
Giro highlights: Overall winner in 2000, 2nd in 2003, 6th in 2004, plus three stage wins. (DQ’ed in 2002 for drug offense after leading the race on GC).
The skinny: After shooting for Tour success with Liquigas last year, Garzelli has joined the non-ProTour Acqua & Sapone squad.
Emanuele Sella (I), Panaria-Navigare
Giro highlights: One stage win and 12th overall in 2004, 10th in 2005, 26th in 2006
The skinny: Sella rides for a minor team, but he remains one of the more consistent Italian climbers and knows the Giro like a veteran.