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By Agence France Presse
Climbers who can keep their time trial losses to a minimum will be among the top contenders for the pink jersey in the Giro d’Italia which clicks into gear Saturday.
The 91st edition of the Giro begins with a team time trial, and includes three other, individual, races against the clock as it snakes its way up from Sicily towards the crucial mountains stages in the Dolomites.
With five mountain-top finishes in total, including one uphill time trial, the race’s top prize is more than likely to be claimed by a master climber.
Reigning champion Danilo Di Luca is not an immediate candidate, and will thus start as the LPR team’s leader in the hope he can find the climbing legs to hold off a bunch of arguably more suited specialists.
In 2007 Di Luca held off outstanding Luxemburger Andy Schleck of CSC, absent this time round, to claim his first ‘maglia rose’ and will count on the support of 2005 winner and teammate Paolo Savoldelli.
In the absence of Lampre’s 2004 champion Damiano Cunego, fellow Italian Gilberto Simoni is among the contender for the race’s pink jersey, which he won in 2001 and 2003.
Simoni’s Diquigiovanni team will be among those keeping a close eye on the form and tactics of Astana, who have been invited by race organisers RCS at the last minute.
Astana’s quality-packed outfit includes last year’s Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, who along with his team — was controversially sidelined from this year’s race for the yellow jersey.
The team’s late invite to the Giro is therefore welcome, although it was, they claim, entirely unexpected.
“When the team told me we were going to the Giro I was on holiday in a hotel on the south of Spain,” said Contador earlier this week admitting he is not 100 percent on form.
As a result Andreas Kloeden, the recent winner of the Tour of Romandie, could start as Astana’s virtual team leader.
But despite the German’s proven ability in both time trials and in the mountains, the steep gradients of the Dolomites will present even the former Tour de France runner-up with a significant challenge.
And, no real fan of cycling would rule Contador out of hitting peak form in the crucial third week.
The Spaniard will ride his first ever Giro, and admitted Thursday: “My aim is to reach peak form in the third week where the most difficult stages are.
“But I don’t have any pre-race ambitions. I’ll be taking it day by day depending on my recuperation and on how my form goes.”
After a first day of climbing on stage seven, the race pays its respects to former Giro winner, climber Marco Pantani, with a visit to the deceased champion’s home town Cesena on stage 11.
Stage 14 will could see the first skirmishes in the mountains, which finishes with the 7.7km climb to the summit of Alpe di Pampeago, where Simoni took control of the race in 2003 before going on to seal his second triumph.
A shorter 153km of racing features on stage 15, but the four climbs totalling 50km the contenders face a potential dilemma.
Ahead of the next day’s 16th stage, a 12.9km uphill time trial at an average gradient of eight percent, the question begs whether the favorites will sit back and save precious energy for the important race against the clock or go all out in attack and put their rivals to the sword.
Three days laster the 19th stage will separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Held over 228 km, the three-climb stage — whose first ascent is over 19km at an average of 6.9 percent — culminates on the summit of Monte Pora.
A final day of climbing is on the two-climb 20th stage, and if that has not proved decisive the 21st stage time trial – held over 28.5km from Maderno to Milan — will surely determine the podium.