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ROME, Italy (AFP) – Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) spearhead a foreign legion hoping to end Italian hopes of scoring another home win in the Giro d’Italia, which begins Saturday in Herning, Denmark.
In 66 of the 94 previous editions Italians have claimed the race’s coveted pink jersey – and a bevy of strong Italian riders are hoping this year will be no different.
Italians Michele Scarponi and Damiano Cunego, both on Lampre-ISD, and Ivan Basso (Liquigas) have all been crowned Giro champions before, and will be looking to stay in contention throughout the 21-stage epic which, although including three time trials, should have the climbing specialists licking their lips.
The 95th edition has been billed as wide open; with no clear favorite, they are likely to be pushed all the way.
Kreuziger, a 25-year-old Czech, has decided to skip the Tour de France this year to concentrate on trying to win one of the other two Grand Tours. An all-rounder with good time-trialing and climbing abilities, he finished fifth last year adding to his two consecutive top-ten places at the Tour de France in the two previous years.
“I’ve stepped up every year since 2008. I haven’t won a grand tour but I’m confident that I’m progressing,” said Kreuziger, who also finished sixth overall at the Tour de Romandie Sunday.
“My season is going well. I had a good Tirreno-Adriatico, Giro del Trentino and Tour de Romandie. We’ll see if it’s my year.”
Rodriguez has never won a grand tour either, but this former winner of the king of the mountains at the Tour of Spain has also finished seventh at the 2010 Tour de France and fourth at the Giro in 2011.
“In Spain they say I’m the biggest favorite to win the Giro for several years,” admitted the Spaniard. “I don’t think there’s one big favorite in the race. There are a lot of riders who can win the Giro, including some who could cause a surprise.”
Luxembourger Schleck could fall into that surprise category. He was surprised to be called up at the last minute by RadioShack-Nissan after Danish teammate Jakob Fuglsang got injured.
“I was at the playground with my daughter when I got the call and was asked to ride the Giro d’Italia,” said Schleck, who finished third in last year’s Tour. “It was a shock but then I looked at the race route and realized it’s a good opportunity for me.”
Last year’s race was won by Spain’s Alberto Contador, but after his results over the last two years were annulled due to doping offenses, Lampre all-rounder Scarponi will start as the official defending champion.
He was presented with the pink jersey on Thursday, but admitted: “I want to taste the feeling of winning the pink jersey on the roads, that’s going to be my true motivation in the 2012 Giro. There are a lot of favorites this year, who all have an equal chance of victory or to climb on the podium.”
Basso, the outstanding competitor in the field when he won in 2006 and 2010, will spearhead the Liquigas team’s bid. Despite perhaps not being the rider he once was, Basso is hoping to show that his mediocre start to the season was a blip.
“Two crashes cost me two weeks of important racing early in the season but I’ve done a lot more work in the last 40 days,” he said. “I’m 34 and I’ve got to trust my experience. We’ll see stage by stage but I’m confident I can fight for success with the best riders in the race.”
Cunego, the 2004 champion, is likely to work for his team leader Scarponi but the “Little Prince” could come into his own in the climb-heavy third week.
Four of the six stages in the last week will be spent in the thin air of the high mountains, giving the likes of Italian Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago) and Venezuelan Jose Rujano (Androni) outside chances of a top finish.
French climbing specialist John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who finished a surprise but well-deserved third place last year, is hoping to do even better.
“I wasn’t a favorite last year but I proved what I could do,” he said. “I’ll try and do the same, if not even better. The last week of the route is very difficult, all the stages are tough. But it’s the riders who make the race.”