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By Lennard Zinn
The weather has been perfect for cycling the last few days in the Adriatic coast town of Pescara and should hold for Saturday’s start of the 84th Giro d’Italia. This race promises to be highly competitive, with no clear favorite and a course that does not favor any particular type of rider.
Fassa Bortolo’s world no. 1, Francesco Casagrande, really wants to win the Giro to erase the memory of last year’s bitter loss on the second-to-last stage, as well as to place himself among the grand champions. The climber from Tuscany has an incredible team backing him, including Paris-Nice and Tour de Romandie champion Dario Frigo and great climber Wladimir Belli.
Casagrande’s form is good, evidenced by launching the breakaway in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and by winning a stage and the overall in the Giro del Trentino three weeks ago. The world no. 1 will be hard to beat, having focused his efforts on the Giro d’Italia like never before. He has his chiropractor on hand in an effort to prevent the numbing back and leg pain that afflicted him in the final time trial last year and saw him lose the pink jersey with only a day to go. Working against the Tuscan will be a reduced climbing load. Casagrande showed at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Milan-San Remo that when the road gets steep and long, nobody can keep up, but the total climbing this year is only 21,200 meters, as opposed to 26,200 in 1999 and 23,220 last year.
Last year’s winner, Stefano Garzelli, has moved from Mercatone Uno to Mapei to get out of the shadow of Marco Pantani and be allowed to go for the race win from the beginning. With one stage win in the Tour of the Basque country to his credit and an extremely strong team behind him, Garzelli should give Casagrande a run for his money. With climbers like last year’s fourth-place Andrea Nóe, Manuel Beltran and Paolo Lanfranchi backing him in the mountains, Garzelli will be hard to drop. Don’t be surprised too see a third of the jerseys in a small group high in the Alps to have colorful plasticcubes on them.
Lampre-Daikin’s Gilberto Simoni is sick of getting third in the Giro, and this could be the year the stylish climber stands on the top of the podium. Having super-domestiques like Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Oskar Camenzind, Mariano Piccoli, Massimo Codol and Max Sciandri backing him, his chances look good.
A dark horse is local hero Danilo DiLuca, who hails from near Pescara. He has been gunning for this race, won the Giro d’Abruzzo in this region last week, and his Cantina Tollo-Acqua & Sapone team, though no powerhouse squad, is completely behind him.
Then, of course, you can never count Marco Pantani out of any race with a lot of climbing in it, and his cards have been played so close to his chest that nobody has any idea of his current form. With Garzelli gone, Pantani’s Mercatone Uno squad is solidly behind him.
Potentially more dangerous yet, certainly all the favorites have to beware of Jan Ullrich, even if he is using this race as final tune-up for the Tour. With climbers like Alberto Elli, Giuseppe Guerini and Kevin Livingston backing him and a 55.5km time trial coming a week before the finish, there is not telling if Ullrich and Team Deutsche Telekom might not pad their laurels with the world’s second-biggest stage race.
The only rider to have won the Giro twice in the past seven years, Ivan Gotti, likely does not have the form to win, nor is his Alessio team loaded with climbing talent, but he has pulled off surprises in the past.
Look for Saeco’s Mario Cipollini to win a stage or three, and look for Alessio’s Endrio Leoni and Alexia Alluminio’s Ivan Quaranta to make it hard for him. Liquigas-PATA may not be poised to win the overall, but Davide Rebellin could win some key stages, and Sergei Gontchar could win the long final time trial.
Saturday’s 7.6km straight and flat prologue south of Pescara’s beachfront should give a clear indication of who is in form and should give Gontchar and Frigo in particular a chance to show their stuff and maybe walk away wearing a pink jersey. In any case, the next three weeks should produce a tight race and offer plenty to get excited about in advance of this year’s diluted Tour de France.
Look for daily reports throughout the Giro on www.velonews.com