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The spring classics are in the history books, and now it’s time for the season’s grand tours. Up first is the Giro d’Italia, set for May 9-31 on an atypical course that features the season’s longest time trial among the grand tours (59.2km in stage 14), coupled with a relatively light menu of climbing, at least by Giro standards.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) leads a respectable peloton of GC hunters. While Tour de France rivals Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and Chris Froome (Sky) are all steering clear of the corsa rosa, Contador is jumping in with gusto. The 32-year-old will start as the five-star favorite, and few can match his experience and palmares when it comes to grand tours. It won’t be a Sunday stroll to Milano, however. There are several riders who will be nipping at Contador’s heels, and it should be quite an interesting GC battle between the veteran Spaniard and a posse of young guns looking to knock him off his throne. Here’s a look at the Giro favorites:
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo): The “pistolero” returns to the Giro with something to prove, and with an eye toward history, trying to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win both the Giro and Tour in the same season. Now 32, Contador might not be as explosive and fresh as he used to be, but he’s even more tenacious and experienced than ever before. When it comes to winning grand tours, no rider in this year’s Giro field has more experience than Contador, and he returns to the Giro in part because he loves the passion and history of Italian racing, but also to win another pink jersey. Officially, only his 2008 victory counts, but for many, Contador is also the winner of the 2011 Giro (he was later disqualified due to his clenbuterol case). Rather than settle for “just” a run at the Tour, Contador has bravely raised the bar this year with a shot at the Giro-Tour double. That reflects both his confidence and his ambition. Contador hopes to hit a peak during the Giro, and save some matches for the Tour, but he will have a real fight on his hands for the pink jersey.
What needs to happen to win: Contador will bring a strong squad with him because the entire peloton will be looking to Tinkoff-Saxo to control the race. The team will put pressure on dangerous rivals, such as Richie Porte (Sky) and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step) to try to knock them off balance in the opening half of the Giro. His time trialing is not nearly what it used to be, so he cannot wait for the final week to make his move, especially with Porte and Urán aiming to take major time out of him in the stage 14 time trial. Contador will be marking his rivals in the early mountain stages, and will be ready to pounce at any opening. The Giro’s hard final week plays into Contador’s hand. He loves harsh racing conditions, and has the depth and experience to go the distance. He will need to keep it close coming out of the time trial, and then finish it off in the closing mountain stages. With a quality field, that will be easier said than done.
Richie Porte (Sky): Based on this year’s results, it’s Porte, not Contador, who should be considered the pre-race favorite. The 30-year-old has reached a new level of maturity and depth this season, with a whopping eight wins so far, including overall titles at Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya, and the Giro warm-up race last week, Giro del Trentino. None of those races had a major, flat time trial stage, proving that his climbing legs are up to snuff. The Tasmanian is at a turning point in his career, and wants nothing short of overall victory. He’s confirmed his leadership skills to his teammates, and Sky will bring a top-level group to support him. Contador and the other climbers will have a hard time shaking the slimmed-down Porte, and though he might not say it publicly, anything short of outright victory will be short of expectations.
What needs to happen to win: Like everyone, he will need to avoid crashes, illness, and mishaps in the opening half of the Giro, but that will be even more important for Porte, who’s seen his share of bad luck the past couple of years. He will gain a huge confidence boost if he can stay with the fleetest climbers in the opening mountain stages to reach the decisive, 59.2km individual time trial in stage 14 with his GC options still in play. With the climbs of northern Italy even better suited to his riding style, if Porte can knock it out of the park in Treviso, he might be on a victory lap all the way to Milano.
Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step): Runner-up two years in a row, this year’s Giro could be ideal for the Colombian all-rounder. Urán turned professional very early, and is already in his 10th pro season at 28 years old, making him one of the most experienced riders in the bunch. He will need all of his guile to finesse his way to the top spot of the podium. Racing this week at the Tour de Romandie, Urán has been solid so far in Europe, with third against an elite field at Tirreno-Adriatico, and fifth at the Volta a Catalunya. His time trialing skills have improved dramatically, and if either Porte or Contador falter, he will be right there to exploit any opening.
What needs to happen to win: The ace in his pocket is stage 14’s long time trial. Similar to last year’s course at Barolo, when he won the stage and nearly cemented the overall, Urán will be riding to stay close in the opening mountain stages to set himself up for a run at pink in the time trial. He could take major gains on his rivals, especially against the dangerous climbers, and then hold on all the way to Milano.
Fabio Aru (Astana): Following his breakout 2014 season, which included stage wins in both the Giro and Vuelta a España, as well as third overall at the Giro, Italian fans are hoping they’ve find their next great Giro star. So far this season, the 24-year-old has only raced two stage races (Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya), and besides a pair of top-fives, looks to have taken a page from team captain’s Vincenzo Nibali’s playbook, keeping a low profile in his approach to the Giro. As an explosive climber, he will have opportunities for stage wins and a run at the pink jersey in the opening two weeks. The longer time trial will handicap his GC chances, especially against the likes of Porte and Urán, but his jump in the mountains will put rivals on edge.
What needs to happen to win: Aru will find himself marked early by Contador and Porte, so he won’t be able to get away as easily as he did last year. Porte and Contador, however, will be watching each other even more closely, so Aru might be able to exploit their rivalry to his advantage if he plays it smart. It will be critical for him to limit his losses in the long time trial and then prove to be even better in the mountains than he was last year.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale): The diminutive Italian looks to be on the form of his career as he rolls into the Giro. The 32-year-old has notched some impressive results this spring, taking mountain stage victories against elite fields at both the Volta a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino before riding to eighth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. With eight Giri d’Italia in his legs, Pozzovivo knows the Italian roads and the Italian style of racing better than most of his rivals. Fifth overall last year, he certainly won’t be in the running for the pink jersey, unless something wholly unexpected happens. The long time trial plays against him, but a stage win and a possible podium spot could be within his reach.
What needs to happen to win: He won’t be starting as a five-star favorite, so Pozzovivo would need to surprise the GC favorites with a long attack on some of the early mountaintop finales to gain considerable time, then have the time trial of his life to limit the losses, before taking even more time in the climbs of the final week.
Five more with a shot: The Giro start list is packed with riders with something to prove. One of them is Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Soudal), who is hoping to leave behind the bad luck that haunts him at the Tour de France with a fresh start at the Giro. A strong time trialist with solid climbing skills, the Belgian will be in with a shot of the podium if luck stays on his side. … With defending champion Quintana targeting the Tour, Movistar brings a loaded squad with stage-hunters and second-tier riders getting their chance to shine. Beñat Intxausti or Ion Izagirre will be hoping to punch into the top-10 at the very least. … Ryder Hesjedal, Giro champion in 2012, will be looking to prove to everyone he can still be a GC threat. He’s proven invaluable to such teammates as Daniel Martin and Andrew Talansky the past few years, but the Giro will be all his. … Healthy again after a string of injuries, Steven Kruijswijk will be hoping to ride close to the podium for LottoNL-Jumbo.