Preview: Wide-open Giro launches without clear favorite

Without a patron, heavy final week should decide who wears the maglia rosa in Milan

HERNING, Denmark (VN) — The 95th Giro d’Italia opens Saturday looking for a hero.

With no clear favorite and a return to a traditional formula that sees the hardest and most decisive climbs packed into the final week, the Giro should be a wide-open and unpredictable affair.

The absence of last year’s winner Alberto Contador – who saw his Giro victory stripped as part of his clenbuterol case dating back to the 2010 Tour de France – means there is no five-star favorite lining up for victory Saturday in Herning for the season’s first grand tour.

That could mean wide-open and wild racing as someone tries to impose his will on the race.

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Not counting Michele Scarponi, who received the 2011 pink jersey in a ceremony Thursday, only two former winners line up, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) looking to recapture their past glories.

Basso has endured a rough and tumble spring, marked by crashes at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, but the veteran Italian says he’s ready to rumble.

“I feel as good as I had hoped to at this point of the season,” Basso said. “I will be there for the fight for the pink jersey.”

Cunego, meanwhile, is Lampre’s second bet as the Italian team rallies around Scarponi, who was the only rider to keep Contador on a (relatively) close tether in last year’s Giro blowout. Cunego is coming off his best-ever Tour de France ride, with sixth overall in last year’s race, and will be ready to step in if Scarponi stumbles.

Behind them are a handful of riders hungry to take their chances.

Foreigners Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda), Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and John Gadret (Ag2r La Mondiale) will all be looking to disrupt the Italian stranglehold.

Hesjedal, seventh overall in the 2010 Tour, could be a dark horse for the final podium. The Canadian will enjoy support from a deep Garmin squad and has been targeting the Giro since the team decided to push his candidacy back in November.

“I go there with GC ambitions. It’s about taking the opportunities and using them in a positive way. There are only so many chances to ride for GC in a grand tour during your career,” Hesjedal said. “The team first suggested it. They felt it was a good race for me and it was time for me to take that challenge. I have embraced it. And to have the team put me forward like that, it’s a huge compliment.”

For the first time since 2007, this year’s Giro also does not include a climbing time trial, meaning that the favor will be tipped more toward a traditional GC rider. The only problem is; there are not very many of those in the race.

Cycling’s biggest GC stars are saving their legs for the Tour de France, leaving the Giro open for aggressive racing and primed for someone to take the initiative and ride away with the maglia rosa.

Rodríguez, hot off victory at Flèche Wallonne last month, has been nipping at the edges of a Giro breakthrough the past several years. The Catalan climber believes this could be his year to make a run for the podium.

“I start the Giro with good sensations, with the idea of making a good GC, to win a stage and aim for the highest result,” he said. “The podium would be a nice result, but why not dream for more? It’s a good route for me. We come to the Giro with a strong team and our morale very high.”

Of the Giro’s three time trials, the final-day showdown in Milan should have the most impact if the GC isn’t already sorted after a string of demanding stages in the Dolomites.

The race opens and closes with time trials – 8.7km in Herning and 31.5km in Milan – with one team time trial in stage 4.

Tilting away from the brutal courses that have marked the Giro over the past few editions, this year’s route will provide more chances for the sprinters and a return to the familiar blueprint of having the most challenging and decisive climbing stages packed into the final week.

The penultimate stage, which tackles the Mortirolo and ends atop the Stelvio, has all the makings of a classic. Of course, that means the race’s crescendo is still three weeks away — just what the Giro organizers are hoping for.

After Contador blew the doors off the GC fight last year with one knock-out punch on Mount Etna at the end of the first week, course designers have come up with a route that should leave the pink jersey still up for grabs heading well into the final weekend.

Sprinters should have plenty of chances to strut their stuff as well, with at least seven stages ideal for a mass gallop. Those chances diminish dramatically in the final week of the Giro, a signal that most of the top names will use to abandon to recover in time for the Tour.

Mark Renshaw leads a strong Rabobank team that also includes Theo Bos. The pair will split the stages between themselves and try to knock world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky) off balance.

Renshaw punched his way into the winner’s column during last week’s Tour of Turkey and later led out Bos to a brilliant race-closing sprint victory in Istanbul on Sunday.

“We want to win at least one sprint stage at the Giro,” Renshaw said. “The field will be very competitive. Almost all the top sprinters will be there, so it will be difficult to win. There’s no problem between Theo and I. We talk about who the parcours favors and the team rides for them that day.”

A handful of North Americans round out the field. In addition to Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde will return to the Giro after skipping it the past few years to race the Tour of California. With eyes on the Tour de France in July, Vande Velde will try to replicate the same form he had coming out of the 2009 Giro, when he wore the pink jersey.

“That year I came out of the Giro with the best form of my life, in part because I was fighting so hard for the pink jersey,” said Vande Velde, who later went on to ride to fourth overall in that year’s Tour. “There’s no better training than racing. The Giro is always hard, but hopefully it will not be as brutal as last year.”

The Route

Much has been made about this year’s route being more “humane.”

There’s no doubt that last year’s Giro turned into a war of attrition, and left just about all the main protagonists spent for the remainder of the year. Contador won, but was too cooked to be a factor in the Tour de France. That story was also true for Michele Scarponi, who limped through the Vuelta a España later last season.

This year’s route, starting Saturday in Denmark and then returning to Italy after only three stages, is hardly a walk in a park. With five major summit finishes, a brutal final week and typically long transfers, there’s nothing easy about this Giro.

The stats reveal a hard three weeks ahead: 38 major, rated climbs, 72km of time trials and five mountaintop finishes.

Five key stages in the 2012 Giro d’Italia >>

The 95th Giro clicks into gear Saturday in Herning, hometown of Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis, in a stage that will mark the northernmost start ever for a grand tour.

A technical, flat 8.7km opening time trial will favor the likes of Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) and Gustav Larsson (Vacansoleil-DCM), while the following two stages will be marked by heavy crosswinds and narrow roads that could catch some GC riders out.

Stage 3 will pay homage to Wouter Weylandt, the Belgian rider who was killed on the same day last year in a horrific crash while coming down a narrow mountain road off the Passo del Bocco.

Some are already questioning the wisdom of taking the race so far from Italy’s boot. Three stages of racing are followed up by a Tuesday transfer back to Italy on what hardly will be a rest day for the peloton. That precedes the important and prestigious 32.2km team time trial around Verona in stage 4 in the first day on Italian roads.

Garmin and Liquigas will look to stamp their names on the TTT and launch their GC riders to the head of the race.

Sprinters should have plenty of chances in the opening week of the Giro as it winds south along the Adriatic coast before looping back north near Rome.

Most of the world’s fastest men in the bunch are heading to Denmark, including world champion Mark Cavendish, Mark Renshaw, Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and Tyler Farrar.

Things turn upward in stage 8, with the first mountaintop finale ending atop a second-category climb at Lago Laceno. Hardly steep enough to decide anything, but with upper ramps of 12-percent gradient coming 225km into the stage, the uphill finish will be the first chance for the GC riders to test their legs.

After more transitional stages for the sprinters and stage hunters, a hilly 12th stage along Italy’s Cinque Terre region will further put the GC riders on edge.

The first of five major mountain stages comes on stage 14 at Cervinia, with two first-category climbs packed into the final 60km that will eliminate anyone short on winning form. The 22km (5.6%) Col de Joux is followed by the equally steep 27km drag up to the summit at Cervinia. This stage is more like one from the Tour de France than the more typical short, sharp and punishing peaks used in the Giro.

The four-climb uphill finale the following day to Lecco will further separate the wheat from the chafe going into the second and final rest day. But Giro organizers seem bent on keeping the GC undecided until the final week, in part to try to avoid what Contador did at the end of the first week in last year’s race, when he roared up Mount Etna and left everyone else scrambling for leftovers.

Things get very interesting when the race enters the Dolomites in stage 17 to Cortina d’Ampezzo. The Passo Valparola, a 14.1km climb at 5.5% comes before the halfway point and should encourage a breakaway. But it’s in the final 70km that the GC contenders will start to turn on the turbos. The Passo Duran (12.2km at 8.1%) is followed quickly by the Forcella Staulanza (12.3km at 6.9%). But anyone hoping for a rest will be disappointed as the Passo Giau is up next, starting with parts that reach a gradient of 14%. To make things even more interesting, the stage finishes with a tricky, 17km descent to the line which could allow a good bike handler to recuperate time lost on the climb or even escape to victory.

Organizers throw a bone to the sprinters in stage 18, for those who are still in the race, at least before two decisive stages that should all but decide the final winner.

The five-climb 19th stage finishes atop the Alpe di Pampeago while the penultimate stage tackles the Mortirolo and ends atop the “easy” side of the Stelvio, climbing up from Bormio, though nothing is ever easy at the end of three weeks in the Dolomites. The final Passo dello Stelvio will become the highest ever summit finish at a grand tour at 2757 meters and, of course, the Cima Coppi for this year’s race, denoting the highest point of the tour.

A final-day, 31.5km time trial in Milano will settle any unsettled business on the GC. It was the Rome time trial in 2009 that saw the centenary Giro end with a dramatic time trial. Denis Menchov came into it with a 20-second lead over Danilo De Luca and managed to hold onto the pink jersey, despite crashing on the course.

Stages of the 2012 Giro d’Italia

Stage 1 – May 5: Herning (Denmark) – Herning (8.7km, time trial)
Stage 2 – May 6: Herning – Herning (206km)
Stage 3 – May 7: Horsens (Denmark) – Horsens (190km)
Rest Day – May 8
Stage 4 – May 9: Verona – Verona (33.2km team time trial)
Stage 5 – May 10: Modena – Fano (209km)
Stage 6 – May 11: Urbino – Porto Sant’Elpidio (210km)
Stage 7 – May 12: Recanati – Rocca di Cambio (205km)
Stage 8 – May 13: Sulmona – Lago Laceno (229km)
Stage 9 – May 14: San Giorgio del Sannio – Frosinone (166km)
Stage 10 – May 15: Civitavecchia – Assisi (186km)
Stage 11 – May 16: Assisi – Montecatini Terme (255km)
Stage 12 – May 17: Seravezza – Sestri Levante (155km)
Stage 13 – May 18: Savona – Cervere (121km)
Stage 14 – May 19: Cherasco – Cervinia (206km)
Stage 15 – May 20: Busto Arsizio – Lecco/Piani dei Resinelli (169km)
Rest Day – May 21
Stage 16 – May 22: Limone sul Garda – Falzes (173km)
Stage 17 – May 23: Falzes – Cortina d’Ampezzo (186km)
Stage 18 – May 24: San Vito di Cadore – Vedelago (149km)
Stage 19 – May 25: Treviso – Alpe di Pampeago (198km)
Stage 20 – May 26: Caldes/Val di Sole – Passo dello Stelvio (219km)
Stage 21 – May 27: Milan – Milan (30km time trial)

Five-star Favorites

Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD): Scarponi wasn’t comfortable inheriting Alberto Contador’s pink jersey from last year and wants to win one on the road. Scarponi was the only rider to keep Contador within sight in last year’s brutal Giro, and with the Spaniard sidelined until August, he returns to the Giro with a team stacked with helpers. Lampre brass is so confident in Scarponi’s chances they left sprint veteran Alessandro Petacchi at home. Scarponi has been known to crack, but if he can ride as ever-steady as he did last year, he might get his own pink jersey.

Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale): A two-time Giro winner, Basso redeemed himself in 2010 with a stunning victory in what was hailed by many as the best Giro of the modern era. After falling short in a run at the Tour de France last summer, at 34, this could be Basso’s last chance to win a grand tour. Basso hasn’t had the smoothest approach to the Giro, however, battling through early season illness and crashes, so much so he almost pulled out. If he can lift his game when it counts in the final week, he might be able to ride away with a second maglia rosa in three years.

Four-star Favorites

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha): The scrappy Spanish climber has posted five top-10 grand tour results dating back to 2008, yet has fallen short of the podium. That’s due in large part to his poor time trialing skills, but he’s vowed that he’s worked hard to at least limit the bleeding against the clock. This year’s route plays in his favor, with the lone long TT coming on the final day in Milan. “Purito” will need to climb like he did when he won Flèche Wallonne last month and build up a big head start going into the 31.5km race against the clock to have a chance to win pink.

Roman Kreuziger (Astana): The Czech phenom suffered on last year’s brutal route, but still managed to finish sixth and win the best young rider’s jersey in what was his first serious run at a GC in his career. Kreuziger turns 26 this week and is taking aim at the podium this year, but the more “humane” route could favor him against the Italians. Two top-10s in the Tour de France prove he can hang tight over three weeks.

Three-star Favorites

John Gadret (Ag2r La Mondiale): was the surprise of last year’s Giro, riding to fourth place and a stage victory. A solid climber, Gadret was a multi-time national cyclo-cross French champion before switching to the road. Last year, the Italians simply couldn’t drop him. If he’s as stubborn and fit this year, he could climb even higher on the GC.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda): The Canadian could be this year’s dark horse for the podium. Team brass back in November floated the idea to Hesjedal to take aim at the overall, and he’s embraced the challenge. He has prepared the whole season to hit top form in May. A proven climber and durable over three weeks, confirmed by his top-10 during the 2010 Tour, the Canadian could very well surprise the Italians. A strong support cast at Garmin-Barracuda will only help his effort.

Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan): A late-hour replacement for Jakob Fuglsang, the elder of the Schleck brothers will be somewhat of an enigma following a discreet spring. The big question mark will be whether or not he will be ready to seriously challenge for the Giro after planning his season around the Tour. Third in the 2011 Tour proves he can be up for a run at the podium, especially if he hits his form in the final week.

Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD): The former Giro winner is almost an afterthought these days when pegging favorites, but Cunego is coming off his best-ever Tour with sixth place, his best grand tour result since he was fifth in the 2007 Giro. Still only 30, Italy’s “Little Prince” could surprise, especially if Lampre teammate Scarponi falters. A steady climber with a deadly finish-line punch, Cunego can still aspire for the podium, and maybe even more.

Two-star Favorites

Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox): A winner at the Giro del Trentino, the pint-sized climber could be in for a shot at the top 10 and a stage win.

José Rujano (Andriano-Giocattoli): The mini-Venezuelan showed glimpses last year of the same form he had when he almost rode away with the 2005 Giro. He won a stage last year and rode to sixth, but like many pure climbers, he moves backwards in the time trials.

Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi): With Sammy Sánchez saving up for the Tour and Igor Antón nursing a broken collarbone from Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Nieve will carry the orange-clad Basquemen into the Giro. A winner of a stage and 10th overall last year, Nieve will be looking to at least repeat the feat.

Agency France Presse contributed to this preview. —Ed.