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Giro, Vuelta option likely for many GC favorites

With mountains galore in all three grand tours this season, many top GC riders are already saying that riding both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in top fighting form looks all but impossible. Liquigas captain Ivan Basso has already stated his top goal for the 2011 season is…

With mountains galore in all three grand tours this season, many top GC riders are already saying that riding both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in top fighting form looks all but impossible.

Liquigas captain Ivan Basso has already stated his top goal for the 2011 season is to win the Tour de France and if he returns to the Giro, which he’s won two times already, it will be to help understudy Vincenzo Nibali.

Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC), a winner of the 2009 Giro who finished 51st in the Tour that year, has hinted that the Italian route looks too steep for his tastes and that he’ll likely bet everything on the Tour to try to improve on his breakthrough third place in 2010. The Schleck brothers have already said they will skip the Giro to make a full-on assault on the Tour.

For riders who are not putting all their eggs in the Tour basket, many are mulling the option of racing the Giro and Vuelta in a bid to try to win at least one of the grand tours.

“I will first go to the Giro to try to win and I’d like to return to the Vuelta with the same aspiration,” said Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) after Wednesday’s presentation of the 2011 Vuelta route. “My performance in last year’s Vuelta only bolstered my ambitions for the grand tours. Even though I had some bad luck, I am more confident that I can aim to win a grand tour now more than ever.”

Antón was in winning form in last year’s Vuelta when he crashed out on the road to Peña Cabarga going into the final week while wearing the red leader’s jersey. Whether or not he could have hung on for final victory is something Antón says he’s not losing any sleep over.

“I prefer to take the positive out of last season and the sensation I have now is that I believe I can contend for victory in a grand tour,” Antón continued. “We’ll go to the Giro this year to aim for the best and then have a nice chance at recovery to come back strong for the Vuelta.”

Another rider looking to shine in the Giro is Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who also came within striking distance of the podium at the Vuelta last year. Although he won a stage in last year’s Tour, “Purito” is also thinking the Giro-Vuelta combo could be a good one.

“The fact that this year’s Vuelta has less kilometers in time trialing is better for me,” Rodríguez said Wednesday. “The more climbs the better and the Vuelta route is ideal for a strong climber. The Giro, too, is perfect for my characteristics.”

The Giro-Tour combination continues to be an elusive target and the last rider to pull it off was Marco Pantani in 1998. Some question whether it’s even realistic in today’s era of stricter doping controls.

This year’s brutally demanding Giro, with no fewer than seven mountaintop finishes, makes that task even more daunting.

Giro race director Angelo Zomegnan defended the difficulty of this year’s Giro route, saying that race organizers are obliged to deliver a worthy showcase in the season’s most important stage races.

“If you want a big show for a grand tour, you have to put in challenging mountains, otherwise it’s not a spectacular race. It’s impossible to get fans to sit in front of their TV if we cannot attract them with something worthy of their time,” Zomegnan told VeloNews. “A true champion is different from a normal rider. If you want to produce a good champion, you have to put in a lot of mountains, there is no alternative.”

The reformed Basso tried the double last year following his win at the Giro and fell flat, finishing a distant 32nd. That experience is shaping his strategy coming into this year and Liquigas will be looking to Vincenzo Nibali to carry the team colors at the Giro.

The defending Vuelta champion is still uncommitted on whether he’ll race the Tour or Vuelta after making a run for the maglia rosa in the Giro, but Liquigas team boss Roberto Amadio suggested the difficulty of this year’s Giro will likely preclude a start in the Tour.

“We will see how things go in the Giro for Vincenzo. We believe he has the capacity to win the Giro this year, but the Giro is so difficult that maybe racing the Tour will be too much for him,” Amadio told VeloNews. “If I had to say now, I would say that Vincenzo will race the Giro and then have a nice period of recovery and race the Vuelta. The course is very well matched to his characteristics.”

One rider who is expected to be at the Giro is 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC), who has made it a habit to ride so many grand tours in a season that it appears he must get paid by the stage.

Last year, Sastre raced all three grand tours, finishing eighth in both the Giro and Vuelta and 20th in the Tour. The durable Spanish climber has finished 23 of the 24 grand tours he’s started since 1999.

For Sastre, who boasts one maillot jaune and three Vuelta podium trophies, finishing among the top-three in Milan is his first major goal of the 2011 season. That’s assuming his Geox-TMC team earns a wild-card invitation to the Giro.

“Like I’ve done the past few seasons, I will race the Giro first and then see how the season unfolds,” Sastre said. “I won’t decide anything else until after that. I would like to be on the podium at the Giro.”

If Sastre’s track record is anything to go by, we’ll probably see him at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta.