By Andrew Hood
The 2007 Giro d’Italia starts Saturday without its defending champion and without any clear candidate to fill the void left by the scandalous fall of Ivan Basso.
Riders polled during Friday’s opening ceremony pointed to two-time Giro champion Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) as the point man in a peloton reeling from doping scandals and uncertainty ahead of the season’s first grand tour.
That seems fine for Simoni, who’s finished no worse than third in seven of the eight preceding Giros and is the best-placed returning rider from last year’s Giro in the 198-rider peloton.
“I feel like a young rider at my first Giro,” Simoni told journalists atop the flight deck of Italy’s lone aircraft carrier in Friday’s opening ceremony. “I just want to enjoy this Giro. I don’t know what to expect. Do we have more responsibility as a group? I worry about myself first, because this sport has always been about the individual.”
Simoni – riding in what could be his final Giro – could profit in more ways than one from Basso’s recent admissions that he worked with controversial Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
First off, Basso won’t be around to mess with Simoni’s game plan of making it hard in the Giro’s brutal final week across the Dolomites, which will surely decide the final outcome.
And secondly, there’s the remote possibility that Simoni could be awarded the 2006 Giro crown if Basso’s story that he only attempted to dope during the 2006 Tour de France unravels in the face of additional inquiries from Italian authorities.
Simoni finished third last year, but runner-up José Enrique Gutierrez – a.k.a. the Búfalo – was another one of Fuentes’ alleged Operación Puerto clients. The scenario that both could eventually be disqualified hasn’t gone unnoticed by Simoni, though he refuses to look at the past.
Also firmly in the here and now is Simoni’s former nemesis Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital), whose 2004 breakthrough Giro victory heralded his arrival at the big time.
The prince of Italian cycling has since produced solid results, but has yet to confirm with a second, ever-so-important Giro crown.
Cunego was quick to take pressure off himself, pointing to none other than former teammate Simoni as the man to beat.
“Simoni is the favorite due to his history, his two victories, his maturity and his team,” Cunego said Friday. “I won’t be fighting to be in the lead anywhere except in the final 200 meters of the stage. I will ride more cautiously than in the past. I won’t be attacking from five kilometers in the first summit, that’s certain.”
Cunego, now 25, said he wants to have a solid Giro without dramatic statements and conserve his strength for what he knows will be a brutal showdown in the final week.
One rider who could make his presence felt early is Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), still flying high after coming off his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Short but steep summit finishes in the opening half of the Giro favor Di Luca’s punch, but what’s still in doubt is his ability to endure the grueling, longer climbs that come in the Dolomites.
“I still believe I can win the Giro, though some might not think that,” said Di Luca, fourth in 2005. “I come into this Giro feeling strong and I think a podium finish is possible, maybe more, we’ll see.”
Another outsider for the final podium is Yaroslav Popovych, the man who must pick up where Basso left off at at Discovery Channel.
Discovery Channel’s Giro riders seemed to take Basso’s unexpected departure in stride. The team will also count on George Hincapie – making the first Giro start of his career – as well as former Giro stage-winner José Luis Rubiera.
Popovych, third overall in the 2003 Giro, already had the Italian stage race on his schedule even before the Basso scandal exploded earlier this month.
“I try not to think about the (Basso) situation too much,” Popovych said Friday. “It’s a difficult situation for cycling, but the morale is still good on the team. The feeling on the team is no different. We are motivated to make a good Giro.”
Another name that’s sure to be in the hunt in what will largely be an Italian shootout is two-time winner Paolo Savoldelli (Astana). The always-reliable veteran has an uncanny ability to sneak into contention in contentious situations, and he’ll be ready to pounce if there’s any wrinkle of weakness among the top favorites.
The only other former Giro winner lining up Saturday will be Stefano Garzelli, who left the ProTour ranks to lead continental team Acqua e Sapone.
Perhaps a completely unexpected rider could charge out of the peloton to fill the Basso void. With no fewer than 50 riders competing for the best young rider’s jersey, maybe that’s just what the Giro and cycling need.