By Andrew Hood
In Mazda Palace, Milan – The 2005 Giro d’Italia presentation Saturday eveningsaw typical Italian flare and style in what race officials are hopefulwill be one of the best battles in recent years.
The prospect of a clash between Italy’s hottest young stars and increasedinternational participation thanks to the ProTour, the duel between DamianoCunego and Ivan Basso is sure to make the 88th Giro palpitating to watch.
Some of Italy’s biggest stars were on hand for nearly two-hour presentation,including 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli, 2002 winner Paolo Savoldelli(with his newly broken collarbone), 2004 winner Cunego and top contenderBasso.
Against the pounding soundtrack of The Doors, Italy’s very own LizardKing was center-stage as youth and excitement overwhelmed the Giro presentation.
All eyes were on Cunego and Basso, though veterans like Garzelli likedto remind everyone he and two-time winner Gilberto Simoni shouldn’t beoverlooked.
With a live feed to RAI Sports, the Giro presentation featured a flashystage, TV presenters, dancing gnomes, acrobatics and plenty of Italiankitsch. All that was missing were the dancing girls.
At first glance, the reaction to the 20-stage, 3464-kilometer route was generally positive. Most agreed the course – which starts May 7 in the toe of Italy’s boot in Reggio Calabria and ends May 29 in Milan – is designed to bringthe race to a climatic finish in three key stages played out over the ItalianAlps.
In a clear nod to the 2006 Winter Olympics, the final battle will befought out in the Alps climbs of Limone Piemonte and Sestriere rather thanthe Dolomites. Two summit finishes sandwiching a key 31km time trial inTorino, the final weekend is sure to provide the fireworks everyone expects.
“I see those stages as the most important,” said Cunego, who was clearlythe star of the evening’s festivities. “There are other mountain stagesfor sure that will be important, but I can already sense that the favoriteswill really be exchanging punches on those stages.”
That’s not to say the Dolomites won’t be a factor. The Giro returnsto fabled Stelvio in Stage 14 and climbs such stunning settings as PassoPordoi in Stage 13. There are four climbing stages in Italy’s northernmountains before sweeping west toward the Alps.
The course is held entirely in Italy (save for a short-cut through Switzerland), traverses nearly all of the Italian peninsula and hugs Italy’s west coast from the “toe” toward Florence for the first of two time trials and the first of two rest days.
The opening half of the race is dominated by flat stages tailored forthe likes of Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel with two medium mountainstages and the 41.5km Florence race against the clock.
The Giro gets vertical in Stage 11 with the first of four consecutivemountain stages, starting with the summit finish to Zoldo Alto. Stage 12hits the Passo di San Pellegrino before plunging to the finish in Roveretowhile Stage 13 has all the makings of a classic, with five rated climbsbefore the summit finish to Orstisei-San Ullrich. Stage 14 hits the legendaryheights of the Stelvio (the Cima Coppi at 2758 meters) and three ratedclimbs before a short downhill run to Livigno.
A rest day and two transition days brings the Giro to its frenetic finish.The 194km Stage 17 hits the brutal Colle di Tenda on Limone Piemonte, thesame climb that Garzelli shined on in 2002 before being ejected for allegeddoping. The 31km individual time trial around the Olympic host Torino featuresthe 620 Colle di Superga midway through the race to liven things up.
The 190km penultimate stage from Savigliano to Sestriere is sure tobe exciting, with two climbs up Sestriere with the absolutely vicious Colledelle Finestre, a monstrous climb with painful switchbacks and an averagegrade of 9.5 percent.
The finale into Milan will be a victory parade for everyone but thesprinters. With the Giro already confirming the presence of the world’stop-three ranked riders (Cunego, Paolo Bettini and Zabel) and the top 19teams in the ProTour, the Giro is sure to be one of the top races of theyear.
Here are some reactions from some of Italy’s top riders:
Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) – winner of nine stages in2004: “It will be difficult to repeat what happened last year. That wasvery special and I don’t think it’s going to happen again. Everything wentright last year, and that doesn’t always happen. There will be more sprintersin the race this year and the first week looks well-suited for sprinters.Zabel will be there as well as Bettini, so nothing will be easy. And Ithink Cipollini can come back to the highest level. He’ll be one of thetop adversaries.”
Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel) – overall champion in 2002:“I’ve had a week off the bike with my broken collarbone. I hope to getback on the bike for a light rider by (Sunday) or the next day. Then Ican start rebuilding my fitness. In all, it wasn’t as bad as we had thoughtand it comes at a good time, at least in perspective of the season. I’vehad just a few days down and it’s not something that will hold me back.”
Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Caffita) – defending overall champion:“It’s a good, clean Giro. It’s obviously a climber’s Giro, though the firstweek doesn’t present too many complications. This Giro will not be easyto win. Simoni and I will race together as co-leaders and help the riderwho is strongest. The most important thing is to have a good Giro for theteam and hopefully one of us can win. There are no problems with Gilbertoand I. I would gladly help him in the right situation.”
Ivan Basso (Team CSC) – third overall in 2004 Tour de France:“I think between me and Cunego, it will be a good battle. Of course, youcannot forget other riders. I think it will be a very competitive Giro.I am not thinking about beating Damiano or anyone else. I am only thinkinghaving the best preparation and coming to the Giro with a strong team.That’s the most important thing for me.”
Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas) – 2000 overall champion: “I hopethat we can see the Garzelli the world saw in 2000. I have been workinghard and I will have a very strong team to support me. I will give everythingto win this Giro to prove that I am not finished. I do not think the bestis behind me, but of course some people believe that. The finish is Sestrieresbrings fond memories. That’s where I earned the maglia rosa and securedthe overall victory in 2000, so for that alone I am excited to return tothat climb, which is sure to be decisive.”
Michele Scarponi (Liberty Seguros): “It is a challenging course.You can see the first week is well-suited for the sprinters, but you cannotrelax or you could lose the race. The final three days will be the mostdecisive. With two climbs and a time trial in Torino, I think that willdecide the race. I hope to have a good Giro. We will come with a competitiveteam hungry to make our presence known. After a few years experience, Iam ready to challenge for a top placement or a stage victory. That is mydream.”