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Thursday’s Euro-file: Giro favorites; Postal Tour plans; Ullrich to Vuelta?

Giro favorites lining up: Every year pundits invariably say, "This is the most-widen open (fill in race name) ever." Well, the 85th Giro d'Italia might not meet that clichè, but it certainly will be very competitive. A trio of dominant Italians will be fighting for the spoils while a half-dozen outsiders will be trying to spoil the party. The top favorites are Gilberto Simoni (Saeco-Longoni), Stefano Garzelli (Mapei-Quick Step) and Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo) and all three enter the Giro with something to prove. The defending champion Simoni wants to win back-to-back Giros

By Andrew Hood

Giro favorites lining up: Every year pundits invariably say, “This is the most-widen open (fill in race name) ever.” Well, the 85th Giro d’Italia might not meet that clichè, but it certainly will be very competitive. A trio of dominant Italians will be fighting for the spoils while a half-dozen outsiders will be trying to spoil the party. The top favorites are Gilberto Simoni (Saeco-Longoni), Stefano Garzelli (Mapei-Quick Step) and Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo) and all three enter the Giro with something to prove.

The defending champion Simoni wants to win back-to-back Giros (which would be the first since Miguel Indurain won 1992-93) to stifle criticism following his victory in last year’s scandal-marred Giro. Despite cracking his knee in a fall at Setmana Catalana this spring, Simoni will have strong support from his new Saeco team.

Garzelli wants to avenge his poor finish in last year’s Giro when he had bronchitis. The 2000 Giro champion has had a consistent spring, finishing second and helping Mapei teammate Paolo Bettini win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and riding strong at the Tour of the Basque Country.

Despite a spill at Basque Country, Casagrande has looked the strongest this spring, winning the Setmana International Coppi-Bartali. Last year, the Fassa Bortolo strong man was forced to pull out after crashing early and is determined to be a factor to make up for his collapse in the 2000 Giro when he lost the maglia rosa to Garzelli.

The top outsider is Dario Frigo, who is back on top after serving a suspension from his role in last year’s Giro doping scandal. Frigo was fired by his then-Fassa Bortolo team while sitting in second place just 15 seconds behind Simoni. Since then, he’s signed with Tacconi and won a dramatic victory at Paris-Nice and recently the overall at the Tour de Romandie.

With the absence of ibanesto.com and ONCE, several other riders can fill the void. CSC-Tiscali’s Tyler Hamilton and Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd have chances for a top-five finish if they can hang with the Italians in the steep mountains in the Giro’s final week. Pavel Tonkov, a Giro winner in 1996 and twice second, is back with Lampre after a frustrating season at Mercury-Viatel. Rik Verbrugghe (Lotto) will be looking to repeat his prologue performance from last year and Gerolsteiner’s David Rebellin and Alexia’s Paolo Savoldelli, second in 1999, have chances for a top-5.

And Marco Pantani? Il Pirata has had more problems than a Colombian drug lord of late and hasn’t had winning form since 2000. It’s still not even confirmed if he’ll start the race. The 85th Giro d’Italia starts Saturday in Gronigen, Holland.

Too early to name USPS Tour team: Johan Bruyneel says it’s still too early “to name names” about who will be helping Lance Armstrong go for a fourth consecutive Tour de France title. The U.S. Postal Service director told said the final decision won’t be made until after the Dauphiné Libéré and Tour of Cataluyna in late June. “This year there are 13 to 14 riders in theory who can do the Tour. There are a couple of guys sure to do it. The rest we have to wait to see,” Bruyneel told VeloNews. “Until then, we want to keep it open so everyone will have chances. They all have the same program focused toward the Tour. It’s too early to name names.”

Ullrich to Vuelta?: Jan Ullrich, who announced this week he won’t start the 2002 Tour de France, confirmed he hopes to start the Vuelta a España in September if he recovers from his nagging knee injuries. “I am convinced I can return. My career is not over,” Ullrich told German newspapers. “It’s unfortunate I cannot go to the Tour, but it’s not worth it because the pain hasn’t gone away during training. I can’t go just to finish the race.” Ullrich raced only once this year, at the Tour of Qatar in January and later returned home early from a South African training camp with pain in his right knee. He missed several weeks of training and decided this week it wouldn’t be possible to be in top form to challenge Lance Armstrong at the Tour, which starts July 6 in Luxembourg. Ullrich won the 1999 Vuelta when injuries suffered at the Tour of Germany forced the 1997 Tour champion to skip the Tour.

Bicicleta Vasca (June 5-9): Saeco, Cofidis, Lampre and Phonak have committed to start the Bicicleta Vasca in northern Spain, organizers revealed this week. According to race director Javier Etxekopar, the race always has troubles getting commitments from top teams because the race is squeezed in between the Giro and the final Tour de France preparation races in France such as Classique des Alpes and the Dauphine Libere.

“We want to have 17 teams with 8 riders each, but until the week before we won’t have anything concrete,” he said.

The stages: 1. Eibar-Usurbil (Guipèézcoa); 2. Usurbil-Zeanuri (Vizcaya); 3. Zeanuri-Salvatierra (Alava); 4. Salvatierra-Mendaro (Guipèézcoa). First sector; Mendaro-Mendaro, individual time trial, second sector; 5. Iurreta (Vizcaya)-Alto de Arrate (Guipèézcoa)