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Riders approach the Basilica of San Francesco during Stage 10 of the 2012 Giro d'Italia.     Photo: Flowizm/Flickr

Everything You Need to Know Before the Giro d'Italia

The Tour of Italy starts Friday. Here’s who to watch—and why to tune in at all.

While months of hoopla and prognostication normally proceed the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia (and the Vuelta a España, for that matter) gets little love here in the U.S. That’s too bad because while “the other” grand tours might not have the same money nor always attract the marquee names, they often feature the most unpredictable, interesting racing.

Last year’s edition of the Giro, for instance, saw some of the most brutal, snowy weather at a grand tour in years and made for some spectacular stages on roads plowed clean of ten-foot drifts. In 2012, the race was a compelling cat-and-mouse contest between Joaquim Rodriguez and Ryder Hesjedal, with the Canadian coming from behind on the final stage to win the overall by a scant 16 seconds.

This year’s edition could be just as volatile and compelling as the last two. The action begins tomorrow with a team time trial and two wet and wild flat stages in Ireland. After a transfer back to Italy, the race resumes with a mix of flat and mountainous stages over the first two weeks. Two mountainous time trials, one in the second week and one in third, will likely make for a constant reshuffling of the general classification. And the difficult third week, including no fewer than eight summit finishes, should make for exciting racing right up to the finishing climb at Monte Zoncolan on the penultimate stage.

Most of the biggest names in the peloton, including Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and last year’s Giro champ Vincenzo Nibali, have passed on Italy to make full-fledged bids at the Tour de France. While you could argue that might make the Giro a second-class race, in fact the lack of a clear patron should make the race that much more exciting. As many as half a dozen racers have the ability to contest for the win, and there are nearly as many racers with outside chances for an upset.

Most pundits seem to consider Colombian Nairo Quintana as the likeliest to win, if not outright favorite. The 24-year-old Movistar racer proved he has what it takes to contend at last year’s Tour de France, his second-ever grand tour, when he raced to second overall and was clearly the only rider capable of pushing Chris Froome. But though he has the legs to win, it’s not clear how he will hold up to the pressure of leading a team.

And it will be no easy task for Quintana to contain veteran Joaquim Rodriguez, of Team Katusha, who took heartbreakingly close second-place finishes in both the 2013 Vuelta and 2012 Giro. The Spaniard’s explosive climbing style should see him at least level with Quintana in the big mountains. At 34-years-old, he will be gunning to finally take the top step of a grand tour.

Another veteran to watch is Australian Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, who's turned his attention back to the Giro after BMC threw their weight behind American Tejay Van Garderen to lead the team at the Tour de France. Evans rode to a surprising third place at last year’s Giro, and he has had an excellent run-up to this year’s race, including a stage win and overall victory last month at the weeklong Giro del Trentino. At 37, he must also realize that this could be his last chance to win the Italian Grand Tour.

Behind those favorites are a host of racers a bit lower on the radar but with still plenty of possibility to succeed. The Colombian Rigoberto Urán freelanced his way to second place last year with little team support after Sky leader Bradley Wiggins left the race. Now racing for Omega Pharma-Quickstep, he probably won’t get much more back-up than last year and will have to rely on good positioning and excellent climbing ability if he hopes to fight for the win.

While there are no Italians who are outright favorites—much to the chagrin of the home country—a number of native riders have a shot. Astana’s Michele Scarponi is a perennial contender and possibly the home country’s best hope. He has one Giro title to his name already after the 2011 win was handed to him following Alberto Contador’s doping ban, and he has shown solid form at spring races including Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro del Trentino. AG2R-La Mondiale’s Domenico Pozzovivo has won grand tour stages through the years and showed excellent condition with fifth place finishes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Roma Maxima a few weeks ago. And though he’s well off his prime of a few years ago, two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso can’t be fully counted out.

The Giro gets started in Belfast tomorrow, and though no U.S. television stations will air coverage, there is no shortage of places to watch the race online.

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