With Contador banned, the 2012 Giro is wide open. Photo: Petit Brun/Flickr
The Giro d'Italia starts in Herning, Denmark, tomorrow, and it promises to be one of the most interesting and wide-open races in years. With last year's winner, Alberto Contador, stripped of his title and sitting out a suspension for his clenbuterol positive in the 2010 Tour de France, there's no clear favorite for the win. That means a host of teams will be angling for their leaders, the margins are likely to be tight, and there should be great drama all the way down to the mountainous penultimate stage, which includes both the Mortirolo and the Stelvio. The whole race could even come down to the final finish line at the concluding time trial in Milan.
Making the race even more competitive is the gentler parcours than last year's sufferfest. Race director Michele Acquarone was handed the reins this year with the mandate to dial back the spectacle of previous years after teams and riders alike complained of ridiculous transfers between stages and a glut of brutally difficult riding. With two relatively calm weeks leading up to a mountainous finale, this year's course indeed looks easier, which means there could be more riders than ever in contention for the win.
Here's a look at the top contenders:
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD): This 32-year-old Italian enters the race as the defending champion, having just received recognition for the 2011 title after Contador's dominant performance was wiped from the books. He's made it clear that he wants to win this year's title outright as a sort of make-good for the way he was slid onto the top step of last year's podium last, so he definitely has motivation on his side. He's an incredibly strong climber and capable of holding time in the TTs, so he has to be considered a top favorite. Having said that, unlike last year at this time, when he had won or podiumed in a handful of big races, Scarponi has had a quiet start to 2012, making pundits wonder whether he'll have the form he needs to contend.
Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale): As a two-time Giro winner, Basso should be lining up as the uncontested favorite and patron. But the 34-year-old Italian has had a messy and inauspicious start to the 2012 season, with crashes and sickness knocking him out of races and derailing his training. After a high-altitude training camp in the Canary Islands a few weeks ago, where he's said to have climbed 66,000 meters in 17 days, the Italian claims he's on the upswing. In his favor: Liquigas-Cannondale is bringing a very strong team to support him, and the high mountains, where he's usually at his best, don't come until late in the race so he should have time to find his form. When I spoke to him in December, the Italian seemed distinctly aware of passing time and highly motivated to cement his reputation as able to win clean.
Frank Schleck (Radioshack-Nissan-Trek): Up until a week ago, the eldest of the two Luxembourger brothers had no plans to race the Giro. But then Radioshack's designated team leader, Jakob Fuglsang, was ruled out of the Giro because of a knee injury, and Schleck got a late call-up. That means that the 32-year-old, who was just beginning to build for the Tour de France, isn't really primed for the Giro, though strong showings in the Ardennes classics suggest he's in pretty good form. Radioshack-Nissan-Trek's disastrous beginning to their season—Fabian Cancellara scored the team's only win, at the Strade Bianche, before being rudely ejected from the classics with a broken collarbone—should give Schleck good motivation to secure some results. And with relatively few time trial kilometers, the course suits him, too—if he can ride himself into form.
Roman Kreuziger (Astana): Ivan Basso has pointed to this young Czech as the possible dark horse, and the Italian should know since Kreuziger rode as his lieutenant for several years. At just 25 years old, Kreuziger is relatively young to be a contender for a Grand Tour, but he's been touted as a fast-rising precocious talent ever since his 2008 Tour de Suisse victory (at age 22) and subsequent 2009 Tour de Romandie title. This year has been a good one so far for the Czech, with a sixth-place finish at the Strade Bianchi and 3rd overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, and he comes into the race with as good a lead-up as any racer. The big question is whether he's ready to rise to the challenge.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha): Often overlooked because of inconsistent results, this 32-year-old Spaniard is a climbing sensation when he's firing on all cylinders. He overcame a horrendous start at last year's Giro to eventually finish in fifth overall, and if he can hang in there in the opening rounds this year, his explosive climbing style might prove enough to carry him past his opponents in the final week. Having just won La Flèche Wallonne a few weeks ago, he'll carry good sensations and momentum to the start.
I think Basso will lose some time from the get-go but will improve as the race goes on and snatch his third Giro victory in the final days. He has more experience at winning grand tours than anyone in the field (Damiano Cunego, who won the Giro in 2004, is the only other past grand tour champ), and he's acutely aware that his time at the forefront of the sport won't last forever. Kreuziger will take second. And Garmin-Barracuda's Ryder Hesjedal, who's coming with a surprisingly strong squad to support him, will round out the podium to finally make good on the American team's Giro promise.
That's my dream podium. What do you think? Who will stand on top in Milan on May 27?