Giro d'Italia - Blazin' Saddles: Bumper Giro preview
The 95th edition of the Giro d'Italia has been labelled the most open race in years - which is basically how anyone describes a Grand Tour without Alberto Contador's name on the start list.
After an intriguing spring classics campaign, the Giro marks the first of three Grand Tours this summer — only the final of which, the Vuelta, will be won by Contador.
With around 10 riders who could realistically reach the podium — including a non-plussed Frank Schleck, who will lead the RadioShack circus against his wishes — the race should be an eye-catching spectacle as it carves its way through one of Europe's most stunning countries (plus a bit of Denmark).
Starting with three stages in Scandinavia, this Giro (were it a pasta dish on an Italian menu) would clearly be a Spaghetti con Bacon or a Herring Cannelloni, washed down, perhaps, with a Carlsberg and Limoncello chaser.
The infamous winds, narrow roads and low temperatures of Denmark could well put some riders out of the reckoning before the peloton even arrives on Italian soil — particularly with the inclusion of an opening time trial which, at 8.7km, is too long to be classified a prologue.
If this wasn't bad news enough for the likes of feted chrono weaklings John Gadret, Joaquim Rodriguez and Frank Schleck, then the inclusion of a 32.2km team time trial in Verona for stage four — after an early opening rest day — will set alarm bells ringing.
(Poor Schleck — in his head he's been preparing for one time trial heavy race this year with July's Tour de France; all of a sudden, he has to grapple with two.)
The good news, however, for those not blessed in the realms of ITT riding — and let's face it, with the exception of Ivan Basso and, perhaps, Roman Kreuziger, none of the principal GT contenders are exactly from the Tony Martin school of time-trialling — the race comes alive in week two with a series of punchy uphill finishes, while week three is particularly brutal (the queen stage features the highest finish of any GT this year, atop the Stelvio in the Dolomites).
But with every carrot, a stick: as is tradition with the Giro, the race concludes with a final time trial through the cobbled streets of Milan, which can get quite slippery when wet (just ask Denis Menchov).
Of those already mentioned, you'd have to fancy Ivan Basso (Liquigas), who is one of just two riders in the field (the other being the diminutive Damiano Cunego) who have ever won a Grand Tour (properly, that is, Michele Scarponi...).
Not only is Basso Italian, he has the strongest team and is riding back into form after a wobbly start to the season. Over the three weeks, the 34-year-old could prove the most consistent — but he will have to watch out for the constant attacks from a cluster of out-and-out climbers who could all force themselves into the reckoning, provided they don't lose too much time in the opening week.
These tasty climbers include bald pocket rocket John Gadret (Ag2r), who has an uncanny resemblance to the kind of Gaulish peasant you might see in an Asterix comic; Venezuelan shoe-sized Hercules, Jose Rujano (Androni); compact local mountain goat Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago), who sounds as if he should be a famous opera singer or a pope (although apparently he changed his name by deed poll from Puzzovivo, which roughly translates as 'Lively Stink'); and the Spanish-flavoured Russian mountain missile launcher Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, the kind of guy who climbs 20% gradients for breakfast.
More in the Basso mould come the likes of the Italian's former team-mate Roman Kreuziger, who will hope to forget a first disappointing year with Astana with a solid result, and Canadian all-rounder Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda).
Czech upper-class whippet Kreuziger has shed loads of weight (as opposed to shedloads) and looks in top shape, so definitely watch him. But also keep an eye on Team Sky's bouffant Colombian Rigoberto Uran (a man who's clearly never walked into a barber and asked for a short back 'n sides) — the 25-year-old is getting stronger and stronger, and with his place on the Tour in jeopardy, he may go all in for this one.
You'd think Damiano Cunego's best days are behind him, and beside stage wins, he'll be riding in support of Lampre team-mate Michele Scarponi, who starts the race as de facto defending champion following Contador's doping dethronement earlier this year.
Any long shots? Well, it may be worth keeping checks on Movistar tongue-twister Benat Intxausti as well as the very French-sounding Hubert Dupont who, given team-mate Gadret's form on back-stabbing, won't be afraid of doing his own thing for Ag2r.
Saddles put the word out on Twitter and here are some top fives suggested by his fellow cycling writers/journalists/bloggers/enthusiasts.
@nedboulting (Yellow jumper aficionado): 1. Scarponi, 2. Basso, 3. Hesjedal, 4. Rodriguez, 5. Uran
@janeaubrey (Cyclingnews): 1. Kreuziger, 2. Basso, 3. Scarponi, 4. Rodriguez, 5. Schleck
@richardmoore73 (Scottish badger): Predicting is a mug's game, I'll leave it to @freibos.
@freibos (Eddy Merckx biographer): 1. Scarponi, 2. Rodriguez, 3. Gadret, 4. Basso, 5. Kreuziger
@al_hinds (SBS lynchpin): 1. Scarponi, 2. Rodriguez, 3. Schleck, 4. Kreuziger, 5. ?
And the moment you've been waiting for... Saddles' own prediction (for what it's worth).
@saddleblaze (Europe's favourite cycle blog pedlar): 1. Basso, 2. Kreuziger, 3. Rodriguez, 4. Uran, 5. Scarponi. (Schleck not to complete the race after a fall in Denmark.)
Well, the mountains classification (blue jersey) could well be the same as the race for the pink jersey, although you'd fancy the likes of Rujano, Pozzovivo, Gadret, Dupont and Rodriguez over the main GC contenders.
As for the red sprinters jersey, well, Mark Cavendish (Team Sky) will almost certainly wear it for the first couple of weeks, the Brit being by far the fastest man in the peloton deprived of many top talents. But Cav will surely drop out of the race for the final week, opening it up for a consistent finisher in the mould of Thor Hushovd (BMC).
Some of the Italians could do well here — and they will be eager to finish the race on home soil — so watch out for Giovanni Visconti of Movistar, Daniele Bennati (RadioShack), Fabio Sabatini (Liquigas) and Sacha Modolo of Colnago.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and Matthew Goss (Orica GreenEdge) have patchy form and are not guaranteed finishing the race, while Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) is still finding his feet now he's no longer Cavendish's two-wheeled midwife. Movistar's Francisco Ventoso could be the best bet.
As for the white jersey, Sky's Uran is safe as houses. But say something rum happens to him in Herning, then Vacansoleil's all-rounder Thomas de Gendt could be a good horse to back. Not that he's a horse or even remotely equine in appearance (that prize would go to Bram Tankink, but he's neither young nor racing).
Random questions to ask / things to consider
In the absence of the mullets of Katusha's Russian contingent and the curly locks of Franco Pellizotti, who will sport the race's best hair style? Perhaps all eyes will be on Jose Serpa's jet-black goatee?
Will Garmin's Christian Vande Velde break his collarbone on stage three in Denmark?
How many attacks will Pablo Lastras make over the entire three weeks?
At what stage of the race will Rabobank's Theo Bos throw GreenEdge's Daryl Impey into the side barriers at top speed?
When will we realise that both QuickStep and Lotto are in fact racing and not sitting out this first Grand Tour?
Please make your own predictions and/ask your own questions below — and most importantly, enjoy the race!