Colombian star Nairo Quintana will begin the Giro d’Italia as favourite to win the 97th edition of a race which will journey to Northern Ireland and Ireland for the first three stages.
Quintana’s favouritism for the maglia rosa is well substantiated as perhaps the most lung-bursting Grand Tour of them all features an enormous final week involving a climb of the legendary Passo dello Stelvio and a queen-stage summit finish atop the infamous Monte Zoncolan, which features gradients of 22%.
However, in the absence of the Tour-bound Chris Froome, current Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali and in-form Alberto Contador the 2014 Giro looks wide-open with any one of ten riders in with a realistic chance of clambering onto the top step of the podium in Trieste on 1 June.
Riders of the calibre of Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez will be a serious danger to Quintana and his Movistar squad, while Cadel Evans cuts a rejuvenated figure after victory at the Giro del Trentino in April.
The Spaniard, like Quintana, will be hoping to win his first Grand Tour after coming agonisingly close in 2012 when he lost the Giro by 16 seconds to Ryder Hesjedal.
Michele Scarponi, a former Giro winner by default, will also contest the three-week event for new team Astana, and there is also some attention surrounding Domenico Pozzovivo who some believe is flying under the radar after a series of impressive top ten finishes in stage races and classics this season.
Rigoberto Uran, who left Sky to join Omega Pharma – QuickStep in search of Grand Tour assaults, should also feature prominently in a race he finished second in last year.
There will also be a huge spotlight cast upon Dan Martin, Peter Deignan and Nico Roche as the Irishmen line-up in Belfast for the opening two stages before traversing the border south to Dublin for the third stage.
Other outside shots include Polish duo Rafal Majka and Przemyslaw Niemiec, while Belkin’s young prospect Wilco Kelderman is my tip for an unexpected top ten finish.
Despite the 12 stages in the medium and high mountains, there are seven opportunities for the sprinters to take stage victories and of the sprinting contingent in the race there are none more imposing than Marcel Kittel.
The German will be using the Giro as a leapfrog onto the Tour de France but with such a punishing parcours he might enter le Tour tired which could play into the hands of arch-rivals Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel.
Italian sprint interest will centre around Cannondale’s Elia Viviani who will challenge Kittel in good spirits after two stage wins at the recent Tour of Turkey.
Finally, there is a limited British interest in the Giro with only Sky’s Ben Swift competing in the first Grand Tour of the season.
Swift has proven his mettle this year after a breakthrough podium in the Milan-San Remo classic, and he will be given the chance to ride for himself on stages of similar parcours, meaning he will target medium mountain stages with a climb late in the stage followed by a sprint finish.
So, while on paper Quintana and Rodriguez head the field, there are several riders who have the quality to spring a surprise and claim the coveted maglia rosa.
Many are suggesting the Giro will be won on the final week, possibly even the penultimate stage. Quintana vs Rodriguez vs Evans on the Zoncolan, anyone? Yes, please!
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