2015 Giro d’Italia preview

Normally, a Giro d’Italia would attract a good selection of the biggest names in cycling. This year, however, they all seem to be concentrating on a particularly inviting Tour de France.

That leaves Alberto Contador as the red-hot favourite to secure his second Giro triumph and take home the famous maglia rosa.

Take nothing as read, though. Contador has had an unspectacular start to the season and has been beaten by the likes of Italy’s Fabio Aru and Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran already this campaign, and the three of them will again face each other in the first Grand Tour of the year.

The contenders                                                                                

Contador, Aru and Uran are exceptional climbers. Spain’s Contador is the class act of them all, and his time-trialling is still good enough to put time into his General Classification rivals.

In Uran, Contador faces the biggest threat to his hopes of a seventh Grand Tour victory.

The Etixx-Quick Step leader has improved significantly in recent seasons and finished second behind compatriot Nairo Quintana in the 2014 Giro.

Aru, who claimed third place in 2014, is also a big danger but his time-trialling lets him down. This aspect of the race is especially important in 2015 because there is a gigantic 59.4km time trial at the end of the second week.

Aside from that trio, an unexpected wildcard has thrown himself into the mix.

Ilnur Zakarin, who has served a two-year ban for doping, leapt to the attention of the cycling world last week when he won the Tour de Romandie, beating Grand Tour winners Chris Froome and Quintana in the process.

The 25-year-old Russian has lost 10kg of weight since his ban to strip down to GC material and possesses a nifty time-trial – even giving former TT world champion Tony Martin a severe scare at the Romandie.

Whether Zakarin can challenge for the duration of the epic 3,486km journey from Liguria to Milan remains to be seen, but he will be a marked man – both by riders and a doping-obsessed media.

Readers may also be confused as to why Richie Porte doesn’t feature as a contender.

He has been guilty of some shocking collapses in Grand Tours in recent years, falling off the pace on innocuous climbs when tasked with being Chris Froome’s wingman.

The Australian has a lot to prove and must rebuild his reputation with a solid Giro performance.

The sprinters

With big-name sprinters Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish not contesting the Giro, the muscular presence of Andre Greipel is favourite to claim the red sprinter’s jersey – or points jersey.

Greipel and his fellow sprinters will find the parcours difficult, with only three officially flat stages to battle for.

That suggests the hilly route of the Giro could favour a punchier rider, with early favourites for stage wins being Australia’s Michael Matthews and classics specialist Tom Boonen.

Other sprinters including Team Sky’s Elia Viviani and Movistar’s Juan Jose Lobato will be looking to minesweep the peloton for lead-out trains as the bulk of their teams protect GC riders.

The Brits

Disappointingly for British cycling fans there is not a single British rider in the 2015 Giro. Team Sky, the usual proponents of British riders, seem to be massing their star Brits for a tilt at the Tour de France, with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard all set to feature.

Team Sky have thrown their weight behind Aussie Richie Porte for the Giro, and he can count on support from workhorses Vasil Kiryienka and Bernie Eisel before super-domestiques Leopold Konig and Mikel Nieve chaperone him through the Dolomites.

The fun zones

In usual Giro fashion, the lovely organisers have schemed a brutal route across Italy.

The 21 stages include a mammoth 264km trip on stage seven, a 236km in mountainous roads on stage 19, and the harsh 59.4km TT chucked in for good measure.

No less than six summit finishes adorn the Giro this year, with the queen stage being the long slog to Sestriere, featuring an ascent of the Colle delle Finestre, the last half of which is raced over gravel – making the quest for forward momentum that little bit more difficult.

All things considered, Contador is rightly the favourite for Giro glory. His Tinkoff-Saxo team is arguably the strongest in the race and he will have Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso at his disposal for the mountains.

The Spaniard’s going to take some beating.

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Wiggins embarks on Giro d’Italia mission

Sir Bradley Wiggins will begin his quest to become the first British winner of the Giro d’Italia tomorrow when the opening Grand Tour of the 2013 season departs from Naples.

Team Sky’s Wiggins, who has never finished higher than 40th in the Giro, will attempt to claim the ‘maglia rosa’, or pink jersey, from 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, who is aiming to defend his title with his Garmin-Sharp team.

Wiggins’ bid is significantly helped by 92.3km (57 miles) of time-trialling across the 21 stages, which is his main strength – a fact underlined by his superb gold medal-winning performance in the time-trial at London 2012.

However, the brutal high mountain stages of the Giro will likely play into his rivals’ hands.

One such rival is home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who has already beaten Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino this season – a race seen as perfect preparation for the difficult parcours of the Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins did have a mechanical failure on the queen stage of that race, but the form of the Astana man in the high mountains will be of concern to the Briton, who can struggle at times with steep gradients.

However, Wiggins claims to have made improvements in the climbing discipline and, with two of the three time-trials completed by the time the riders enter the Italian Alps in the second week, he will hope to have built up a lead over his General Classification rivals.

The final week looks particularly hazardous, with the Giro entering the French Alps for a summit finish on the legendary Col du Galibier on stage 15, before ascending the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites on the penultimate stage.

Attacks will almost certainly be fired at Team Sky’s train of climbers, but whether they will be fruitful depends on the strength of Wiggins’ team of dedicated domestiques.

Colombian’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, the latter an Olympic road-race silver medallist, will provide the power when the gradients, biting the riders at close to 20% in some places, start to kick up.

Christian Knees, Konstantin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo will also assist Wiggins in the higher terrains as Sky look to control the pace at the front of the peloton in typically robust style.

The Giro will also take in the stunning views of the revered Passo dello Stelvio on stage 19, and this could be a perfect opportunity for Nibali to strike a telling blow to Wiggins’ hopes if he is fresh enough.

Nibali and Hesjedal, although seen as Wiggins’ main rivals, will not be the only threats with a number of dangerous riders also joining the peloton.

Australian rider Cadel Evans, who has battled a debilitating virus for the past season, will be aiming for a top five finish at least with his BMC squad, while Spain’s Sami Sanchez is also a formidable climber.

Dark horses, and riders to watch for the future, include Mauro Santambrogio, who finished just behind fellow countryman Nibali in the recent Giro del Trentino and Holland’s Robert Gesink, who will be competing in his maiden Giro d’Italia.

Ivan Basso, a two-time Giro winner, will miss out owing to a buttock cyst, but Wiggins would have expected to beat the veteran Italian regardless of his injury.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish will spearhead the Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team as he goes in search of stage victories ahead of the Tour de France.

He will face competition from seasoned sprint rival Matt Goss and the electric John Degenkolb, who dominated the Vuelta a Espana sprint classification last season.

Other Britons include David Millar, who will work diligently for Hesjedal on the Garmin-Sharp team, the duo of Adam Blythe and Steve Cummings on Evans’ BMC squad, and the talented Alex Dowsett who will ride in support of 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo on the Movistar squad.

But the focus will undoubtedly be on the Wiggins, Nibali and Hesjedal fight at the pointy end of the race. All three riders look to be in peak form – with some tipping Hesjedal, who has impressed in the Spring classics this season, to retain his crown.

Wiggins, though, will be a prominent force in the time-trials and, if he can perform to the best of his abilities, may well have the race sewn up by the time the peloton rolls into the Alps during the second week.

His dream of emulating boyhood hero Miguel Indurain in standing on the top step of the podium in Brescia wearing the famous maglia rosa could not be closer and a victory in this illustrious race would unquestionably move the popular Briton a step closer to cycling immortality.