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.
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.
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.
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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