In 2008, anticipation of the Giro d'Italia centered largely on the course, which cobbled several of the country's most notorious inclines into one hell of a challenging race. But the riders make the race, and that's where this Giro retreated from legend to something more ordinary. Mind you, it was a good race. But Damiano Cunego's decision to skip the Giro further diminished a thin home field. Then Alberto Contador's Tour exclusion set off a chain reaction of events that ended with the defending Tour champ in Palermo. Contador then reeled off a methodical, unspectacular overall victory, thanks to or in spite of minimal preparation. Add in some behavior by the purported heroes of the race that was later confirmed as suspicious, and you've got a great course playing host to a forgettable race.
But if the Giro ran third in overall competition quality among grand tours, that's about to change. While we don't know exactly how the course will unfold, it appears we might see one of the best fields in recent history at the centenary Giro. Lance Armstrong is going all-in. Ivan Basso is coming back. Cunego has reverted back to his old Giro focus (for now). And now you can probably add Carlos Sastre to the startlist. Undoubtedly there are plenty of others (Pellizotti, DiLuca, maybe Thomas Dekker??) who'll eventually sign up, meaning we could be in for a much more memorable, competitive Giro next spring.
Of course, big names don't necessarily mean big efforts. With the exception of the Italians, plenty of top names make a show of coming to Italy only to treat the race as conditioning. Sastre is a top candidate to "just get in some race miles," for example. But there are two factors which could upend the conventional wisdom. First, it's the centenary Giro, a special event, which as we saw in the 2003 Tour tends to give the riders a little extra motivation. Secondly, Contador's return to the Tour (and possible Vuelta defense) may make the Giro the only place where a top-flight grand tour contender will have an actual shot at winning. I'm not sure how much they care to admit it, but riders have seen enough of the Accountant at this point to gauge their chances against him in a three-week race. And it ain't pretty. As soon as they write off the Tour, the Giro will become the place to be, and to race hard.