The fat approaches the fire... it's almost showtime for one of the most spectacular Giri d'Italia of our time, at least from a pre-view. Will the riders make the race? Here's a thumbnail guide, in no particular order, to the aces you may see played over the next three-and-a-half weeks:
Stefano Garzelli, Acqua e Sapone
Strenghts: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Excellent nose for the line.
Weaknesses: Some days he climbs like an angel, but there are too many other days, especially in the higher mountains. Also, his time trialing is only adequate when the road goes up.
Why he could win: Struggling to think of something, other than that he did once before, in a galaxy far, far away.
Why he won't: The Giro isn't a one-day climbing race from the Italian national calendar.
Don't worry, it gets more interesting... on the flip. [update: Now! with 100% more Sastre!]
Lance Armstrong, Astana
Strenghts: Honestly, at this point it's a little hard to tell, since he has not shown himself in these kinds of races in a long, long time. However, Lance has always had the whole package, not to mention the experience and killer instinct. Like him or not, he's the greatest grand tour performer of our lifetime. [Except maybe Hinault.]
Weaknesses: The obvious, age, lack of race miles, and the hit to his fitness from his collarbone break.
Why he could win: History has known few riders more equipped to blow doors on a stage like the Cinque Terre time trial.
Why he won't: I just don't think he's at full strength, and he will likely defer to Leipheimer's objectives.
Levi Leipheimer, Astana
Strenghts: He's probably the favorite (among the heads of state) for the Cinque Terre ITT. His climbing ranges from the occasional inexplicable failure to generally solid and occasionally spectacular. Exactly what kinds of climbs suit which riders is the kind of detail I can't quite get my head around, but Levi has had good success in the Pyrenees over the years (as opposed to the Alps), and the Giro climbs are not quite Alps material.
Weaknesses: The occasional jour sans, and his tendency to hold back until July... and by that I mean the last three stages of the Tour.
Why he could win: If he is at his peak, Levi could easily blast the ITT and follow wheels the rest of the race, and just salt it away in the final ride to Rome. Basso will do his best to break Levi on the climbs, but the American has a great support network with him in Italy, and Basso himself is a bit of an unknown quantity.
won'tmight not: Actually, I think he will. But if he doesn't, it's because he can't get a large enough advantage in the crono, and he has one bad day on a climb someplace.
Jani Brajkovic, Astana
Strenghts: The whole package, to some degree. I touted him last week.
Weaknesses: Inexperience. He has a couple Vueltas under his belt, but none with any pressure, save for a brief moment in Gold. His climbing is unproven at the truly highest heights, though I'm not sure this particular course would be a problem. I wouldn't have loved his chance in the original Cuneo-Pinerolo stage though.
Why he could win: Because Astana have so many weapons, teams like Liquigas will have to decide which attacks they chase. With all the attention on Lance (and the real threat in Levi), it's possible that a Brajkovic acceleration would be one more than they could cover. Give Jani some time in hand and a strong crono, and he just might pull it off.
Why he (probably) won't: Because Levi will. But I would pencil him into the top ten, almost anywhere.
David Arroyo, Caisse d'Epargne
Strenghts: Steady climber of the Pyrenean variety. From his results I would guess that he doesn't favor the most extreme ascents, but this Giro isn't a true mountain goat affair. He was tenth in the Giro two years ago. That was even less of a climber's race, I'd say, but then as Jens recently pointed out, Arroyo is at his peak age and increasingly free to ride for himself. He should have a very useful team at his disposal too.
Weaknesses: Time trialing. He's not bad in the uphill variety, so I doubt he'll lose six minutes in the Cinque Terre stage. But he won't be among the favorites. Not sure how he'll take to team leadership in a grand tour, though Caisse d'Epargne are a bit under the radar at the Giro, compared to the other two mega-Tours.
Why he could win: Stealth. Steady performance. Not a bad course for him. There aren't many riders in the race who do everything well.
Why he won't: He has to be considered a longshot for a podium, even though he's almost certain to be hanging around. Just doesn't stand out enough in the climbs.
David Zabriskie, Garmin
Strenghts: One of the world's top time trialists over all types of terrain, and a pretty fair climber.
Weaknesses: There is a difference between fair and great, and this Giro will be just climby enough to tease out that difference.
Why he could win: He has a solid team for the opening cronosquadro and could put some time into the field; defend over the first-week climbs, and extend his lead in the Cinque Terre stage... then hang on for dear life.
Why he won't: Just because I can dream it doesn't make it true. I think his deficits in places like Sestriere and the Block Haus will overwhelm his advantages in the time trial. And I wouldn't place him ahead of Levi in the cronos either.
Damiano Cunego, Lampre
Strenghts: Former winner. Beloved son of Italy. Climbs pretty well over much of the terrain we will see in this race.
Weaknesses: There are certainly a few places where the climbs are likely to be a bit more than his liking. As for his time trialing, it's possible that he has improved, as his first Tour ITT showed last year. But he has had some truly abysmal rides against the watch over the years.
Why he could win: In Italy, anything can happen if you just try your best. Seriously, when he won in 2004 it was over a middlin' field and on a course similar to 2007, not a real climbers' course. This isn't exactly a climbers' course, and as I said maybe he can surprise us all in the crono.
Why he won't: Aren't we done with the whole Cunego-can-win-a-Grand-Tour thing? Maybe not, but it will take a gentler course than this one for him to thread the needle. I say he's in contention til the Block Haus, where his podium spot disappears.
Ivan Basso, Liquigas
Strenghts: Another former winner, albeit with some time in purgatory since then. Basso has long relied on his climbing ability, and showed that same winning form last week at the Giro del Trentino. He is an unknown quantity since his suspension, but if you believe he didn't really dope, then we are probably looking at the return of Italy's preeminent grand tour racer.
Weaknesses: His time trialing has never been spectacular. That said, the last time he rode one in the Giro, he took second (to, ahem, Ullrich), ahead of Marco Pinotti. Was that the real Basso? I guess we will know soon.
Why he could win: He is bringing a very strong team whose number one objective for the year (possibly ever) is to win this race. He may still be the best grand tour climber in attendance. He may solo away on the Block Haus to infinite glory.
won'tmight not: Leipheimer is a better time trialist and has just as good a team.
Franco Pellizotti, Liquigas
Strenghts: Also covered in a prior post, Pellizotti does everything pretty well. He doesn't get killed in the time trials, and won the Plan de Corones ITT at last year's Giro. He could also usually be seen in the wheels with the main guys, even over the Gavia-Mortirolo nightmare.
Weaknesses: Not sure what he's been up to this year, as he has few results. Otherwise, I don't really have much to put in here.
Why he could win: Like I said, the total package. He was fourth overall last year, and the guys who finished ahead of him are all gone or off form. So he's the incumbent, more or less.
Why he won't: Another candidate to drop a little time over the Cinque Terre stage, and not a great enough climber to make it up on the Block Haus. Then there's his illustrious teammate. I suspect Pellizotti is a true plan B, protected until the final selection, then he works for Ivan.
Danilo Di Luca, LPR
Strenghts: Di Luca is a true enigma. You want to just assume he can't hack it on the biggest climbs, but he is capable of surprises. Now, I know his performance and off-bkie history all raises the occasional eyebrow, but if you care to take his results at face value, he can hump it over a lot of climbs, save for the very worst, which aren't on the menu. As for his makeup, well, they don't call him the Killer for his hobbies.
Weaknesses: His weakness over the highest passes usually catches up to him somewhere over a three-week race. And if that doesn't snuff his hopes, his time trialing starts at thoroughly mediocre and only improves somewhat as the road goes up.
Why he could win: Di Luca has dedicated his effort over the next few weeks to his stricken home region of Abruzzo. [Full disclosure: my ancestral and namesake villages are both within an hour's pedaling from the epicenter of the devastating Abruzzo earthquake, so don't look for anything objective between here and the start of the Menchov section.] His motivation could be through the roof, particularly on the Block Haus climb, which is entirely in Abruzzo and actually passes through his hometown. Moreover, if Di Luca somehow hangs with the guys on the top of the leaderboard over the first half of the course (say, through some time bonuses and end-of-stage attacks), the third-week climbs are both at lower altitude, starting at sea level, and consist of home turf (Block Haus) or a good grade for him (Vesuvio). If the climbing on the Cinque Terre stage keeps him in contention, with his clever team it just might all come together for Il Killer.
Why he won't: A safer bet is that he starts the Block Haus with an eight minute deficit and rides for the heroic stage win, to get him up to maybe fifth place.
Denis Menchov, Rabobank
Strenghts: Time trialing in grand tours. Climbing when the climbs aren't too awful. Sound like a nice set of skills for this Giro?
Weaknesses: The highest climbs, particularly in the Alps, aren't his cup of tea.
Why he could win: Menchov has to be taken very, very seriously in this race, something fans don't often do (presumably the DS's are a little less skeptical). The guy was third in the Tour last year and fifth in the Giro. In the latter, he lost most of his deficit to Contador in the Plan de Corones time trial, plus a few seconds more here and there. Well, there is no off-the-charts climb in this race, though the Block Haus may well test his limits. Still, if he gets an advantage and can follow wheels over the last week, well, he's done it before in a three-week race, which is more than you can say for most of the guys on this list.
Why he probably won't: His team has some useful guys, but against the more threatening Astana and Liquigas teams I'd say he's slightly undermanned. I also think he will lose some important seconds in Cinque Terre. But he has a real chance.
Carlos Sastre, Cervélo Test Team
Strenghts: Classic mountain goat. Likes the hard climbs; loves the murderous ones.
Weaknesses: Mediocre against the watch, though he can surprise you when it's all on the line. Didn't I say he was a classic mountain goat?
Why he could win: Anybody who wins the Tour de France can win the Giro d'Italia, in theory. He is probably the best pure climber in the competition, and that always counts for something. If he came out swinging in week one, he could get a gap on the field and hold on.
Why he (probably) won't: Aside from motivations, which I assume point him toward the other two Grand Tours first, I would say Carlos and Menchov are peas of the same pod. Both men are legitimate contenders for every grand tour they have entered since Lance's initial retirement, and each has won on occasion: Menchov two Vueltas, Sastre one sweet merciful Tour (and a couple Vuelta podia). In both cases, they routinely do NOT win grand tours unless and until it suits their abilities to a T -- but in each case they are capable of sealing the deal when the conditions are right for them. This Giro isn't right for Carlos, ergo he won't win. It's right for Menchov, almost, so we'll see about that.
Michele Scarponi, Serramenti
Strenghts: A little of this, a little of that. He's sort of Garzelli, only younger and more competent against the watch.
Weaknesses: Scarponi, coming off suspension, has very little grand tour experience at the top levels, so all of this is a bit unknown. He showed great instinct to win the Tirreno-Adriatico, but Italy's second-biggest stage race is worlds apart from its first-rate one.
Why he could win: Serramenti are competent, and the course doesn't contain the type of legendary high-altitude climbs about which I would be particularly dubious. He also has a famous multiple-Giro-winning teammate to distract the other teams. Scarponi should hang around.
Why he won't: Again, his entire makeup for this race is a mystery to me. When is the last time he did a three-week stage race? 60km ITT? etc. My guess is that if Simoni isn't at his best, the team will rally around Scarponi's ascension up the GC.
Gilberto Simoni, Serramenti
Strenghts: Climber. Probably the most experienced Giro champion in the race. On the toughest climbs, Simoni will be there. He tends to peak in week three, like a good veteran, but he's been going very well lately, presumably with those first few stages around Trento (his home region) and Switzerland in mind.
Weaknesses: Age, which is slowly eroding his ability to stay with the big boys for all three weeks. He bled time on a couple of mountain stages last year, though he peaked for the Gavia-Mortirolo stage. Time trialing is something of a struggle, though like most of the contenders a hillier event might be just fine for Gibo.
Why he could win: He's done it before.
Why he won't: A while ago, over inferior competition and courses featuring more extreme climbing.
Kanstantin Sivtsov, Columbia
Strenghts: All-rounder. Definitely a competent time trialist. Solid team around him.
Weaknesses: He probably won't make up time in places like the Block Haus. I don't know his every move but I picture him as good-not-great on the big climbs. He also possesses very little experience as a team leader and in grand tours, let alone both.
Why he could win: Might grab the first maglia rosa. Might hang on more tenaciously than expected.
Why he won't: I don't see him benefiting from the Block Haus. More likely scenario is that he drops some time at Alpe di Suisi, claws some back in the big crono, then tries to stop from sliding out of the top ten.
Juan Mauricio Soler, Barloworld
Strenghts: Climbs like an angel.
Weaknesses: Time trials like a pedestrian
Why he could win: A massive escape in the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage, where he slips away while the favorites are staring at each other. Then he gives some time back in the crono -- but not as much as expected. Going into the Block Haus he has as twelve second lead on Basso and 35" on Leipheimer and Menchov. They try to weaken him on the Block Haus, but it's mostly a flat run to the bottom of the climb, where Soler gets out of his saddle, violently pumps his legs a few dozen times, and is never seen again.
Why he won't: This is not a reality-based scenario. Just a really cool one.
OK, time for some picks. I will guess that the first week will offer little in the way of separation. The climbs are tough enough, but Alpe di Suisi is so early, that the favorites are reluctant to attack. And on the Cuneo-Pinerolo stage, the Sestriere climb eliminates a few of the good-not-great climbers (coughCunegocough) but not enough.
This makes the Cinque Terre stage hyper-critical, and Leipheimer and Menchov gain precious time over their rivals, which they hold to the bottom of the Block Haus. There, Basso accelerates, with some assistance from Pellizotti and shadowed by several others. Menchov drops off the pace but Leipheimer does not. In the end Menchov claws back almost to the lead group, time he makes up in the final ITT. Leipheimer holds the jersey all the way to Rome. My podium:
- Levi Leipheimer
- Denis Menchov
- Ivan Basso
Girbecco says: Two foreigners atop the Centenary Giro? What's Italian for "epic fail"?