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Giro d'Italia Contenders - Who Has the Climbing Legs?

Giro-main_mediumThe Giro is coming! Yes, although it may be hard to believe, the Giro d'Italia 2012 begins on Saturday with a prologue in the Danish city of Herning. As we start to gear up in excitement for the spectacle of the Giro we start to think about how the race might play out. Who might we see on the podium at the end of the race? Who will implode in the final week, and who will sparkle?

The roster for this year's Giro points to an open race, especially once the road begins to tilt uphill in the second and third weeks. Follow below for a look at the likely contenders for the overall podium in Milan...

With this year's course, the way in which the Giro will be won is by being up front in the mountain stages, putting some time into rivals there, and avoiding embarrassment in the TTT and TT. And generally, we can narrow the contenders for overall glory down to a list of eight riders, the majority of which populated the top ten at the end of last year's race.

  1. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale)
  2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)
  3. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha)
  4. John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale)
  5. Roman Kreuziger (Astana)
  6. Frank Schleck (Radioshack - Nissan)
  7. Dominico Pozzovivo (Colnago - CSF Inox)
  8. José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli)

Climbing Chops

If there is one thing the Giro organizers love... it's hills. Mountains, to be more specific. And while the era of the ridiculous climbing stages may be over, this is still the Giro and the riders still have to go up the Mortirolo and the Stelvio... in the same day. Not to mention the summit finishes in Cervinia on Stage 14 and Stage 17, which goes over the Giau shortly before the finish line. And the other climbing stages...

So, basically, one must be able to go uphill rather fast to have a shot at the overall classification of the Giro. And how do our contenders rank?

If he were in his prime, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) would be a good pick. He is not explosive, but he can diesel well enough to hang with the best... or even drop them. But Basso's form is a big question mark this year. Romandie is the first stage race he has finished all season and he appeared to be lacking form then. In fact, his climbing domestique par excellence Sylvester Smyd looked excellent at Romandie with a top-ten finish overall. Might this be the year Smyd has a chance to go for his own glory? Odds are he'll lose some time pacing Ivan early, but it is a nice thought to entertain...

Michele Scarponi is also an excellent climber of the diesel type. He looked second only to Alberto Contador last year, and that is quite the compliment. He may not launch searing attacks, but he will slowly burn lesser riders off his wheel as the road steepens. Kreuziger is the same, though without the same level of class.

Then we have the pure climbers - Rodriguez, Schleck, Gadret, Pozzovivo, and Rujano. They will be licking their chops at the prospect of the mountain finishes, especially the Stelvio. But at the same time, they will be saddened to see a more balanced route than has prevailed in years past. If he is on form - and he appears to be, based on his win at Fleche Wallone - Joaquim Rodriguez is my bet to make some big moves in the mountains. Pozzovivo has shown glimpses of promise in years past and took commanding stage and overall victories at the Giro del Trentino in late April. In the same race, Rujano was close to the lead group on the final stage - a mountaintop finish - but was considerably further behind the day prior when Pozzovivo won.

The interesting wild card is Frank Schleck, who was added to Radioshack's roster at the last minute but has the climbing pedigree to blow the race apart... if he is on form. Will he be, since he has openly been targeting the Tour all season? I think not, but he always seems to fight, so I expect to see him near the front on most stages.

Time Trialing Embarrassment?

The Giro will not be won in time trials. It could, however, be lost there. There are three tests against the clock in this year's race - an 8.7km prologue, a 33.2km team time trial on stage 4, and a 30.1km individual time trial on the final stage. Any strong time trial rider on a squad full of fast roulers could gain time... but not enough to withstand the onslaught that will be released by half a dozen Italian climbers once the roads tilt uphill. But a climber who does a poor TT could lose a podium spot, or even the lead, on the final stage. Plus, going into the mountains over a minute down already thanks to a bad TTT is a position nobody wants to be in.

Because this is the Giro and there are a number of pure climbers, there is a high possibility of TT embarrassments. Who, you ask?

First, the TTT. Liquigas, Radioshack, and Lampre are likely to turn in the best times here. The worst? My bets are on Colnago-CSF, Katusha, and AG2R. They all lost 28+ seconds to Liquigas in last year's first stage, a TTT of only 19.3km. Add an extra 14km and things start to get interesting. The team to watch is Astana, which put in a deplorable TTT last year but is generally better.

Of the general contenders, Roman Kreuziger is the strongest time trialist. While not a specialist, he can go top ten on the final stage, which is more than Rujano and the others can say. Michele Scarponi is also underrated against the clock and likely to put time into other contenders here; he only lost 18 seconds to Kreuzinger in last year's final TT. In 2011, Scarponi put close to two minutes into the likes of Rujano, Rodriguez, and Gadret in the final time trial, which was a 4km shorter. If he comes into the final stage anywhere near the lead, expect Scarponi to take the win. The same could be said for Kreuziger, but he is not as likely to be sitting within a minute of the lead.

The majority of the top five in the general classification will come down to who has merely a bad TT instead of a horrible one. And really, it's hard to predict this because it has more to do with who has more left in the tank at the end of three difficult weeks. But going out on a limb, I'd expect Frank Schleck to have the least deplorable TT of all the pure climbers. The worst? Rujano.

Staying Power

Winning a grand tour is not the same as winning a week long stage race - we all know this. And when the most difficult stages are back-loaded in the final week, as they are in this year's Giro, having the resilience to not only survive but thrive in the final week is crucial. This is where the younger riders like Pozzovivo are hurt. Basso and Scarponi are likely to improve as the race goes on, as is Schleck. But the chances of Pozzovivo, Rodriguez, and Rujano starting to blow hot and cold in the third week are considerably higher. Advantage to the diesels.

Where does this leave us?

Really, it is hard to look past Scarponi for the win this year. Unless Basso or Kreuziger magically discover some extra fast, that is. As for the remainder of the podium spots, I can see Gadret moving up from his fourth (later moved to third after Contador's disqualification) from last year and Kreuzinger finally confirming the promise he has hinted at for years.

What do you think? Podium predictions, please! Or, even better, top 5, plus one surprise for the top 10 overall!