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Battle for the Giro Throne: All the Teams and Contenders!

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Our annual roundup of teams, what they're in for, and the contenders for the maglia rosa... plus a very unexpected guest!

Scott Mitchell

Welcome to our Teams and Favorites combo post! The Giro is fast approaching, and as much fun as it is to joke around with our usual Giro related foolishness I think this year we have an unusually strong, deep and intriguing field, so let's get straight down to... oh. Oh great.

Girbecco ghost 2

"You killed me!!!"

[Sigh.] It's Girbecco's ghost. We didn't kill you. Someone zombified you, but that can only be another zombie, and anyway it was the race organization that replaced you with an idiotic wolf cub.

GG: "YOU KIIILLLLLLLED MEEEEEE!"

Honestly, did you really come all this way back from the dead to bore us with ghost cliches?

GG: "OKaaaayyy fine. I waaant to pick the winnerrrrr."

No problem. But I have to introduce them first. So can you sit your ghost ass down or whatever while I profile the contenders for this year's Giro d'Italia?

GG: "Sure, no problemoooooh."

Let's do this.

Various Tourists

Who: Nippo Fantini, Wilier Southeast, Gazprom

Every Giro features several Pro-Conti Italian teams, and at least one of them is for real, but these are the window dressing squads. Do either of these teams have a way to get attention from the home crowd? Grega Bole wins occasional sprints if there aren't enough of the other fastmen around. Pippo Pozzato was actually good at MSR, but has very little to offer in a grand tour. Damiano Cunego won the Giro twelve years ago, an increasingly amazing event. Gianfranco Zilioli might be a relative of Italo Zilioli.

One of the lone hopes is that Jakub Mareczko (Wilier) can hang with the big boys in the sprints. It will be by far the largest stage he's been on, but he beat Andre Greipel in Turkey last week, so maybe. And Pippo can do leadouts, right? I'm saying there's a chance. Eduard-Michel Grosu (Nippo) is in about the same category. Beyond that... Gonna be a long month.

I can't think of much to say about Gazprom. Alexandr Kolobnev can hang around the front of certain races still, since coming back from his very strange doping suspension. Sergey Firsanov was fourth in Trentino, the key indicator race, but I'm not prepared to bet on a 33-year-old Russian with no background in grand tours, not for the GC at least.

GG: "Don't sleeep on Firsanoooovvvv."

Fancy Tourists

Who: BMC, Dimension Data

Upscale versions of the previous category. Dimension Data have a nice story to tell, as usual, this time being a landmark for African team and rider participation in the Giro. And that's cool. But I don't have much to say about participation. Kanstantin Siutsou and Igor Anton lead the squad, and the former has a knack for getting his name mentioned at least. BMC's headliner is Alessandro De Marchi, a 30-year-old domestique, which is why I refuse to continue talking about them for now.

Stage-Hunters

Who: Bardiani, Etixx-Quick Step, FDJ, IAM Cycling, Lampre, Katusha, LottoNL-Jumbo, Trek

OK, now we get to the part of the preview consisting of teams that warrant at least a full paragraph.

Bardiani CSF

Key Riders: Stefano Pirazzi, Sonny Colbrelli, Nicola Boem, Giulio Ciccone

Outlook: Your annual Italian pro-conti team of consequence. It'd be a disappointment for more than a day or two to pass by without mentioning them, given the presence of a handful of minor victory contenders. Pirazzi is a borderline GC guy (let's say no for now) and a rider to watch on hilly stages. Colbrelli, the star, is a sprinter who can climb, which might put him in position for several stages that are sprintable but with obstacles. Boem won a lumpy stage from a breakaway last year (which means he probably won't again). Ciccone is a potential up-and-comer, and might be a distant relative of Madonna.

Etixx-Quick Step

Key Riders: Marcel Kittel, Bob Jungels, Carlos Verona, Gianluca Brambilla

Outlook: Kittel's interests are the main objective (and we'll cover the sprint scene separately), but Jungels is an obvious threat in a number of lumpy stages. Verona is a young guy (another subject for a separate post) who bears watching. Brambilla is more of a known entity at this point, someone who can put it all together and maybe threaten to crack the top ten. With luck. But Kittel's interests will likely suck up a lot of the team's energy, so I wouldn't get too excited about what else they can do until he goes home in week 2.

IAM Cycling

Key Riders: Matteo Pelucchi, Heinrich Haussler

Outlook: Sprints only. Well, Haussler could show up in some of the oddball stages, but since he's back on some form this year it'd be odd for a breakaway to drag him to the line. Pelucchi is one of those guys you'd never bet on in the Tour field of sprinters, but he can finish and maybe some home cooking for the Lombardian will be what he needs. Unlike Kittel, you'll see him busting for the line in Torino.

Katusha

Key Riders: Ilnur Zakarin, ... Ilnur Zakarin...

Outlook: Wow, these guys are really keeping their main riders under glass for the Tour, no? Even Jacopo Guarnieri, who'll be leading out Kristoff in July, didn't get the call. Zakarin is having a fantastic year, but he doesn't have much of a track record in the three-week events, so I'll tamp down my enthusiasm there for now. I'm sure he'll be seen around, just not every day.

Lampre

Key Riders: Diego Ulissi, Sacha Modolo

Outlook: Is Ulissi Elite? Not to Flacco the guy, but I guess it's at least fun to contemplate whether the Super Tuscan can actually put together a three-week campaign of climbing excellence. He has zero track record and hasn't given off any sign of interest, which is why Lampre reside firmly in the stage-hunters bin. Modolo will certainly be in the mix for sprints.

Lotto-Soudal

Key Riders: Tim Wellens, Andre Greipel

Outlook: For the same reason as Ulissi, I can't let Wellens' presence trick me into calling them a GC team. Frankly, it's a bit odd he's here, though someone has to be, and maybe Lotto would like to see if Wellens can pull a Dumoulin and emerge from one-week/one-day excellence into grand tour relevance. It's a tall order, though only slightly taller than asking Greipel to salvage his rocky season against this year's sprint field.

LottoNL-Jumbo

Key Riders: Steven Kruijswijk, Moreno Hofland

Outlook: One of these two riders will save Lotto-Yumbo from total obscurity at the Giro -- the partially Dutch-based Giro -- and his name rhymes with shmoreno shmofland. Kruijswijk is coming off fifth at Yorkshire, so maybe he'll be a pleasant surprise.

GG: "No, he woooonnnn't."

What?

GG: "I know where Rabobank's soooooullll issssss."

Great, that's one conversation I don't want to have.

I Bigs

Who: AG2R, Astana, Cannondale, FDJ, Lotto Soudal, Movistar, Orica-GreenEdge, Giant-Alpecin, Sky, Tinkoff, Trek-Segafredo

OK, enough preamble. Time to dig into the GC contenders!

AG2R La Mondiale

Key Riders: Domenico Pozzovivo, Jean-Christophe Peraud

GC Outlook: Remember when JiCe Peraud came in second at the Tour de France? That was Awesome! It was also pretty late in his career, age 37, and two years ago. Still, when I go hunting around for evidence that I should dismiss him entirely from the top ten, I don't find it. He's a card to play, at least.

But the team's ambitions will center around the Professor, Domenico Pozzovivo. He too is getting long in the tooth (33 now), and like Peraud 2014 was his high water mark to date. But there he took fifth in a tough field at the Giro d'Italia, before returning to his more traditional DNF'ing ways. [Un-fun fact: Pozzovivo has gone home early in four of his nine Giro starts.]

The course is good for him, as Pozzovivo holds his own in time trials, particularly those that benefit climbers as the two main events of this Giro do. Really, it'll just all come down to a matter of pure quality. If it's there, and Pozzovivo is good for three weeks, he can win. His performance up to now says little about what's up with him this year, but there are no red flags either.

Anything Else? Nope. If AG2R had other cards to play, they'd probably hold them for July.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★

Astana

Key Riders: Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, Tanel Kangert, Michele Scarponi

GC Outlook: Nibali comes into the Giro as the top favorite, albeit not in a hands-down way. When he last won the Giro, his spring consisted of a string of convincing performances, wins in Tirreno-Adriatico and Trentino, whereas he's been rather quiet this year, by his standards anyway. But that's not out of line with the performance of a guy who's all-in for the Giro, as Nibali is this year.

The same could be said of his supporting cast. Kangert was second in Trentino, on time bonuses, with two stage wins. Scarponi, now 36, looked OK too, while Fuglsang took third behind Kangert. They could send a lot of guys up the road, and if their captain weren't Italy's only active former Tour winner, you might even believe they meant it.

If you're sold on Nibali regaining his top form, it's hard to look past him in this race. The descents will be meaningful in a couple stages, and his mental toughness should make a difference in the time trials. In 2013, he dominated the uphill ITT to completely nail down the overall win. It all seems tailor-made for a shark attack. If you're sold on his form.

Anything Else? Astana seem to like clogging the podium. Look for them to defend secondary placings if and when Nibali has enough of a lead.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Cannondale

Key Riders: Rigoberto Uran, Davide Formolo, Joe Dombrowski

GC Outlook: We've become so accustomed to ... shall we say "modest" GC intrigue at the Giro that it shouldn't take much to get you excited about this edition, and a fit Uran is a great place to start. The Colombian saw his string of second placings broken last year with a fade to 14th, and he's on his third team in four years, which is a little odd for a guy of his caliber. But the caliber is real, Uran is in his prime, and he should have some interesting support around him.

The GC guy-in-waiting is Davide Formolo, much touted after his stage win early on in last year's Giro, but more to the point he's a talented youngster (don't change Cannondale), and in his second Giro I guess we have no idea what to expect. It's been a quiet spring, so I wouldn't get terribly excited yet. I might say about the same for Joe Dombrowski, except Dombro won an excellent Tour of Utah last year and a GiroBio as a kid, but with a single Vuelta under his belt it's probably not time yet to dream of Grand Tour excellence.

That leaves Uran in a precarious position, at least compared to the guys he's trying to beat, who have teammates on hand whom you can expect to see near the front in week 3. Not that Cannondale don't have useful veterans (Cardoso, Simon Clarke), but they're clearly a cut below the Movistar, Astana and Sky support crews. Still, Uran thinks it's his best chance to win so far, and between the time trials and his experience, he may be right.

Anything Else? I certainly hope not. You can picture Navardauskas bombing the opening ITT, which is fine, and they have guys like Moser who could go stage hunting, but after the last couple paragraphs Cannondale would be well served saving all of their matches to burn in week 3.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

GG: "A lot of us are big on Formolooooooohhh."

Us? You're polling the dead?

GG: "Yeeessss."

Um, can I ask, are Fausto and Gino friends up there?

GG: "I can only find Ginoooooohhh."

Uh oh.

FDJ

Key Riders: Alexandre Geniez, Arnaud Demare

GC Outlook: Is there anything Demare, champion of Milano-Sanremo, can't do? I mean, a Frenchman winning in Italy is quite a precedent. Surely that gives inspiration to FDJ as they plot a high placing for Geniez. The 27-year-old Pyrenean is a pretty good fit for the Giro (and not the Tour), having ridden very consistently in the top 15 of every key stage last year, except the time trials, which will probably seal his doom again. (He also won the Tour de l'Ain, so yeah, he's for real.) In this crowded Giro, his chances aren't good, so I'll keep it brief with Geniez. Bonne chance.

Anything Else? Demare, of course, is a top sprint hopeful. I'm not an expert on domestique value but it looks like Demare might have more help from the team than Geniez.

Maglia Rosa Rating:

GG: "A French winnerrrrr? Over my dead... never miiiinnnnd".

Movistar

Key Riders: Alejandro Valverde, Carlos Betancur, Andrey Amador, Giovanni Visconti

GC Outlook: Valverde comes into this Giro with measures of form and purpose that we've pretty much never seen before (in Italy). He's won a couple mini Spanish tours, plus Fleche Wallonne, and generally looked like his old self. Except his old self has never, not even once, shown up for the Giro d'Italia. That is remarkable enough (if also maybe of a piece with the details of his old doping case, which was pressed on the UCI by Italian investigators). But he's here now... maybe not for vengeance -- seems like a mild-mannered personality -- but to win regardless.

I'm no longer too sure about how to characterize his strengths, except that he is pretty good at everything, including hanging on into the final stages of a three week race without blowing up. That alone makes him a threat at this arduous Giro, and his performance in the Alps last year at the Tour bodes well too. His bike handling ability should keep him out of trouble, and his ability to sprint at the end of stages will benefit him in a race that still gives out time bonuses.

And then there's his team, a tough, dynamic, veteran group where nobody will be questioning his leadership (though Amador, fourth in last year's Giro and strong against the watch, will be ready to take over if need be). Betancur remains a wild card but appears to be on form, and assuming he's mentally ready for this, it's an excellent, low-stress chance to rehabilitate his career. Visconti always does his job very well. Always.

Anything Else? JJ Rojas for a few sprints? Oh and...

A side note about Betancur: I have been moved by the revelation that he has been battling depression. The news is a little imprecise, and what exactly was going on with Betancur the last few years isn't knowable to me, but if we are talking real depression? Think about it -- he leaves Colombia to sign with a team in France, 4500 miles away, where the language and the cultural barriers are substantial. He's a pro cyclist, where his failures are all televised and analyzed ad nauseum. And his body is the subject of a LOT of discussion, since the sport requires you to be rail thin. Is there a worse setup than that for someone who has depression?

Proceeding on the assumption that he did, and this wasn't just an excuse, all the bizarre behavior -- eating too much, refusing to leave home -- makes so much sense. He must have felt terribly isolated, even if AG2R knew his condition and tried hard to help him. By appearances AG2R seemed miffed, which suggests they didn't understand, but for all we know they just put stuff out there because privacy concerns prevented them from saying more. Who knows?

All I do know is that Movistar, a Spanish team in language and culture (and featuring Winner Anacona and the Quintana brothers from back home), would be maybe the only appropriate place for Betancur to reach his potential, surrounded by people he can talk to and possibly feel relaxed around. Whatever is going on, it's currently working. He's back on form, back to fulfilling some or all of his potential (we'll see). What that is, we shall see, but he was fifth in the Giro at age 23, and he's only 26. I'm totally rooting for him.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Orica-GreenEdge

Key Riders: Esteban Chaves, Amets Txurruka, Ruben Plaza

GC Outlook: Chaves comes in as a slightly more interesting Geniez, having taken fifth in the Vuelta last fall and looking like the maturing version of the guy who won the Tour de l'Avenir as youngster. His terrible ITT record is misleading, since the Colombiano was decent in the Vuelta's main crono, racing for his GC place for the first time in a grand tour (he led the race for a week early on). Like the kid he is, he tailed off late, but that was September of a season when he did a Giro-Vuelta double, his first time putting two grand tours on his schedule. And having done a Giro means a lot too. Conclusion? It's nearly impossible to set either a floor or a ceiling on this guy. Support is mostly B-list climbers, but Plaza is dependable and Txurruka a veteran hand.

Anything Else? Caleb Ewan for stage sprints. Even greener than Chaves.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★

Giant-Alpecin

Key Riders: Tom Dumoulin, Nikias Arndt

GC Outlook: Lots of buzz around Doom as he kicks off his Giro campaign a short drive from his Limburg home. Voices are calling Dumoulin and this time trial-laden course "a possible perfect match." And I agree, he is a perfect match for the time trials. The problem is, the final week won't involve any time trialling. It's up and over some of the highest roads in Europe, and while after the 2015 Vuelta you wouldn't bet your life against him, he's not on my short list of guys you think could win on the Alpine stages. Oh, and he'll have very little team support. I love rooting for the guy, but that's not enough of a reason to put him as anything more than a secondary favorite. He might grab the jersey early on, but he Dumoulin probably won't be the cream that rises up on this Giro in the end.

Anything Else? Arndt is another B-list type in the sprints, but could stick around and surprise some guys. Chad Haga's return to racing after being one of the most serious victims of a wayward British tourist's car is a welcomed sign.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★

Sky

Key Riders: Mikel Landa, Nic Roche, Mikel Nieve, Elia Viviani

GC Outlook: Landa comes in as probably the second-most-attractive favorite, after finishing third last year behind his teammate Fabio Aru (and bagging two stages), then getting hired by Sky to be a captain and ride for himself. It all sets up nicely -- the still-young Basque rider freed from the Astana logjam, given a nice veteran team of support and the resources of Sky backing him up. Sure, the Giro hasn't been much of an objective for the team since Bradley Wiggins came calling (briefly), and sure there's a lot of pressure that comes with his new status. And sure, he faces off against one guy who's won all three grand tours and another guy who's won everything but the Giro and Tour. It won't be easy.

And the main obstacle is probably the prevalence of time trials. It'll be very, very interesting to see what Landa can do against the watch, particularly since both of the longer ITTs involve hills. It's too easy to look at his record and shake your head; these are different animals, or at least the last one certainly is. Also, while Landa's support is decent, he won't have the type of teammate that can scare others into chasing him; more just helping hands up and over the hills.

It's hard to imagine him dominating the race, whereas it's certainly easier to imagine Nibali or Valverde taking charge. If Landa is to win, it may have to be from behind, over the final Alpine stages. Heck, I'm not even sure those climbs are good for him, since he's spent so little time in the region, never having arrived at the Tour. But he served notice on his rivals a year ago, and it'd be foolish to downgrade him for any reason.

Anything Else? Viviani is a good stage sprinter for a GC team, needing little help to maybe eek out a win or two.

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Tinkoff

Key Riders: Rafal Majka, Matteo Tosatto

GC Outlook: Majka will be a one-man show, though sometimes it's OK for a secondary favorite to hang around if the other favorites are too focused on each other. Majka, third in the 2015 Vuelta and sixth in the 2014 Giro (plus a heralded off-the-beach run into the maillot-a-pois), is hard to predict, but I appreciate his show of consistency in Spain last summer as well as his occasional stage glories in glorious places like Risoul and Pla d'Adet.

Wait, Risoul? [Checks Garibaldi...] Aha! So maybe he'll get lots of attention in week three after all. Anyway, this has to be a make-or-break moment for Majka's career, no? I don't have any insider sources at Tinkoff, so make of this what you will, but he's in his prime, he's piling up results just shy of headline-grabbing levels, and his team is in a tremendous state of flux. He can't have Tour leadership as long as Contador is around, but that's July of this year, and that's it. Will Tinkoff or its successor hand the mantle to the Pole? Or another team maybe? Depends. A second grand tour podium in succession would suggest yes. Falling out of contention early on would suggest inconsistency, and no big payday (for now). It's all there waiting for Majka. Too bad he won't have any help in trying to take the next step.

Anything Else? Hm, Matteo Tosatto will celebrate his 42nd birthday in the middle of the Giro. Yay?

Maglia Rosa Rating: ★ ★ ★

Trek-Segafredo

Key Riders: Ryder Hesjedal, Giacomo Nizzolo, Fabian Cancellara

GC Outlook: Hey, Canada's only Giro winner is back for another stab at it, and with his time trial pedigree and sneaky-good run last year into the top ten, I felt compelled to add him to the GC discussion. And now I have done so. I can't tell you anything more about what to expect from Hesjedal, except that he's been very quiet this spring. But hey, I know that as you get older it can take a little more time to get going.

Anything Else? Um yeah. Cancellara is a strong bet to hold the maglia rosa all the way into Italy, if he can put enough seconds between himself and the top sprinters for when the bonus seconds start rolling in. Nizzolo is one of them, but hardly top for this field. He might score in Torino though.

Maglia Rosa Rating:

And In The End...

This is as tough a Giro to call as we've seen in a while. But here are my top five, in order.

  1. Nibali
  2. Valverde
  3. Chaves
  4. Uran
  5. Landa

What say ye?

GG: "I've taken a poooooollllll. It says Nibaliiiii can't loooooose."

Good to know. Any, um, deals we should know about?

GG: "Not yeeeeet... but Tinkoff says he will price his soul to moooooove."

What a shock. OK, chime in folks.