The first Grand Tour of the year is nearly upon us. Three weeks of racing in some of the most challenging mountains in Europe will ultimately decide the winner in Milan on May 31, but will it be who everyone is expecting?

The Italian race has a history of producing some fascinating storylines, be it a dark horse storming to victory or a local team racking up the stage wins. Here are just five things to look out for over the course of the 21 stages.

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Unheralded General Classification contenders

Fabio Aru wins stage eleven of the 2014 Tour of Spain (Watson)

Fabio Aru wins stage eleven of the 2014 Tour of Spain (Watson)

Relatively regularly the Giro throws up an unlikely winner, be it Ryder Hesjedal in 2012 or Denis Menchov in 2009, the parcours is relentless enough to make it virtually impossible to predict who will fare well.

While the names of Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Rigoberto Uran are on everyone’s lips when discussing Giro favourites, there is always room for someone to sneak into pink on the final climb.

Astana’s Fabio Aru is one of the riders tipped to impress on home soil once more, having finished third in last year’s race. The 24-year-old Borat lookalike is living off a pretty limited palmares, but one that sets him out to be a surefire GC contender in the Grand Tours.

His short history of Grand Tour time trials isn’t up there with the likes of Uran, Porte and Contador, but at the same time it’s not horrendous. But losing nearly three minutes to Uran in last year’s 42km test doesn’t bode well for this year’s monstor 59.4km one.

Aru has also been ill in recent weeks, forcing him out of the Tour of Romandie, although Lotto-Soudal’s Greg Henderson was dubious of the legitimacy of Aru’s ailments.

Movistar, meanwhile, have placed their faith in Beñat Intxausti – a former top-10 Giro finisher – and provided the Spaniard with a pretty strong team.

Igor Anton and Ion Izagirre could easily lead the team in their own right, while Dayer Quintana can follow in his brother’s footsteps and conquer the mountains, but rides this time in support of a teammate.

Ryder Hesjedal looks as though he may be past it now, but who knows what memories will be evoked on the Italian roads, while Domenico Pozzovivo is also a strong contender for a high finish.

The battle of the minnows

Xu Gang before stage three of the 2014 Tour of Beijing

Xu Gang before stage three of the 2014 Tour of Beijing

The smaller countries of the cycling world are out in force at this year’s Giro, with no fewer than 36 nations represented by at least one rider.

Chinese rider Cheng Ji has had the dubious honour of finishing last in both Grand Tours he has completed thus far. Although, saying that, it’s a remarkable achievement for anyone to even get to the end of a three week race, let alone when they’re a combined 10-and-a-half hours down on the overall winners.

But Cheng may have a few rivals this year, with fellow Chinese Gang Xu being named in the Lampre-Merida squad off the back of helping Kristijan Durasek to the Tour of Turkey title.

Lampre seem to be one of the main protagonists of diversity this season, sending an Argentinian (Ariel Maximiliano Richeze) and an Ethiopian (Tsgabu Grmay) in their ranks.

Central America is relatively well represented in the form of Southeast’s Panamanian Ramon Carretero and Costa Rican Grand Tour veteran Andrey Amador lining up.

Then there’s Southeast’s Eugert Zhupa, representing Albania. Anyone who can finish 23rd in a gale-force Ghent-Wevelgem, like Zhupa did this season, instantly gains my respect.

Scarcity of sprinters

Andre Greipel wins Stage 4 of the 2015 Tour of Turkey

Andre Greipel wins Stage 4 of the 2015 Tour of Turkey

It’s odd to see a Giro d’Italia with so few world class sprinters on the starting line. Previous years have treated us to the likes of Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel starting (if not finishing), but this time the only real elite out-and-out fast man is Andre Greipel.

Sure, last year’s pink jersey wearer Michael Matthews is back, but he’s more in the Peter Sagan style of sprinting – competing in stages where there’s a few hills and picking up sprint points along the way.

Matthews’ fellow Australian Heinrich Haussler will be looking for wins on the flat stages, as will Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari.

Movistar’s Juan Jose Lobato started the season very strongly, with wins in Australia and the Ruta del Sol, but has hardly raced in March and April, so he may not be in prime condition to challenge.

Is Davide Appollonio still fast? Or Giacomo Nizzolo? Luka Mezgec? Your guess is as good as mine.

The massive time trial

Rigoberto Uran on stage six of the 2015 Tour de Romandie

Rigoberto Uran on stage six of the 2015 Tour de Romandie

At 59.4km the stage 14 time trial is the longest test against the clock since…oh, 2009. It’s not that long ago really, is it? The top three back then reads like a who’s who of dodgy customers, with Denis Menchov, Levi Leipheimer and Stefano Garzelli standing on the podium that day.

Giro organisers love a ludicrously long time trial. So much so that this one threatens to be so long that some of the GC contenders could find themselves minutes behind.

The likes of Uran and Porte have proven themselves in chronos in recent years, while Contador’s testing star seems to be fading. Even so, the Spaniard’s ability on two wheels mean he can’t be ruled out on the stage.

There’s a few hills in there as well, which can make it better or worse, depending on how you look at it. I’m no time triallist, but it can’t be easy to ride a TT bike up a hill. But on the other hand the descents allow the rider a little time to recover, which will be vital over 60km.

My tip, and I know you are after it, is for Rigoberto Uran to come away the winner on the day. I’ll take a cut of your winnings, but I accept no responsibility for any losses…

Mountain madness

Alberto Contador in pink on the Colle delle Finistre in 2011 (Watson)

Alberto Contador in pink on the Colle delle Finistre in 2011 (Watson)

Like a long time trial, the Giro organisers love a good mountain – the harder the better in their eyes.

They come thick and fast as well, none of this easy first week malarky we used to see in the Tour de France. The Giro contenders hit the big hills as early as stage five with the first summit finish to Abetone.

From then there’s five more mountain-top finishes before the finish, with the climb to Sestriere on stage 20 hopefully the one that will decides the overall winner.

Their love for a mountain is such that they don’t even care if the roads are paved, with the second half of the Colle delle Finestre, just before Sestriere, covered in gravel. As if the 13km at nine per cent gradient wasn’t enough, you also get hardly any traction on your back wheel.

It will all make for a great watch.

Cycling Weekly’s Giro d’Italia 2015 preview