With 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso suspended after his confessions relating to his link with blood-doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval) and Paolo Savoldelli (Astana) are now favourites to win the Giro d?Italia and pull on the coveted pink leader’s jersey in Milan on June 3.
All three are previous winners and have the ability to perform consistently well over the three weeks and especially in the mountains. Savoldelli may struggle on the uphill finishes to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and Monte Zoncolan but he has the stage race experience and time trialing ability to pull back some time in the last time trial to Verona.
Other contenders – at least for a spot on the podium, if not the top step – are Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), Discovery Channel?s new team leader Yaroslav Popovych, and Tour de France king of the mountains Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), if he decides to finish the race.
Fifty of the 198 starters in this year?s race are under 25 and race organisers hope they fight for the white jersey and create an open race. Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems) are all favourites for the special white jersey, and Nibali and Ricco could even repeat the 1994 feat of Evgeni Berzin, who won both the white and pink jerseys.
Battle of the fastmen
The sprint stages will provide the early entertainment with Alessandro Petacchi and his Milram lead-out train facing some serious competition from Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and JJ Haedo (CSC). Petacchi is still not back to best after breaking his kneecap early in last year?s Giro but recently won three stages and the overall classification of the Tour of Lower Saxony in Germany.
World champion Paolo Bettini has been given race number one. The Quick Step rider has been training at home in Tuscany since the Ardennes classics and will lead the attacks in the hilly stages during the first week in search of stage wins and perhaps even a few days in the pink jersey.
There are two British riders in the Giro: Steve Cummings and Italian-based Charly Wegelius. Cummings is hoping to get in breaks and help Yaroslav Popovych at Discovery Channel, while Wegelius will again provide vital support to his Liquigas team leader Di Luca in the key mountain stages.
Despite recent heart problems which saw him in hospital for five days, British Discovery Channel directeur sportif Sean Yates will be in the team car.