I wrote this article in the late morning hours of Monday from a wonderful room looking into the great rock wall of mountains that forms the southernmost tip of the Dolomiti. Life was good. I wrote the following words with nary a thought to anything other than who would win the Giro - what else could be more important than that? We’re talking about the Giro, right? I sent in the piece, happy to be done, then turned to the Giro’s third stage, moments later, the article I had just finished seemed completely pointless.
It’s hard to imagine that racing will begin anew. It’s hard to believe that the show will go on.
So with a deep breath and continued support for Wouter, his family, friends, and teammates, let’s take a look forward, to the mountains, to the decisive stages that lie waiting for the mourning riders, race, and cycling supporters the world over.
When talking about Grand Tours, you absolutely can't take half a breath before settling on to the topic of Mr. Alberto Contador.
The embattled superstar, whose fate will be decided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport following the Giro and before this July's Tour de France, will try to take his sixth straight Grand Tour victory - a stunning succession of wins, which began in 2007 with the Tour de France, then followed in 2008 with the Giro and Vuelta, the Tour in 2009, and finally last year's Tour de France. Keep in mind, he won't turn 29 until this December.
Contador famously tested positive for clenbuterol during last year's Tour de France duel with now Leopard Trek rider, Andy Schleck. Whether you're of the opinion that he doped, didn't dope, blood doped, or did a little bit of everything, the fact is - Contador can race.
And since he is racing - he's the undisputed favorite, no questions. On top form (which he appears to be), he's the world's best climber and one of the world's best time trialists - and that's comparing him to the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. In short, he's the perfect Grand Tour specimen, and this year's Giro is the perfect playground for the Spaniard.
Unfortunately for Contador, the Giro, and everyone in the sport - if the UCI's appeal to the CAS proves successful and Contador is suspended, his Giro participation and possible win will turn this year's tale on end…weeks after the final Maglia Rosa and the beautiful Giro overall trophy is handed over to a rider who could very well be, Contador.
Who better to battle a tainted star who has always been just a step ahead of doping investigations since his start in the mid-2000's with ONCE/Liberty Seguros, than the young, unrepentantly clean soon-to-be Italian Grand Tour hero, Vincenzo Nibali?
Nibali has long been a talent to be watched. In his first ever Grand Tour, at 22 years old, he finished 19th at the Giro in 2007. A year later, he tackled two Grand Tours, the Giro and the Tour de France, and finished 11th and 20th respectively. The progression continued in 2009 with all of his efforts focused on the Tour de France. The result? 7th overall, 24 years old.
As for 2010, well, there's not much to add there. The Sicilian took third in the Giro whilst supporting his teammate, Ivan Basso, en route to Basso's second overall title of his career. In the year's final Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, he stopped being a rider with a lot of potential and confirmed it once and for all with his first career Grand Tour victory.
If the improvements continue in 2011 as they have in each year since 2007 (even if they don't), the pure climbing Nibali looks to be the rider that will be the rider to stand up to the onslaught of Alberto Contador. Contador is the prohibitive favorite, but there's no reason that can't end this month at the hands of the Shark of the Strait.
With that said, Nibali has one Grand Tour win compared to another rival's three: Denis Menchov. The stoic Russian has quietly earned the title of the world's second best Grand Tour rider with two Vueltas a España and a Giro d'Italia.
If this were a normal year with a normal team, Menchov would likely be at altitude training for July's Grand Boucle, but unfortunately, his choice to move to Geox-TMC (at the end of a 2010 campaign, which saw him on to the Tour de France's final podium) means he won't be racing the Tour de France. The upstart team missed out on an invite from the ASO, and now, he'll have to make due with the Giro and a chance at a second career overall victory.
Normally, this turn of events would be just fine for Menchov, perhaps even great, as the rider who calls Pamplona home loves racing in Italy. Unfortunately for Menchov, however, this Giro is not at all tailor made to his abilities. The 2009 Giro winner cemented his Maglia Rosa on a tough, technical 60+ kilometer time trial along the famed Cinque Terre coast. After the significant time gained in that monstrous contre la mounter, he spent the rest of the Giro squashing attacks with metered efforts and defensive riding.
That's not going to fly this year though. The time trials will be important, as always, but the Giro won't be won there, nor will defensive riding get anyone very far on the brutish climbs that lie waiting in the race's final week.
Even worse, Menchov just lost a substantial chunk of time in the Stage 1 team time trial in Torino - he's already out 23 seconds to Alberto Contador. Not a good place to be.
In a race that could have been hatched in a moment of idle dreaming by a flock of pure climbers like Gaul, Herrera, and Pantani, the riders born slight of weight and stature, but with the strength of men many times their size can take confident steps forward as worthy favorites. Enter: Michele Scarponi.
The Lampre-ISD captain has returned from a dirty past to become one of Italy's best climbers and most aggressive riders. The Italian has been superb all year highlighted by overall victory at the Giro del Trentino, runner-up at the Volta a Catalunya behind only Alberto Contador, and third at Tirreno-Adriatico only a little bit in arrears of Cadel Evans and Robert Gesink.
Forget all that though - Scarponi's magnificent bridge from the chasers to the leading group at Milano-Sanremo cemented him as a favorite for this year's Giro. It ended up completely meaningless, but the ride was legendary.
The countless meters of uphill torment are perfect for Scarponi, and as the undisputed leader of a Lampre-ISD team that has seen better PR days, he could be just the remedy for getting over an apparently dark past for the fuchsia and blue squad.
The Catalan climber came to the Giro specifically because it suits his abilities. After taking part in his first ever Tour de France last year, managing an honorable top ten and a stage win, the Katusha leader has decided to forego another try at the world's biggest race, instead, he has chosen to put all of his efforts towards races that he could win - in this case, the Giro and later this year, the Vuelta.
It's a rare occurrence for a rider to concede they can't win the Tour de France. How many careers have been wasted chasing after an impossible victory, only to retire with countless 2nd-8th place finishes? Perhaps wasted isn't the proper word, but those high placings could have easily been victories in the year's other two Grand Tours. It takes a wise rider to concede the ultimate glory in hopes of finding another place in the record books.
With that in mind - this has to be the course of Rodriguez's dreams. He's extremely talented on the extremely steep ascents, and this year's Giro offers those up in rapid fire succession. He won't win, if only because he'll lose four days in the final time trial, but he'll be a major factor everywhere else.
Like his former teammate, Vincenzo Nibali, the Czech Republic's Roman Kreuziger has long been a rider saddled with the massive weight of expectation. At only 24 years old, Kreuziger already has two top ten's at the Tour de France to his name. For 2011, Kreuziger can lay claim to a stage win at the Giro del Trentino and 4th at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, behind only Gilbert and the two Schlecks.
He's the undisputed leader of the Astana team, his form is clearly in abundant supply, and he's only getting better every year…will this be his breakout success?
I'm looking forward to finding out.
The Euskaltel-Euskadi rider has specifically said that he is not targeting the overall this month, but considering that he was getting ready to run away with last year's Vuelta a España before crashing out in the leader's jersey in Stage 14, well, it doesn't really matter if he is targeting it or not. The talented climber will be at the head of affairs when the stages start to tip skyward.
The only question is - how much time will he lose before those crucial stages. My guess is that he'll start the big mountain stages with a fair bit of time handed out already. That could play in his favor though. Remember - I hate to cite him here because of what happened later - Emanuele Sella? The climbing ace, enjoying some help from CERA-EPO nearly rode himself on to the podium in 2008 after starting the crucial mountain stages nearly hours behind. Again, Sella is not exactly a role model, but if Anton behaves like a good Euskaltel rider should, he'll lose ample amounts of time whilst adventuring around Italy, but when the true business begins, he could be a perfect pick for a long break, and perhaps even another.
Expect a stage win - if he gets that stage win, a top ten would seem a good bet. If he gets two stage wins - the podium beckons. The stages are so hard here that any rider that manages a win on the biggest, baddest stages, will almost be assured of a top GC finish no matter how much time was lost previously. Ok, within reason of course.
Others to take note of…
Carlos Sastre, of course. He has done nada this year, and he did a whole lot of nada last year. I think that will continue, but I'd love to be surprised.
Emanuele Sella. He's back to his old ways, just hopefully not with the needles and the like. If he truly is back, he'll be a very happy bike rider this month.
Actually, scratch that, let's just add Gianni Savio's trio of climber extraordinaires from Androni Giocattoli together: Emanuele Sella, Jose Rujano, and Jose Serpa. If one of those three doesn't win a stage or finish top ten, something has gone very much awry.
Stefano Garzelli. The Acqua e Sapone captain won the Giro eleven years ago. He's staring retirement firmly in the eye, but nonetheless, he has a special ability to get things right when it comes to his national tour - an overall win, three top ten's, and seven stage victories say that well enough. He's 37 now, but it was only last year that he won Tirreno-Adriatico AND the Plan de Corones/Kronplatz time trial of the Giro.
Two other names to watch? RadioShack’s Portuguese climber, Tiago Machado, and Lampre-ISD’s Polish uphill talent, Przemyslaw Niemiec.
1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank)
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
3. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)
4. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC)
5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)