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The home favourite in the Giro d'Italia, starting on Saturday, has endured patchy form since returning from a near-fatal crash two years ago and admits to a nagging fear of the downhill sprints.
``I've raced a lot, I've fought with the best and I could even have won if I did not have that fear going downhill,'' he said of his comeback season so far.
The 27-year-old rider, who acknowledged that he started the season needing to ``cancel the doubts inside me'', said he was hoping the Giro's first few mountain stages would help.
``The Giro made my name and I want to be there. But I also want to be cautious,'' said Pantani, who smashed into a jeep in a downhill crash in the Milan-Turin race in October 1995. He shattered his leg and was out for 16 months.
The Giro has few flat stages and only two time trials. The first comes on stage three, from Santarcangelo to San Marino and ends with a punishing uphill ride.
``The third stage, to San Marino, will tell me how I really am. The fifth stage, with a climb to the finish in Terminillo, will show me whether I'll be on the podium in Milan,'' he said.
Pantani -- small, bald and nicknamed ``Elefantino'' (Little Elephant) because of his prominent ears -- shot into the limelight with consecutive mountain stage victories in the 1994 Giro.
This year's Giro, the 80th, is good for a climber like Pantani, who confirmed his promise with a third place overall in the 1994 Tour de France.
He took his first Tour de France stage win, a solo attack on the toughest climb up to L'Alpe d'Huez, in 1995 and also won a bronze in the world championships that year.
He missed the Giro in 1995 after badly injuring his knee in a crash in training.
Pantani has striven to prove himself since his return and told reporters he was surprised to have to pull out of this month's Tour of Romandie as he had started out feeling strong.
``I was riding better a little while ago,'' Pantani added.
The Giro, over 3,892 km, starts in Venice and ends in Milan on June 8.
``I'm starting off with the will to do well, but I'm being cautious,'' Pantani said.
``I'm not saying I won't ride to come in the top three but I know I might realise I'm not up to it and then I would be delighted if I just manage to win one stage.''
Pantani will face tough competition from last year's Giro winner Pavel Tonkov of Russia, who won the Tour of Romandie last Sunday.
Luc Leblanc, who beat Tonkov in the Giro del Trentino, is vying for France's first Giro d'Italia win since Laurent Fignon in 1989 while 1994 winner Russian Yevgeny Berzin will also be back.
Stephen Roche, the Irish rider who won the 1987 Giro, said Pantani was looking motivated.
``It will basically be between Tonkov and Pantani,'' he predicted. ``(But) If Berzin gets his act together, he's the man to beat because he's a better all-round rider.''
The suspension lasts two weeks after the first test. The replacement rider for Chiappucci (34) is the new Italian pro Enrico Bonetti (27).
It will open with a time trial at Nice over a seven-kilometre course on the Promenade des Anglais on May 16, and the first road race stage will leave Nice the next day to return to Italy.
The Giro organisers count this as their sixth start outside of their native ground, having included the Republic of San Marino in 1965, Monaco a year later followed by the Vatican City in 1974.
In 1973 cash lured the race to Belgium for a start in Verviers, and last year the Giro opened in Athens to coincide with the 100th year of the modern Olympics and the centenary of the race sponsors.
The Giro has raced into France four times. In 1955 a stage from Turin finished in Cannes, followed by Strasbourg (1973), Les Deux Alpes (1994) and Briancon (1996).
Tonkov agreed with challengers Frenchman Luc Leblanc and Italian Enrico Zaina that the 1,852 metres Mortirolo, the last of 33 climbs on the 3,892 kms route, could be the key to a race weakened by the absence of the entire world top 10.
That final summit on the eve of the June 8 finish in Milan comes on day 21. ``It is the most dangerous stage, but my favourite,'' said Zaina who finished two minutes 43 seconds behind Tonkov in Milan last year.
The days of fast finishers in the Cipollini mould are numbered on such a mountainous course. Their limit could be the first two days -- the only other flat stage is the final leg to Milan.
``It is true that for a sprinter wearing the pink jersey of the leader is like winning the Giro is to Tonkov, but I particularly want to win at Cervia on Sunday,'' said the towering Cipollini.
``It is a beautiful emotion but I have worn the jersey in the past. What I have not got is a photo of me winning a stage wearing the maglia rosa. That is why I want to be first at Cervia.''
His plans rest on his winning Saturday's opening leg over 16 laps of an 8 kms circuit on the Lido island which provides ancient Venice with a natural breakwater from the Adriatic Sea.
Cipollini underscored his intentions with three stage wins in last week's Tour of Romandie -- won by Tonkov -- but can expect an early challenge.
Yevgeny Berzin, the first Russian winner in 1994, has designs on Monday's time trial, an 18 kms uphill slog to San Marino.
``A rider has to be good in the time trials and the mountains,'' said Berzin. ``The fifth day to Terminillo will be as important as that first time trial. Then we will know who is in good condition.''
The 1675 metres Terminillo is a more demanding summit finish than San Marino's 585 metres,, especially coming after an undulating 215 kilometres.
Time trials -- there are two this year -- are known as the races of truth, but the moment of truth for most contenders lies somewhere in the peaks of the Dolomites.
Leblanc, seeking France's first success since 1989, said: ``It is going to be very hard, and if there is a rider who is not tired he can make a great difference.''
Which are Marco Pantani's favorites for the Giro which starts Saturday in Venezia? "Tonkov is the number one favorite: he's going well, aware of his strength to win again and riding with a good team. Also Leblanc is in form. I also see Dominguez well, I I saw him win at Murcia and Valenciana. In the few races where I have met them, Gotti, Belli and Piepoli have moved well. I haven't seen Berzin lately, but at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he gave me the impression that he was on the right road to be rady for the Giro", answers Pantani, assigning the role of the new young revelation to Di Grande.
But when this year's contest, the 80th since 1909, opens in Venice on Saturday, none of the world's top 10 riders will be competing for the leader's pink jersey.
There are even mutterings in Italy that the beloved Giro, which cyclists once had to win to be considered truly great, has been overtaken in importance by Spain's Vuelta, a relative newcomer in cycling's Holy Trinity of Tours.
``Twenty years ago the Vuelta was just a little race,'' said Italian former winner Francesco Moser. ``Now it has at least equalled the Giro.''
More alarmingly, the Giro may even be in danger of sinking behind the humbler Tour of Switzerland.
``The feeling is that the modern rider can't ride the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France in the same year because it's too hard,'' said Stephen Roche, the Irishman who scooped the Giro, the Tour and the world championship in 1987 in an interview. ``I think riders are a little bit more pampered now.''
Certainly, they don't make them like they used to. Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali turned the Giro into one of Italy's big events in the 1940s and 50s against a backdrop of rough-hewn Alpine passes, ancient Roman cobblestones and dusty and potholed southern roads.
Tens of thousands turned out at the roadside to hail winners who included all the greats of the sport.
France's Jacques Anquetil was champion in 1960 and 1964, Belgian Eddy Merckx five times from 1968 to 1974, Bernard Hinault in 1980, 1982 and 1985, Laurent Fignon in 1989 and Spain's Miguel Indurain in 1992 and 1993.
Not to mention Italy's Giuseppe Saronni, Moser, Roberto Visentini and Gianni Bugno.
The big names this time are Russian. Last year's winner Pavel Tonkov of Russia has recovered from a broken finger and wrist in crashes this year and will be back, as will compatriot Yevgeny Berzin who won in 1994.
But most of cycling's hottest prospects are elsewhere.
Last year's Tour de France winner, Denmark's Bjarne Riis, is focusing his efforts on another victory there while world number one Laurent Jalabert and number two, Alex Zuelle who both belong to Spanish team ONCE, will ride the Vuelta instead.
And one of Italy's top riders, veteran Claudio Chiappucci, is out after failing a blood test this month.
Giro director Carmine Castellano played down the dents to his race's reputation, saying the situation was not yet dramatic. But he admitted he was disappointed at the turn-out.
He said two teams, including one Dutch squad who had complained about television coverage plans, had pulled out, leaving 18 squads at the start in Venice.
``One of the errors we made was on international (television) rights,'' Castellano said in a telephone interview.
The Giro parcelled out the international rights to this year's race to a company which sold them to pay-TV stations in some countries such as France and the Netherlands where cycling is keenly followed, leaving big gaps in coverage.
Castellano is quick to point out that the Giro, which is run by Italy's top sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, has learned its lesson and has struck a deal for next year with state broadcaster RAI to handle domestic and international coverage.
Moser said the organisers could still do more to make the race an essential part of the season for top riders.
He suggested boosting the prizes and even including some softer stages at the start of the traditionally tough itinerary.
``The Tour has some stages at the start that are flat. The Giro is hard from start to finish,'' said Moser.
There's no denying that the Giro revels in its fame as a gruelling experience and a maker of reputations.
This year's race, which ends in Milan on June 8, covers 3,885 kms. Only a couple of the 22 stages are hill-free and four end with punishing climbs.
Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc said that fact, plus a slightly more mountainous Tour this year, seemed to have scared off some riders.
But he said he thought the Giro's status was not in serious, long-term danger and noted that some riders were steered into certain events because of sponsorship obligations.
``Now everything is much more specialised,'' lamented Moser, adding that merit classifications now meaned riders all strived to boost their points tally -- a vital score used to value a rider and work out his contract.
Faced with a difficult Giro, some riders have looked to the Tour of Switzerland in mid-June, which Roche said had become softer in recent years.
``All the top riders are capable (of the Giro and the Tour) but it's very difficult mentally. Maybe they take the easy way out,'' he said.
Veterans agree that what is missing is a rider to step into the shoes of the sport's last king Indurain who twice won both the Tour and Giro in the same year and retired in January.
``What worries me is that there are no riders around who are capable of riding a full season,'' Castellano said.
Many riders still do take part in two tours, opting for the Vuelta which comes after the Tour and before the world championships.
Moser said one idea would be to delay the starts of the Giro and Tour by a week to give riders time to rest after the early-season classics before going to Italy.
The Vuelta itself successfully switched its timetable some years ago to September -- a move the Giro did not want to make.
Castellano said a lot depended on Italian riders. ``The Tour, the Vuelta and the Giro have all had their moments of crisis after the disappearance of big riders,'' he said.
``I hope the next Giro will see a complete relaunch.''
Pavel Tonkov defied injury to triumph in the six-day Tour of Romandie last Sunday, strengthening his resolve to repeat last year's Giro victory.
``I feel ready for the Giro. Winning in Romandie has proved that my form is coming at the right time,'' he said in the countdown to Saturday's 128 kms circuit race on the roads of the Venetian Lido, the first of 22 stages and 3,892 kilometres.
Tonkov rode the Swiss race without any support on his injured right hand, and said: ``It did not give me any great trouble, but there is still some pain.''
He believes as many as 15 riders are capable of winning the Giro, and Luc Leblanc could be top of his list, especially after Tonkov lost to the Frenchman by seven seconds in the Giro del Trentino.
The candidacy of Marco Pantani for the race leader's pink jersey is based on optimism, and memories of his last Giro three years ago when his fire on the mountain passes scorched a few hopes including the hat-trick dream of Miguel Indurain.
Pantani finished second overall to Russia's Yevgeny Berzin. Then after two stage wins in the 1995 Tour de France, Pantani's career was under threat after a head-on collision with a car during a race.
Sixteen months and three operations later he returned to competition in February, but reckoned he tried too hard in those early days.
``I had to find out what I was capable of. I had to push myself to the limit while others treated those opening races as training. Now as they reap the benefits of an easy start I am feeling tired.
``Still I cannot turn down the challenge,'' said Pantani who had four large pins inserted to help restore his shattered left shin.
Leblanc the first Frenchman to win the four-day Trentino tour has ambitions to bring France their first Giro success since Laurent Fignon in 1989.
``I am in great form. I am getting stronger, and thinking more and more about the Giro,'' said the 1994 world champion whose best showing in a major tour was fourth the same year in the Tour de France.
Over the last 26 years France has won four Giro but the hosts have managed only eight victories. Their last came from Franco Chioccioli six years ago, and Italy look to their rising hopes such as Pantani, Enrico Zaini, second overall to Tonkov, and Ivan Gotti, next best Italian in fifth spot last year.
Yevgeny Berzin wrote himself into Giro history in 1994 as the first Russian winner at a time when the honours list was taking a more international appearance with Irish, American, and Spanish successes.
Berzin has the time trialing talent to make an early impression as he showed with his 52 kph ride, a Giro record, to beat Indurain three years ago.
His first opportunity will be the 18 kms time test to San Marino on Monday.
Whether it will be a lasting impression depends on his form in the Dolomites where last June former world champion Abraham Olano parted Tonkov from the pink jersey by 46 hundredths of a second after finishing one place ahead of him at the Passo Pordoi finish.
Then next day Tonkov recaptured the colours as Olano lost nearly two and a half minutes in less than 12 uphill kilometres. The Dolomites are sure to decide again. This year after the second and final time trial to Cavalese the riders face three brutal days in those spectacular and daunting mountains before the traditional finish at the Parco Sempione in Milan on June 8.
Five climbs including the 2,214-metre Passo di Sella and the highest of the race, the 2,239-metre Passo Pordoi, dot the 222 kilometres to Falzes on the 19th day.
The next stage finishes on the 1,883-metre Passo del Tonale, and the survivors exit the mountains a day later via the 1,943-metre Goletto di Cadino and the smaller but deceptively testing Mortirolo.
Tough enough for the mountain specialists and misery aplenty for the train of toiling men in their wake especially after a Giro that will race the length of Italy before returning to the north for the last 11 days.
It includes an official rest day on May 27, that will be spent by many driving 900 kilometres from Taranto in the heel of Italy to the Tuscan resort of Camaiore on the north west coast.
YEVGENY BERZIN, 27, (Russia) Batik - In only his second year as a professional in 1994, beat Miguel Indurain in the Giro during an impressive 11 weeks during which he crammed seven successes including the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. He beat Indurain, the acknowledged master of time trialling, with a 52 kph ride, a Giro time trial record, to hold the leader's pink jersey for 19 days. In 1995 he was second to Switzerland's Tony Rominger and, although out of contention last year, he maintained his against-the-clock reputation beating another Spanish specialist, Abraham Olano, who was to take the silver in the Olympic time trial.
LUC LEBLANC, 30, (France) Polti - Three years ago he was the world road race champion and the best climber in the Vuelta a Espana. Life at the top began for Leblanc when he wore the yellow jersey of Tour de France leader for a day in 1991, and he has three times finished in the top six of that race and scored stage successes.
MARCO PANTANI, 27, (Italy) Mercatone Uno - His second overall placing in 1994 was gained via some withering attacks on the mountain roads. He followed that up with third in the Tour de France and won the best young rider award, and a year later gave his Tour rivals another taste of Italian firepower to win in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Missed 1996 following a head-on collision with a car which severely damaged his left leg.
ENRICO ZAINA, 29, (Italy) Asics - Unleashed from the demands of his team mate Claudio Chiappucci, Zaina also broke free of the Giro contenders to win on the Passo Pordoi last year. He rose from seventh to a final second overall, his best showing in eight professional years. With Chiappucci out of the Giro this time after failing an official blood test, Zaina has the opportunity to confirm his promise.
IVAN GOTTI, 28, (Italy) SAECO - Two days as the Tour de France leader in 1995 revealed a new Italian talent which had been submerged beneath the ambitions of higher rated team mates. Gotti finished fifth overall, and in 1996 filled the same position in the Giro via a win and a second placing in the Dolomites mountain stages.
PIOTR UGRUMOV, 36, (Russia) Roslotto - Another to watch in the mountains, this Latvian with a Russian racing licence, has been second, third, and fourth in the last four Giro, and took fourth in the 1994 Tour de France.
1970 - Eddy Merckx (Belgium) 1971 - Gosta Pettersson (Sweden) 1972-74 - Merckx 1975 - Fausto Bertoglio (Italy) 1976 - Felice Gimondi (Italy) 1977 - Michel Pollentier (Belgium) 1978 - Johan de Muynck (Belgium) 1979 - Giuseppe Saronni (Italy) 1980 - Bernard Hinault (France) 1981 - Giovanni Bataglin (Italy) 1982 - Hinault 1983 - Saronni 1984 - Francesco Moser (Italy) 1985 - Hinault 1986 - Roberto Visentini (Italy) 1987 - Stephen Roche (Ireland) 1988 - Andy Hampsten (U.S.) 1989 - Laurent Fignon (France). 1990 - Franco Chioccioli (Italy) 1992-93 - Miguel Indurain (Spain) 1994 - Yevgeny Berzin (Russia) 1995 - Tony Rominger (Switzerland) 1996 - Pavel Tonkov (Russia)
May 17 - Circuit of the Lido, Venice, 128 kms. May 18 - Mestre to Cervia, 211 kms. May 19 - Santarcangelo-San Marino time trial, 18 kms. May 20 - San Marino-Arezzo, 156 kms May 21 - Arezzo-Terminillo, 215 kms May 22 - Rieti-Lanciano, 210 kms May 23 - Lanciano-Mondragone, 210 kms May 24 - Mondragone-Cava dei Tirreni, 203 kms May 25 - Cava dei Tirreni-Castrovillari, 232 kms May 26 - Castrovillari-Taranto, 189 kms May 27 - Rest day May 28 - Circuit of Versilia, Camaiore Lido, 159 kms May 29 - La Spezia-Varazze, 212 kms May 30 - Varazze-Cuneo, 145 kms May 31 - Racconigi-Cervinia, 232 kms June 1 - Verres-Borgomanero, 173 kms June 2 - Borgomanero-Dalmine, 158 kms June 3 - Dalmine-Verona, 200 kms June 4 - Baselga di Pine'-Cavalese time trial, 40 kms June 5 - Predazzo-Falzes, 222 kms June 6 - Brunico-Passo del Tonale, 176 kms June 7 - Male'-Edolo, 238 kms June 8 - Boario Terme-Milano, 165 kms