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91st Giro d'Italia - GT
Italy, May 10-June 1, 2008
Palermo to Milano – The Corsa Rosa promises excitement
By Gregor Brown
The 91st Giro d'Italia, May 10 to June 1, may be loaded with time trials, but the mountains in the final week will surely prove to be the great decider. Some of the sports biggest names, like two-time winner Gilberto Simoni, defending champion Danilo Di Luca and Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, will battle for the leader's maglia rosa over there weeks from Palermo to Milano.
On Saturday afternoon in Palermo, 198 riders will start the Italian Grand Tour – organised by RCS Sport – and by the time they reach Pesaro (Le Marche), the race will start to really heat up. There, the Corsa Rosa will present time trial number two out of four, a 39.4-kilometre individual race against the clock, with the third coming in the form of an uphill time trial (stage 16) and the fourth on the final day into Milano (stage 21).
Looming on the horizon are the Dolomites and Alps with their numerous painful ascensions, such as the Alpe di Pampeago, Passo Fedaia, Passo Gavia and Passo del Mortirolo.
An always-frank Gilberto Simoni was quick to point out the impressive parcours. "Passo di San Bernardino, wow! Mortirolo! Aprica, Tirano... damn!" remarked the winner in 2001 and 2003. "There are a lot of people that don't think of the start, but it is there that some differences can be made, too. This Giro opens the door to a lot of riders, but then in the third week it will be very hard."
One such day is stage 14 which rides over the Passo Manghen and has a finale up the 7.65-kilometre Alpe di Pampeago. Simoni stated his desire to win this stage as he did in 2003, and the 36 year-old Italian from Trento could use it as a springboard to conquer the Giro d'Italia for a third time.
Over the winter, he made a bold move by signing with Gianni Savio's Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli squad. The experienced team manager built a team around Simoni, one which will be dedicated to the cause.
Last year, Simoni nurtured Riccardo Riccò while the two were riding for Saunier Duval but this year the young Italian from Formigine will be the team's sole leader. In 2007 he demonstrated his power by winning the Tre Cime di Lavaredo stage. However fumbling an attack to Montevergine di Mercogliano and his unpopularity with the escape in stage eight to Fiorano Modenese has shown signs of inexperience. Given his crash in Tirreno-Adriatico and bad experiences in the Ardennes Classics, Riccò may need to wait until 2009 to win his home tour.
The winner of the 2007 Giro d'Italia, Danilo Di Luca, has been through hell and high waters to be ready for 2008's race. The 32 year-old Italian from Abruzzo – the first southerner to win the Giro – was faced with two doping investigations over the winter and scored 1-0. One win for fending off the Italian Olympic Committee's (CONI) allegations of plasma injections following the 2007 stage to Monte Zoncolan and one loss for the three-month suspension he was forced to serve for his relations to Oil for Drugs and Doctor Carlo Santuccione.
'The Killer' – as Di Luca is known – must be thinking "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and the off-season events might just give him the fuel to score the back to back win, not seen since Miguel Indurain's second win in 1993. What's more, he has changed teams from Liquigas to LPR Brakes, which proved to be a good move with dedicated domestiques, who include two-time Giro d'Italia champion Paolo Savoldelli, Daniele Pietropolli, Gabriele Bosisio, Paolo Bailetti and Alessandro Spezialetti.
Di Luca's former team, Liquigas, will have to feel its way out in the Giro without a clear three-week contender to lead the way. Number one on the list for the acid green-coloured Italian team is Franco Pellizotti. The curly haired 30 year-old finished ninth last year while helping his leader win the race and showed well this year in the Giro del Trentino when he assisted his team-mate, Vincenzo Nibali, on to the overall win.
Pellizotti's intentions are clear, "I will aim for the overall jersey." With that aim in mind, the 'Delfino di Bibione' has specifically worked on his time trailing skills. Another factor for the 'dauphine' is that Ivan Basso joins the team at the end of the year - therefore it is now or never if he wants to put his foot down as a GC captain for the Grand Tours.
An eye should be kept on Liquigas' young Siciliano, Vincenzo Nibali. He won the Giro del Trentino and finished tenth in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège – not bad for a 23 year-old.
Astana's last-minute invite by RCS Sport has one-upped the Giro d'Italia over its bigger brother, the Tour de France. The Luxembourg-based team piloted by Johan Bruyneel team will likely be led by Spaniard Alberto Contador. The 2007 Tour de France champion will come to the race full of piss and vinegar thanks to the non-invite to the Tour and with form, on stunning display in the País Vasco.
Contador will be backed by strong domestiques, in the shape of USA's Levi Leipheimer and Germany's Andreas Klöden, who just came back victorious from the Tour de Romandie.
Other favourites include Russia's Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne); the former won the Vuelta a España and finished sixth in the 2006 Tour de France, while both have won the best young riders' classification in the French Grand Tour (2003 and 2004, respectively).
Another rider with Tour pedigree is Colombia's Mauricio Soler (Barloworld). Surely winning the mountains jersey in France is a marker for greatness on the gruelling ascents through the Dolomites and Alps that highlight the final week of the Giro.
Three others to watch are Italians Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) and Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) and Russian Evgeni Petrov (Tinkoff Credit Systems).
The opening day, like last year, will come in the form of a team time trial. All teams will want to do well in Palermo for a chance at grabbing the leader's maglia rosa, but one team has been training particularly hard for the event, USA's Slipstream Chipotle - H30. The argyle-kitted team has been preparing over the last week at its European base in Gerona to have a chance of grabbing the pink top. With riders like David Millar, David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde, the attention and expectations will be heavy upon the team run by Jonathan Vaughters.
The Giro d'Italia always leaves memories of mountain struggles, but don't forget the sprinters. This year there will be fewer opportunities for the fast men – stages Milazzo (stage three), Catanzaro (four), San Vincenzo (nine), Carpi (12), Cittadella (13) and Locarno (18) look the best – but expect fierce battles on those closing kilometres that are dodgy at best. Look out for Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner), Erik Zabel (Team Milram), Danilo Napolitano (Lampre), Graeme Brown (Rabobank), Alexandre Usov (AG2R La Mondiale), Mark Cavendish (High Road) and Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream Chipotle - H30), as Italy's super-sprinter Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram) has to skip the race because of a flu.
Cyclingnews will be covering the Giro d'Italia live every day starting from 14:30 local time (CEST)/8:30 EDT (USA East)/5:30 PDT (USA West)/22:30 AEST (Australia East).
For more read Cyclingnews' coverage of the 2008 route launch.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net