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Rating the riders in Italy, May 7, 2009

Giro ready for centenary eruption

By Greg Johnson

When the Giro d'Italia commences this weekend more force will be unleashed than that with which Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and Herculaneim in 79 AD, such is the strength of this year's field. Tour de France winners Lance Armstrong and Carlos Sastre plus Giro d'Italia champions Damiano Cunego, Danilo Di Luca and Ivan Basso are just some of the names taking part in what will be a fitting tribute to Italy's Grand Tour in its centenary year.

A field containing such depth of talent and ability makes predictions of who will factor in the final classifications difficult, to say the least. But that's a problem we, as spectators, seldom experience and cherish when it does occur.

So here we go, Cyclingnews' names 10 riders who we expect to display Herculean efforts as they leave no stone unturned in their attempt to tame what will be a historic event.

Ivan Basso - Liquigas

Liquigas' Ivan Basso heads into the Giro
Photo ©: Riccardo
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Giro history: After finishing 52nd in the 2000 Giro, Basso's attention turned to the Tour de France. But in 2005 he returned to his home Grand Tour with some success: two stage wins and 28th overall. The following year Basso hit it big when he claimed three stage wins en route to his maiden Giro victory. Thanks to his involvement in Operación Puerto, he hasn't been back since.

Preparation: The Giro has been Basso's sole focus since returning from suspension late last year. He has ridden the entire course - some sections up to four times - and believes he's a genuine contender. His few results seem to warrant Basso's claims, having won the Giro del Trentino from Giro rivals Janez Brajkovic, Stefano Garzelli, Silberto Simoni and Danilo Di Luca.

Pros: Two Tour de France podiums and a Giro win has established Basso as a serious Grand Tour rider. He's developed a border-line obsession with the Giro since returning.

Cons: Pellizotti is an equally worthy overall hope and Basso could find himself demoted. Needs to prove he's still Grand Tour worthy.

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Kanstantsin Siutsou - Columbia-Highroad

Columbia-Highroad's Kantantin Siutsou
Photo ©: Jon Devich
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Giro history: Kanstantsin Siutsou debuted at last year's Giro, but failed to reach the finish of stage 20 to Tirano.

Preparation: The former Under 23 UCI World Road Champion's season received a boost with his ninth placing at Tirreno - Adriatico. A stage win and 10th placing overall at Tour de Romandie furthered his candidacy as a potential general classification hopeful.

Pros: Strong season to date. Nominated as Columbia's likely leader and has the experience of Michael Rogers by his side. Took on Levi Leipheimer on the tougher climbs at last year's Tour de Georgia and had the American rattled. Could there be a repeat scenario in Italy?

Cons: A lack of experience at the Giro. Team too focused on sprint stage victories to mount a genuine general classification challenge.

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Danilo Di Luca - Liquigas

Former Giro champion Danilo Di Luca
Photo ©: Giro del Trentino
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Giro history: Di Luca popped out a stage win in 2000 and 2001, but it wasn't until a move to Liquigas in 2005 that he really entered the Giro radar. Two stage wins and fourth place overall drew the attention of anyone who hadn't already noted Di Luca's Grand Tour potential. The following year Di Luca fizzled on his way to 23rd place, but he burst back into the limelight with his general classification victory in 2007.

Preparation: Di Luca's progress over the year to date is worth noting. A solid run in Tirreno - Adriatico got the ball rolling before taking his first stage win of '09 at Settimana Ciclista Lombarda. A stage win at Giro del Trentino shows he's headed in the right direction.

Pros: Proven ability, in the Grand Tour winning phase of his career, will be a genuine stage victory contender.

Cons: LPR Brakes lacks the depth of Astana or Liquigas, Di Luca has lacked the edge he once possessed - prior to the latest drama surrounding the Oil for Drugs debacle.

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Carlos Sastre - Cervelo Test Team

Carlos Sastre may have his eye on France
Photo ©: Susanne Goetze
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Giro history: Save for a stage win in 2006, Carlos Sastre has never been much of a Giro man. The Spaniard's best finish overall was 38th back in 2002, as he has always focused on the Tour de France and his home Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España.

Preparation: Sastre has done little in the way of racing early this season. A 24th place at Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco suggests he's way behind other riders who are taking the Giro seriously and thus is probably focusing more on his Tour defense than Giro glory. Nonetheless Sastre has always been a consistent Grand Tour contender and following his French win might have the taste for more victories.

Pros: Religiously finishes in the top 10 on more recent Grand Tour appearances. Has proven he can get the job done.

Cons: Giro probably isn't Sastre's main goal. Cervelo lacks the tactical experience with its current squad and at the management level that Astana/Brunyeel possesses.

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Damiano Cunego - Lampre - N.G.C.

Damiano Cunego did it in 2004
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Giro history: After a reasonable 34th on debut at the Giro in 2003, Cunego set the event on fire a year later. Four stage wins plus the overall title in 2004 was impressive, as was his second place in both the points and mountains standings. He finished in the top five again in 2006 and 2007, but skipped the 2008 edition as he contested both the French and Spanish Grand Tours.

Preparation: Cunego has enjoyed a solid start to 2009, with two Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi-Bartali stage wins leading to his overall victory at the race. He was prominent, though not spectacular, at Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco on his way to sixth overall. He didn't achieve his goals at Amstel Gold Race or Liège - Bastogne - Liège but fifth and seventh respectively is still a worthy run.

Pros: He's done it before and the tough stages mid-race will give him an upper hand. The Giro is a priority in his season and his form is on track for a strong campaign.

Cons: Team-mate Marzio Bruseghin will also be strong and the lengthy time trial weighs in his favour.

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Lance Armstrong - Astana

Lance Armstrong has to be counted
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Giro history: None. But Armstrong does have a long association with Italy.

Preparation: A broken collarbone put the brakes on an otherwise promising build up to the Giro. Armstrong isn't a rider to be discounted from any Grand Tour, but the collarbone issue might just have swayed his standing as probable team leader to star workhorse.

Pros: Probably safe to assume he knows how to win a three week tour. Strategically he's on one of the strongest teams. He'll have the unrelenting support of the field's strongest squad simply by asking for it.

Cons: Questions over fitness after broken collarbone.

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Denis Menchov - Rabobank

Rabobank's Denis Menchov
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Giro history: Denis Menchov's Giro history is limited to his 2008 campaign. It's enough to suggest that the Russian can conquer Italy's finest race however, after he rode to a fifth place finish.

Preparation: In true Rabobank fashion, Menchov has been going about his business quietly in the early part of 2009. A general classification victory at Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia here, a few stage podiums at Vuelta Castilla y Leon there. Menchov finished in a similar ballpark at the Tour of Romandie to those he needs to outrun in Italy.

Pros: Rabobank built completely around Menchov's general classification tilt. Form is on track for a competitive Giro run. HIs understated style and ability mean he's an underdog with the potential to really threaten Leipheimer and Basso.

Cons: Team isn't as strong as Astana, will need to adopt a smarter strategy.

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Stefano Garzelli - Aqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo

The 2000 Giro champ Stefano Garzelli
Photo ©: Mitja Smid Bricelj
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Giro history: Stegano Grazelli claimed victory at the Giro in 2000. After two seasons of not completing the race, Garzelli returned in 2003 and rode to second behind Gilberto Simoni. He claimed sixth in 2004 but finished 16th in his only full tilt at the overall title since, in 2007.

Preparation: Whatever Garzelli entered in 2008 he finished strongly and the same can be said for this season. He was second at Tirreno - Adriatico, fourth at the Giro del Trentino and rubbed shoulders with the guys he'll need to tackle this month in Italy.

Pros: The form is obviously there for Garzelli and he's a proven contender against the other top Giro candidates.

Cons: They say 'age shall not weary them', yet it often does. At 35 Garzelli is at the upper end physically when it comes to peak Giro winning age. Yes, Armstrong is older but Garzelli doesn't quite share the same freakish natural attributes that Armstrong does. Aqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo will also lack the depth of its ProTour rivals.

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Gilberto Simoni - Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli

Gilberto Simoni knows what it takes
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Giro history: Gilberto Simoni's career has been so focused on the Giro that his record in the event is practically his complete palmares. Giro wins? He's got two of those. Other Giro podium finishes? Five of them. While he's been off the podium in the last two seasons, he hasn't been far away. Fourth in 2007 and 10th in 2008 is testament to that. Simoni is the closest living thing to the Energizer bunny, and the maglia rosa is the right colour, too...

Preparation: Simoni's lead in to this year's Giro has been as good as in recent years. Fifth in the Giro del Trentino built on his 21st at Tirreno - Adriatico. He even clocked up an early season win at Vuelta y Ruta de Mexico - because he can.

Pros: Simoni just keeps going and going and going. His career-long focus on the Giro has taught us he knows how to prepare consistently each year for his home Grand Tour.

Cons: The 2009 Giro will be a step up from last year, the 37-year-old will need to match that rise to remain competitive. The recent positive doping control of Davide Rebellin has drawn negative attention the team's way.

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Levi Leipheimer - Astana

This year may be Levi Leipheimer's season
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Giro history: Last year's Giro d'Italia was the American rider's debut at Italy's Grand Tour, and it wasn't even a planned appearance. He was pulled from the Volta a Catalunya and Dauphiné Libéré to contest the race after Astana's late call-up, but Leipheimer still rode consistently while supporting team-mate Alberto Contador. Leipheimer finished inside the top 10 on the Urbino stage, before going on to finish 18th on general classification.

Preparation: February's Tour of California seems like a long time ago, but Leipheimer was convincing in victory there. He dominated the Tour of the Gila last week - yet such a performance against America's top local squads hardly compares to the competition he'll face in Italy. One thing that was proven was his men's dedication - Chris Horner and Lance Armstrong showed they would pull him to the finish line even if it meant towing him behind their bikes.

Pros: Team director Johan Bruyneel - is there any question over the Belgian's ability to lead a team to Grand Tour victory? Workhorses and potential general classification back-ups Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner.

Cons: Big shoes to fill and it's yet to be seen if Leipheimer can go the step further in winning a Grand Tour.

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You should also look out for...

We've intentionally only mentioned one (okay, two in Astana's case) rider from each of the top teams, however as noted many have hedged their bets with super-strong squads. Liquigas, Lampre-N.G.C., Astana and Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli all have more than one card to play.

You should also expect to see Fredrik Kessiakoff do something this month too. He might not be an overall contender, but Fuji-Servetto's Swede made the switch from mountain biking to road riding, climbing well early in the season and most recent;y in the Tour de Romandie. A break on a hard parcours should suit him nicely.

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