Everyone likes a bit of speculation and, for Italians, the art of more or less educated guesswork is practically a national sport.
For weeks every summer, in the absence of any on-field soccer action, the country’s number one sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport fills its pages with nothing but transfer rumours – and the newspaper provides a similar forum for gossip, hype and prediction in the days leading up to the Giro.
Not to be outdone, as the clock counted down to today’s team time trial, I’ve selected what I consider to be the 10 best general classification prospects and ranked them in what I reckon to be their “rightful” finishing position.
When I’ve finished in an hour or so, and while I scour Venice for a bookmaker to accept my 10,000,000-1 accumulator, please feel free to bombard this page with observations on and (probably) ridicule for my so-called “expert” view.
So, anyway, as the Italians say, pronti via….
1. Ivan Basso. Yup, Ivan the Terrible. He wouldn’t be a popular winner outside of Italy but I simply can’t see anyone who’ll be able to stick with him in the mountains – not consistently and for three weeks anyway. His mediocre time-trialling this season has only intensified scrutiny of his past achievements and that, ahem, “failed” attempt to dope in 2006.
But none of that will matter in Rome in three weeks time. “I’m f#*ing flying” Basso whispered in broken, nasally English to one of his team’s entourage in Lido di Iesolo on Thursday; I’d guess that we’ll all see what he meant when the race heads into the Dolomites on Tuesday and Wednesday.
2. Levi Leipheimer. A lot of pundits have made Leipheimer their favourite this week - and there’s much in his recent performances to recommend him. Doubters have talked and will continue to speculate about how much Levi will pay for his inexperience in the Giro and the effect of the tifosi, but I think it’s simpler than that: while the American ought to beat Basso by at least a minute on the gnarly, 61km time trial on stage 12, I believe that the Italian will more than make amends in the Dolomites and the Apennines.
3. Carlos Sastre. Practically every rider I’ve spoken to about Sastre this year has curled their bottom lip and muttered words to the effect of “Nah, he’s not looking good…” Until a couple of weeks ago, that is. He wasn’t in mix in Liège-Bastogne-Liège but those who saw the Cervélo man in Belgium said he was a different rider to the one who looked so off-colour in races like the Tour of California earlier this year. On Friday, he said: “the Giro’s my first big objective of the year, a race to win, not to use as preparation for the Tour”. Sastre doesn’t have the team to win but a podium place looks realistic.
4. Danilo Di Luca. A surprise selection, this one. Di Luca has kept a very profile (no biological passport-related pun intended) this season – largely because his LPR Brakes team missed out on “The Killer’s” favourite Ardennes Classics. But beware: Di Luca reckons he feels “as good as in 2007”, when he won the Giro (cue more raised eyebrows), plus he has an uncanny habit of riding well in odd-numbered years. There’s also a course that will suit explosive riders like him, plus a team of strong climbers, and his promise to offer some solace to his native Abruzzo, devastated by an earthquake a few weeks ago.
5. Stefano Garzelli. This won’t please supporters of the unblemished new guard either, but the 35-year-old has shown excellent form this year. He has also – you can’t fail to notice – been namechecked by Lance Armstrong in almost all of Big Tex’s discussions of likely favourites. With the Cuneo-Pinerolo and Blockhaus stages now sawn off to a fraction of their former difficulty, there’s nothing except the dreaded 61km individual time trial to frighten Garzelli – and plenty of places for his finishing kick to translate into time bonuses.
6. Denis Menchov. Rabobank’s eternal enigma will probably never win a Giro or a Tour – but he is one of the more consistent stage racers on the international stage. You’d guess that the Russian wouldn’t relish the uncertain, nervous nature of this year’s course; you might also imagine that imagination and opportunism will be two key qualities on such an unpredictable route – and Menchov isn’t noted for neither. He did, though, show last year that he can motivate himself for the Giro. He also has two solid lieutenants in Mauricio Ardila and Laurens Ten Dam.
7. Janez Brajkovic. Oscar Periero and the 2006 Tour de France excepted, it’s rare that a rider can mount a challenge based on a whimsical break and the peloton’s even more whimsical refusal to chase – but I can easily envisage Brajkovic starring in a similar scenario over the next three weeks. While everyone watches his team-mates Leipheimer and Armstrong, the Slovenian could easily sneak into a dangerous move and regain much of the time he might lose on a bad day in the mountains. Brajkovic is also one of the few riders who will revel in the time trial to Riomaggiore on Day 12.
8. Damiano Cunego. We’ve got used to Cunego trying to douse the hype that’s surrounded him since his freak win in 2004 – and the Little Prince has done such a good job that these days he has to talk himself up to avoid being completely overlooked by the media. Cunego reckons he can still contend; I’d argue that a guy who might not be one of the top ten climbers in the race, and certainly isn’t one of the best ten time triallists has no hope. I said that his 2004 Giro was a freak occurrence; it was also a mystery.
9. Marzio Bruseghin. Has the weapons to outperform Cunego, especially with three tricky time trials on the route. Unfortunately I can see him being roped in to domestique duties if his nominal team captain has good form in the Dolomites. Riders with bigger egos would stand their ground; after a career of self-sacrifice, I suspect Bruseghin’s instinct will be to dutifully return to water-carrying duties. If so, it’ll be a shame because, with last year’s form, there’s nothing on this Giro route to intimidate the 34 year old.
10. Michele Scarponi. Another “survivor” of Operacion Puerto, Scarponi looks a better climber than his captain Gibo Simoni – and will be hugely motivated by stages 14 to 16, all of which are either geographically close to or technically similar to the roads on which Scarponi grew up as a cyclist. The Giro will be poorer for Simoni’s absence from the top ten – and particularly his mood swings. Something, though, tells me that this will be one Giro too far for the old warhorse, at least in terms of an overall challenge.
Lance Armstrong: A GC position on the fringes of the top ten plus a stage win looks to be like LA’s best-case scenario; the worst would be a nasty crash-landing in the Dolomites on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by two-and-a-half weeks of anonymity.
Franco Pellizotti: Last year’s stage win and four days in pink, plus his fourth place overall, is as good as it’s ever going to get for Liquigas’s Glenn Close tribute-act.
Michael Rogers: Columbia are optimistic. I’d guess that it’ll take the Aussie three weeks to find his grove here, after which he’ll fare better at the Tour.
Christian Vande Velde: Modest ambitions and motivation translate into modest performances. CVV has made no secret of the fact that he’s here to warm up the engine for the Tour.
Juan Mauricio Soler: Under the radar since crashing out of last year’s Tour in the first week. Could be awesome or awful, and embarrassingly so in retrospect of his heroics at the 2007 Grande Boucle.
Eros Capecchi: Smooth-moving Fuji-Servetto prodigy who climbs well enough to threaten the top ten.
Chris Froome: Looks like a choir-boy but climbs like a demon. Might also surprise on the dreaded 61km time trial in Liguria.
John Lee Augustyn: He of the heart-in-mouth tumble down the Col de la Bonnette at last year’s Tour. An outstanding climber who, on a more mountainous course, might have squeezed into my top ten.
Frederik Kessiakoff: The Swedish-born, partly Greek raised former mountain biker has been turning heads in his first full road season. Rides for Fuji-Servetto.
Please feel free to bombard me with disdain..providing that you stay tuned for daily blogs on the Giro for the next three weeks.