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The 88th Giro d'Italia starts tomorrow in Reggio Calabria and promises to be one of the most competitive of recent years, as the usual pack of Italian contenders do battle not only with each other but also with some high class foreign riders. Although Italians such as Damiano Cunego, Gilberto Simoni, Ivan Basso and Stefano Garzelli head the list of favourites for the maglia rosa, the introduction of the ProTour has beefed up the Giro's field, bringing back teams such as T-Mobile, Illes Balears and Liberty Seguros that have tended to opt for other objectives at this time of year.
The race starts with one of the most bizarre of prologue stages ever seen - measuring just 1.150km along the Reggio Calabria seafront. The opportunity of even just a day in the leader's jersey and the glory associated with it has drawn in some notable time trial performers, including Britain's Bradley Wiggins, who made his major tour debut at the Giro two years ago with fdjeux.com.
The first few days should allow a host of sprinting talent to take centre stage. After winning no less than nine stages last year and looking just as strong through the early part of this season, Alessandro Petacchi is clearly the man to beat. But the Italian and his Fassa Bortolo 'train' will have their timing just right to hold off Robbie McEwen, Erik Zabel, Tom Steels, Paride Grillo, Olaf Pollack and several others. And if there is the slightest sniff of a hill coming into a finish such as on Sunday's stage into Tropea, a number of other riders will come into contention, led by ProTour leader Danilo Di Luca, Paolo Bettini and even Cunego.
The first long time trial takes place a week on Sunday and should mark the emergence of some of the overall contenders. Most of them will be saving themselves as much as possible to that point, although there is always a stage or two during the early days of the Giro when a seemingly unremarkable stage profile causes unexpected damage to some challengers - next Saturday's stage into Pistoia looks particularly tricky.
This is the most mountainous Giro for five years in terms of metres climbed (22,040 this year compared to 18,700 last), and the key action begins in the Dolomites with a summit finish at Zoldo Alto on stage 11. The third weekend of the race concludes with a epic stage over the Stelvio and into Livigno.
However, the decisive action is packed into the tail-end of the final week. It begins on the final Thursday with a summit finish at Limone Piemonte, continues the following day with a tough time trial into Turin that includes the Superga climb, and is followed by a beast of a stage on the penultimate day to Sestriere. This includes the much discussed Finestre climb (see June's procycling), which has a dirt surface for its final 8km and averages 9.2% over its 18km in total.
According to the bookies, Cunego is the favourite to win the title in Milan on May 29, but the young Italian only has a narrow edge over compatriot Basso, who is the favourite among procycling.com readers. However, according to Cunego's Lampre-Caffita DS Giuseppe Martinelli, their captain is double Giro winner Simoni. He told La Gazzetta dello Sport that Cunego has been told this and this will remain the case "unless the road decides otherwise".
Does that suggest the possibility of a repeat of the bitter split between the two Lampre riders that we saw last year, or the establishment of a united front to combat the considerable threat of Basso? Your guess is as good as ours, but all three riders will be keeping a close watch on Garzelli, Paolo Savoldelli, Serhiy Honchar, Michele Scarponi and a number of others in what will be a fascinating battle.
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