Former seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong may have insisted he is not in the running for overall victory but the Texan will still be the major draw at the centenary Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) which begins with a team time-trial in Venice on Saturday.
Ever since the 37-year-old American announced his participation in the Giro d'Italia for the first time, there has been speculation that he would use the event merely as preparation for July's Tour de France and his bid for a record eighth title.
Armstrong and his Astana team had insisted he would be trying to win in Italy, but a crash and broken collarbone at the Tour of Castilla and Leon in March put paid to those ambitions.
There were even doubts about whether he would make the start line in Italy but he will be there and riding for team-mate and compatriot Levi Leipheimer, whilst looking for stage victories.
"Of course breaking my collarbone has changed my ambitions for the Giro, but I look forward to that race," Armstrong said recently. "I can ride without pressure in an event that I've always wanted to do and I can try to help Levi win. The first priority is to protect (Leipheimer) and make sure that he fulfills his potential."
Leipheimer, who has won the Tour of California and the Tour of Castilla and Leon this season, is an experienced three-week Tour rider who finished second in last year's Tour of Spain and third in the Tour de France in 2007.
In both of those he finished behind team-mate and reigning Giro champion Alberto Contador of Spain, who will not race in Italy this time as he is concentrating on the Tour de France. Instead Leipheimer will have former Giro winners Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego, Danilo Di Luca and Gilberto Simoni as competition and he knows his toughest challenge will come from home racers.
"The Italians are super focused on it, and they know the Giro in and out," said Leipheimer, who finished 18th in this race last year. "With the Giro, we'll just take it day by day, kilometre by kilometre and just sort of have fun and do our best."
Basso seems to be the early favourite with even Armstrong and current world champion Alessandro Ballan tipping him for success.
The 31-year-old Italian Liquigas rider won the race by a huge margin in 2006 before he got caught up in the Operation Puerto scandal and was banned for two years.
His closest competition could come from 27-year-old Cunego of Lampre, who won the race in 2004 and has shown good stage race form this year in winning the week-long Coppi e Bartali.
LPR Brakes's Di Luca, the 2007 winner, could be amongst the front runners as could reigning Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre. However, the unassuming Spaniard's Cervelo team is not one of the strongest and he could find himself exposed in the many mountain stages.
Other than overall victory, the sprinters will also provide much entertainment as they try to win the green jersey.
Britain's Mark Cavendish looks to be the early favourite in that category. He won two stages last year as well as four in the Tour de France while his victory in this year's Milan-Sanremo classic certainly got everyone's attention.
© AFP 2009
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