The Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), unusually, starts off in the Netherlands on Saturday with a host of big names in with a chance of winning starting with Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre and Ivan Basso.
The 197-strong peloton will open with a 8.4 kilometres individual time-trial in the streets of Amsterdam before contesting two other Dutch stages to Utrecht and Middelburg.
They will then fly to Italy with a team time-trial set for May 12th between Savigliano and Cuneo.
After that the Giro winds through the Italian countryside with several tough climbs in prospect especially in the latter stages before the closing individual time-trial in Verona on May 30.
Last year's winner Denis Menchov is not competing this time and neither is Lance Armstrong who opted instead to compete in the Tour of California. But enough big names have signed up for the year's first major multi-stage race that often provides interesting pointers ahead of the Tour de France in July.
Australia's world champion Evans believes that this could be his best chance yet to capture and hold onto the leader's pink jersey especially since Tour de France winner Alberto Contador will not be standing in his way.
Evans has been in fine form so far this year posting a podium finish at Tirreno-Adriatico and grabbing a gutsy win at La Flèche Wallonne last month. He will be extra motivated by the fact that he is contesting his first Giro since 2002. That race was Evans' first career Grand Tour and one in which he spent a day in the pink jersey.
After finishing on the podiums of the 2007 and 2008 Tours de France and 2009 Tour of Spain, and falling just short in the 2006 Tour de France and 2007 Vuelta, Evans will be hungry to finally add a Grand Tour title to his collection.
On paper, though his BMC team looks weaker than the likes of Astana, Cervelo, Garmin-Transitions and Sky.
Former Tour de France winner Sastre would normally be a strong favourite, but he has struggled so far this year. However, the Spaniard has huge experience on his side having completed more Grand Tours than anyone else out there.
He's finished an impressive 20 Grand Tours and in addition has placed in the top ten of no fewer than 13 of those, including pipping Evans to win the 2008 Tour de France.
"I am here to win," Sastre said before cautioning that "This Giro looks very tough, especially the eight last days."
Basso has also not been at his best in recent times but his tremendous abilities as a climber means he will always be a threat to win his home tour.
The buildup to the race for his Liquigas team though has been less than ideal with the suspension of Franco Pellizotti, last year's runner up, for irregular biological passport blood values.
In the absence of Contador the Astana challenge will be headed by Kazakh veteran Alexandre Vinokourov, who underlined his form with a fine win in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic last month.
Vinokourov agreed that he is currently at his best, and believes he could grab the pink jersey, but he is doubtful he can hold onto it.
"I am heading off into the unknown," said the 36-year-old, who served a year ban for blood doping in 2007 after failing a test in that year's Tour de France. "It's the first time I have competed in the Giro. I have no pressure on me and I will take it one day at a time."
Others to watch out for include Britain's Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins, David Moncoutie of France and experienced Italian trio Damiano Cunego, Stefano Garzelli and Gilberto Simoni.
© AFP 2010
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