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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: Sirotti






07.05.2015 @ 23:58 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Giro d'Italia was once known as a predominantly affair but a clear strategy to internationalize the race has paid off. For the second year in a row, the two biggest favourites for the Italian grand tour are international stars as Alberto Contador and Richie Porte prepare themselves for a very exciting battle in the first three-week race. The start list may not be quite as star-studded as in 2014 but with local heroes Fabio Aru and Domenico Pozzovivo and the ever-consistent Rigoberto Uran all in the mix, the scene is set for three weeks of great racing. takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.


When Michele Acquarone took over the reins from Angelo Zomegnan as race director of the Giro d'Italia, he had a firm objective. He wanted to internationalize what was by many seen as a mostly Italian race in an attempt to challenge the position of the Tour de France as the world's leading bike race and the first premise for success in that regard was the attraction of more international stars to the race's line-up.


The effort has clearly paid off as a more balanced route design with shorter transfers, no excessive climbing and more time trialing has convinced several international stars to make the Giro a big  target of the season. Last year Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez both made the race their biggest goal of the season and it is the first big objective for Alberto Contador and Rigoberto Uran.


With Vincenzo Nibali again focusing on the Tour de France, the local fans will again have to look to Fabio Aru and Domenico Pozzovivo to come up with the goods while riders like Rigoberto Uran, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Ryder Hesjedal, Prsemyslaw Niemiec, Carlos Betancur, Ilnur Zakarin, Roman Kreuziger and Leopold König add more international flavor. The line-up may not be quite as star-studded as it was 12 months ago but the organizers have nothing to be ashamed of as they invite the cycling world to one of the most beautiful cycling festivals of the year. has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to five of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the big 5-star favourite.


Alberto Contador (*****)

Scroll back the time to September 2013 and recall how Alberto Contador found himself in a very difficult situation. Having had a disastrous spring season, the most decorated grand tour rider of the current generation had failed to finish on the podium at the Tour de France and his autumn season ended as a real disaster. Contador had made the World Championships his final big goal of the season but going into the hilly race which on paper should have suited him well, no one even mentioned him as a possible outsider. He finished the race anonymously and one week later he delivered a disastrous performance in Il Lombardia.


At the same time, he found himself in a difficult situation with his team. Rumours had started to emerge that then team owner Bjarne Riis was no longer willing to build his team around his star rider and only a long, expensive contract with the Spaniard seemed to prevent the Dane from making a change in team leadership. Things didn’t look any brighter when Oleg Tinkov who had publicly criticized his performances took over the reins two months later.


If anyone had suggested such a scenario when Contador crushed the opposition in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, he would have been proclaimed completely ignorant. Nonetheless, the relatively short suspension he served for his famous clenbuterol case apparently has a disastrous effect on his performances. He performed well at his first race, the Eneco Tour, but as soon as the Vuelta hit his preferred terrain in the mountains, it became obvious that Contador was not his usual self.


At his pre-suspension level, he would just have ridden away from Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez to put daylight into them at the finish line but this time it did not happen. While he was able to distance his compatriots on a number of occasions, Rodriguez always managed to claw his way back to the Saxo-Tinkoff leader. In the final mountain stage to Bola the Mundo, they even left the usually superior Contador behind, and the multiple grand tour champion had to make use of a bold move in an intermediate stage - completely unsuited to Rodriguez' characteristics - to take a win that appeared to have escaped him at that point.


His woes continued for the entire 2013 season and reached a low point when he failed to finish on the podium in the Tour de France, an event he had completely dominated in his heydays. At the end of the year, Contador had only won a single race, a stage in the Tour de San Luis at a time when nobody was even close to their best condition.


There was no explanation of his sudden drop in performance level but in sport the difference between success and failure is usually very small. And just as fast as he went from grandiose to mediocre, he turned everything around and turned the 2014 season into one of the greatest in a long and glorious career.


Contador made the wise decision to leave behind all experiments and go back to the formula that had worked in the past. During the off-season, he scaled down on his different commitments to focus on his training and diet. He postponed racing debut and again kicked off his season in the Volta ao Algarve as he had done successfully in the past. He focused on select WorldTour stage races in the spring and forgot the idea of going for glory in the Ardennes.


The efforts paid off as he emerged as the stage race rider of the spring season, winning the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing second in Algarve and the Volta a Catalunya. With a solid performance in the Criterium du Dauphiné, he was on track for big things in the Tour de France until a disastrous crash on a wet day in the Vosges sent him out of the race.


Contador went on to play one of his usual mind games with the press as he aimed to bounce back in the Vuelta a Espana. Claiming that he was not able to contend for the overall victory due to his injuries, he flew under the radar but by the time the race hit the mountains, he was ready to strike. He took the overall lead already at the halfway point and with two incredible stage victories in the hardest mountain stages, he both returned to his status as one of the top 2 grand tour riders in the world and got the much-needed revenge over Chris Froome.


However, Contador has still not been on the top step of the Tour de France since 2010 – and he has been stripped from that victory – and it has been very evident that his biggest desire is to show that he can again win the biggest event in the world. Hence, it came as a surprise to many that he vowed to take on the arduous Giro-Tour challenge in 2015, a double that has not been successfully completed since the late Marco Pantani did so in 1998 at a time when the sport was in a completely different place.


However, Contador has always been a rider who aims to make history. Another win in the Tour de France may be a personal satisfaction but it will do nothing to elevate him in the overall hierarchy of grand tour riders. A successful Giro-Tour double has always been part of his plans but with Father Age catching up with him and retirement looming – he has made it clear that the 2016 season will be the final one of his long career – the Spaniard has had to take the risk of going for double glory in 2015.


This also means that he finds himself in a completely different place than he did 12 months ago. The spring season cannot be described as a disaster but it was far from the jubilant run of success he had last year. He got a huge confidence boost when he beat Chris Froome in the first mountain stage of the Vuelta a Andalusia, only to see everything getting turned around by the Brit one day later. In his big goals Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta a Catalunya, he rode surprisingly poorly and was unable to make his usual difference in the mountains. In Catalunya, his morale must have taken a beating when key Giro rival Richie Porte distanced him in the queen stage.


Since then Contador has been preparing for the Giro at altitude in Tenerife and he hasn’t pinned on a number since he rolled across the line in Barcelona at the end of the Volta a Catalunya. That’s a very unusual approach as he has mostly been doing a key preparation race a few weeks before his grand tours.


Last year’s Vuelta proved that Contador can reach a sufficiently high level purely by training and this is likely to have played a key role in his planning. However, the main reason is definitely the fact that he has to approach the huge challenge of two consecutive grand tours with great caution. When he last tried the double in 2011, he was clearly fatigued in the Tour and this year he aims to go into the Giro a lot fresher.


Contador will regret the fact that the organizers have done nothing to make his big plans any easier. In 2011, he took a dominant victory in the Giro on a brutally hard course and he made the big mistake of playing too much with the muscles, even attacking to allow former teammate Paolo Tiralongo to win a stage. This year he will probably ride a lot more cautiously and he would surely have preferred a course that could allow him to take an early lead and then go into cruise control.


However, the course doesn’t do him any favours. On one hand, it is easier than it has been for several years and this should allow him to get fresher through the race. If it hadn’t been for Richie Porte, he may even have been able to take the lead after the long time trial in the penultimate weekend and then ride conservatively in the final big week where all the major mountains will be climbed.


With Porte in the race, however, he is likely to find himself on the back foot at the end of the long time trial and he will have to take that time back in the final week. The mountain stages are loaded with big and difficult climbs like Mortirolo, Colle delle Finestre and Passo Daone but what characterizes the stages is the fact that the hardest ascents all come early in the race. The finishing climbs are all pretty easy – a fact that Contador has already regretted – and he can’t expect to take back a lot of time on one single stage. Instead, it will probably be a case of picking up seconds here and there and this requires him to go deep on multiple occasions.


Contador has proved that no one recovers better than him in a grand tour so that won’t be a problem in the Giro. The real challenge comes at the Tour where he will find himself up against much fresher and very strong riders like Froome, Quintana and Nibali.


A major asset for Contador is his team. The Tinkoff-Saxo management clearly knows that their star rider needs to get as easily through the race as possible and this requires him to be supported by a formidable line-up. The team has gathered an almost all-inclusive list of their stars for the Italian race and with Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso at his side, he will have formidable support in the mountains. Among the key climbers, only Rafal Majka and Jesus Hernandez will save their energy for the Tour. On this kind of course, he needs that amount of firepower as the pretty easy mountain stages require him to make the racing hard and his teammates are definitely capable of that.


The key stage for Contador will be the long time trial in Valdobbiadene. Before his suspension, the Spaniard was an excellent time triallist who even beat Fabian Cancellara on an almost completely flat course at the 2009 Tour de France. Since his comeback, he has had a harder time and in fact he was time trialling terribly in his annus horibillis in 2013.


Last year he got closer to his past level but he is still not very consistent. He is always strong on hilly courses but he doesn’t have his previous power in flat time trials. Stage 14 in this race has a bit of both as the first part is plat and the second part is hilly. That combination is tailor-made for Porte and Contador is likely to lose time on that day. Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo are pretty equally matched in the TTT but he may have to concede a few seconds on the opening day too. He needs to take back that time in the mountains.


Despite those challenges, Contador must be the favourite to win the race. Compared to the likes of Fabio Aru and Domenico Pozzovivo, he is a much better time triallist and he is a much better climber than Rigoberto Uran. His main rival will be Porte but unlike the Australian, he has proved that he can ride consistently throughout 3 weeks. Porte still hasn’t shown that he can maintain his level over three weeks while Contador usually gets better and better. In that sense, the many mountain stages in the final week are a clear advantage for Contador even though it may hamper him in the Tour.


This year Porte has been climbing at an excellent level and he even managed to distance Contador in Catalonia. When it comes to the business end in the Giro, Contador must still have the upper hand though. When the Spaniard is at 100%, it seems that only Chris Froome can match him in the mountains and Porte still hasn’t proved that he can follow a fully fit Contador. The Tinkoff-Saxo claims not to be at the same level he had when he started last year’s Tour de France but he is fully satisfied with his level. This is a frightening signal for his rivals.


The Giro-Tour double is an arduous task for Contador and due to Porte’s presence of Contador and the unusual Giro course, he hasn’t been done any favours. Nonetheless, the biggest challenge doesn’t come in Italy. It will be reserved for the French roads in July. It may cost him more energy that he would have liked but there is a very big chance that the Spaniard will at least accomplish the first part of his mission when the Giro d’Italia arrives in Milan on May 31.



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