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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 1-star riders that may finish on the podium if everything goes their way.


Ion Izagirre (*)

In a team that can boast the talent of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, it is very hard to find the room to ride for yourself in a grand tour. However, the two grand tour stars have both opted for the Tour-Vuelta double in 2015 and this has suddenly opened the door for the many talents on the impressive Movistar roster to ride for themselves in the Giro d’Italia.


With none of their stars in the race, the Spanish team will go into the race with a much flatter hierarchy and Benat Intxausti, Jesus Herrada and Ion Izagirre will all be given the chance to shine on select stages and in the fight for the overall. Intxausti may have the most impressive grand tour palmares of the trio but it may actually be Izagirre who emerges as Movistar’s best card on the Italian roads.


Izagirre is already in his fifth year as a professional and he has not been one of those riders who have gone from success to success right from the start of their careers. In fact, he has had a very steady progress but he gave signs of what he is capable of when he took a stage win at his grand tour debut as a young second-year professional in 2012. One year later he proved himself capable of contending for overall victories in WorldTour stage races when he finished second in a very hard edition of the Tour de Pologne and fourth in the Tour Down Under and last year he added another notch to his level when he repeated the Polish performance and took 8th in the Tour de Romandie.


This year Izagirre has made it clear that he wants to improve as a stage race ride and he has made massive progress. In the Volta ao Algarve, he punctured in the first mountain stage but still managed to take third in the queen stage to move into 10th overall. Bad luck again took him out of contention in Paris-Nice but in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco he finally managed to get through a stage race without any kind of misfortune.


Going into the race, Izagirre was expected to ride in support of former winner Quintana and he dutifully did his job by riding on the front in the mountain stages. However, he still managed to stay in contention and by the time the race had ended after the final time trial, he stood on the podium in third and had even beaten his captain. The result obviously left him wondering what might have been if he had been riding for himself and must have given him a big confidence boost for the Giro.


However, Izagirre finds himself in untested territory in Italy. He has done three grand tours in the past but he has never been riding for GC. Nobody knows how he will handle the strains of three weeks of stress and whether he can avoid a bad day. In fact, his previous grand tours have been marked by highly inconsistent performances and he needs to overcome that weakness if he wants to be a GC contender.


On the other hand, Izagirre has the right versatile skills to contend for the podium. He is an excellent time triallist who rarely misses the top 10 in hilly TTs and among the GC riders in this race he is one of the best in the race against the clock. He should find the lumpy parcours on stage 14 to his liking and he could easily find himself in podium contention at the end of the second week.


Izagirre has clearly improved his climbing a lot but until now he has mainly excelled on shorter climbs. He still hasn’t proved consistently well in the high mountains and there is a big difference between the short climbs in Poland and the Basque Country and the big mountains in the Dolomites. That leaves certain question marks regarding his ability to handle this kind of racing and in addition to the question of recovery, it makes his GC campaign highly uncertain. On the other hand, the importance of the time trial and his great progress means that he is ready to test himself in a grand tour and we wouldn’t be surprised if the Spanish champions ends up as one of the talking points during the three-week race.


Benat Intxausti (*)

Consistency is usually the key to grand tour success and Benat Intxausti’s career can be described as anything but nice. Nonetheless, the Basque has already finished in the top 10 of a three-week race twice and after one year in which he sacrificed his chances for his leaders, he will again be back in a captaincy role for the Giro.


While riding at the U23 level, Intxausti was widely regarded as one of the biggest Spanish stage racing talents but after he turned professional it took some time for him to finally flourish in a stage race. His major breakthrough came at the 2010 Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he finished third and after Alejandro Valverde was stripped from his second place, he was even elevated to second. One year later he was fourth in the same race and fifth in the Tour de Romandie and the good results naturally created expectations for him in the grand tours. However, the inconsistency was evident for the talented Basque. In some races, he was flying while he was far off the pace in other major events and in the three-week races he was a perennial disappointment.


Things finally seemed to change in 2012 when he arrived at the Giro on the back of an overall victory in the Vuelta Asturias. That elevated him into a captaincy role at the Movistar team and finally he managed to put together a consistent showing. Going into the final week, he was poised for a top 10 result but he fell ill and fell completely out of GC contention.


However, the results was the first signal that Intxatusti has what it takes to be a grand tour contender and later that year things came together at the Vuelta where he finished 10th overall despite working in a support role for Alejandro Valverde who finished second. That made it natural for manager Eusebio Unzue to make him the Giro captain and the Italian race turned out to be his breakthrough as grand tour rider. After a good team time trial for the Movistar team, he rode himself into pink for a single day and even though he lost the jersey after a poor time trial, he maintained a high level to finish 8th overall and win a memorable stage along the way.


That created expectations for the Vuelta but Intxausti returned to his inconsistent self. In the Spanish grand tour, he was for from the rider who shone in the Giro and he was never able to deliver any kind of contribution to Valverde. Hence, no one expected anything from Intxausti when he lined up for the Tour of Beijing but suddenly his legs had come around and the strong Basque rode away with the overall victory in the WorldTour race.


Last year a similar scenario unfolded in the spring. He was totally anonymous in the Ardennes where he was expected to be a key support for Valverde but one week later he finished sixth in the Tour de Romandie. His grand tour schedule had changed as he was asked to support his leader in the Tour but again he failed to make much of a contribution. Nonetheless, he came out of the race in excellent condition and finished third in the Tour de Pologne just two weeks after the end of the grand tour.


That kind of inconsistency makes Intxausti one of the most unpredictable riders in the peloton and you should never put too much emphasis on his recent performances. However, the start to the 2014 season has been his best for several years and that may indicate that he is on track for a solid Giro. He finished third in the Vuelta a Andalucia behind the untouchable duo of Froome and Contador which created huge expectations for Paris-Nice where a bout of illness took him out of contention. Since then he went on to play a key role for Quintana in Pais Vasco – and finish 5th in the final hard time trial – and he delivered a solid second place behind Pierre Rolland in his most recent race at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon.


Last year’s failed Tour de France has made it natural for Movistar to return to the formula that has worked in the past but this year he won’t be the undisputed leader of the team. In fact, the team will go into the race with numerous cards to play and he will have to share the captaincy with Ion Izagirre, Jesus Herrada and maybe Igor Anton. In Pais Vasco and GP Miguel Indurain, he was clearly overshadowed by Izagirre who may be Movistar’s best card. However, unlike his Basque teammate, Intxausti has proved that he can ride for GC in a three-week race and even though he will never win a grand tour, he knows how to maintain his level for the duration of a grand tour.


Intxausti is a versatile rider who can both climb and time trial. On a hilly course, he is actually an excellent time triallist and it is no wonder that he always among the best in the Pais Vasco TT which is always a very difficult affair. However, he suffers a lot more on flatter courses and apart from his fifth place in the 2012 Vuelta TT he has never managed to put together a good TT in a grand tour. This year stage 14 has a bit of everything but overall it may be a bit too easy to suit him perfectly. On the other hand, he is definitely a better time triallist that many GC rivals and this means that the course should suit him pretty well.


It is always one or the other when it comes to Intxausti and you never know what rider you will get. However, he seems to be in a similar place as he was in 2013 when he did his best ever grand tour. There is a chance that he will be overshadowed by Intxausti but ad Movistar won’t have to control the race he won’t have to sacrifice his own ambitions to support his teammate. 2015 could be one of those years when Intxausti is a protagonist in the grand tours.


Przemyslaw Niemiec (*)

For several years, Przemyslaw Niemiec didn't get the chances that his undisputed talent deserved. Riding for smaller continental teams, he was a perennial contender in the hardest Italian races but for some reason, he was never given the chance at the highest level. Not even an overall victory and three stage wins at the Route du Sud and a podium spot and two stage victories at the Giro del Trentino were enough to convince one of cycling's major teams that he deserved a spot on their roster.


His fortunes finally changed when Lampre-Merida signed him for the 2011 season but he had a hard time adjusting to consistently riding at the highest level. Furthermore, he mostly rode as a domestique and got very few personal opportunities.


He showed glimpses of his potential when he finished 15th in the 2012 Vuelta and it seems that the experience of riding a grand tour for the GC made him improve a lot. In 2013 he was riding better than ever and he capped an excellent spring season that included top 10 results in Tirreno, Catalunya and Trentino with a 6th place in the Giro despite riding in support of Michele Scarponi.


With Scarponi now riding for Astana and new signing Chris Horner out with injury, Niemiec got his first ever chance to be the undisputed leader in a grand tour in last year’s Giro. He was allowed to specifically prepare the challenge and after a slow start to the season, he seemed to be finding his form just in time for his big objective. Having shown signs of form before falling ill in Catalunya, he finished 3rd overall in Trentino.


However, nothing went according to plan for Niemiec who was one several riders to crash in the wet and slippery stage 6 and from there he played no role in the race. He tried to bounce back with a few attacks in the mountains but he ended the race in 49th without any results whatsoever.


Niemiec refocused on the second half of the season where the Vuelta is his big goal. Unlike in 2013, he skipped the Tour de France and was expected to be the lieutenant for defending champion Chris Horner. However, the American was taken out of the race on the eve of the start due to elevated cortisol levels and so Niemiec again found himself with a leadership role.


Unfortunately, the GC ambitions again came to nothing for the veteran Pole who suffered in the heat in the first week. When they reached the colder north, however, he was back at a higher level and he completed a successful day in a breakaway by taking a memorable solo win in the big mountain stage to Lagos de Covadonga.


This year Niemiec will again be the team leader which is no small thing for an Italian team like Lampre-Merida. However, they won’t be completely geared towards the GC as Sacha Modolo will have Maximilano Richeze and Roberto Ferrari to lead him out in the sprints and Diego Ulissi will have a free hand to chase stage wins. Nonetheless, Niemiec will be given his chance to see what he can do in the overall.


Unlike in 2013, the build-up has not been a very successful one. He looked strong in early March when he finished 9th in Strade Bianche and 12th in Tirreno-Adriatico on a course that didn’t suit him. However, he suffered a hunger knock in the Volta a Catalunya and having lost all options, he even crashed in the penultimate stage before leaving the race. He then prepared for the Giro at altitude before he lined up in Romandie. Again he was hit by bad luck as he crashed out on contention in stage 2 and then devoted himself to supporting Rui Costa.


Hence, he goes into the Giro with no big results in the early part of the season and he hasn’t been contending for the win in a major stage race since he finished fifth in last year’s Tour de Pologne. However, the Polish race, the Giro del Trentino and his excellent ride in the Spanish mountains prove that he still has the level to climb with the best.


Unfortunately, the course doesn’t suit him very well. Niemiec is no good time triallist and with stage 14 being extremely important, it will be hard for him to be a real podium contender. The mountain stages are not very hard and Niemiec is not at a level where he can take back a lot of time from the strongest riders in the race.


Niemiec is not very explosive but knows himself extremely well and knows how to pace himself on a climb. This year's course doesn’t have its traditional finishes on short, steep ramps and the summit finishes are much more suited to Niemiec’s characteristics.


On the other hand, he has proved that he can maintain his level in a three-week race and last year he showed signs of improvement in the time trials. He did a very good TT in Poland, describing it as the best of his life, and if he can come up with a similar ride, a top 5 result in not out of the question. He still had to prove that Father Age hasn’t caught up with him but he can rediscover his 2013 legs, he could again get the chance to blossom at the ripe age of 35.


Davide Formolo (*)

When Italians are asked to describe their order of succession of grand tour stars, they usually come up with a clear hierarchy. As the reigning Tour de France champion, Vincenzo Nibali is the obvious number 1 and Fabio Aru has firmly established himself as second in the line of succession. However, it is a general expectation that the rider who will take over from Aru is Davide Formolo who will be making his grand tour debut in Italy this sprint.


In 2014, Formolo had an outstanding start to his professional career. Already in February, he caught our attention when he seemed to be the strongest in the hard Italian one-day races at the start of the year. Later a bout of illness set him back but he bounced back with a great showing in the spring and early summer. Right after his recovery, he was already fourth in the Tour of Turkey but it was his performance in June that really confirmed his potential. First finished seventh in his first ever WorldTour race at the Tour de Suisse and later he caught the attention of the general Italian cycling fans when an in-form Vincenzo Nibali was unable to drop him at the Italian championships just weeks before he stood on the top step fo the podium as Tour de France champion.


That performance created huge expectations for Formolo and it was only natural for Jonathan Vaughters to keep him when the Cannondale and Garmin teams merged. In fact, the team manager has so much confidence in his protégé that he has already described him as a future winner of the Giro d’Italia.


For a long time, it was a bit uncertain whether Formolo would be at the start of the Giro. A grand tour debut was always part of the plan but the Vuelta a Espana was another option. Formolo made it clear that he would prefer to ride his home race but Vaughters was reluctant to send his young star to a race where he would find himself under a lot of pressure. In the end, Formolo had it his way though and even though Cannondale-Garmin haven’t confirmed their roster yet, it is no secret that he will be at the start in San Lorenzo Al Mare.


If it had been 2014, we would have had huge expectations for Formolo but now we are a little more hesitant. For some reason, the Italian climber has been unable to find the legs he had in the early part of last season. In fact, he already struggled a bit last autumn and after a great start in Mallorca, he has been riding unusually poorly in the first part of 2015. He has had to deal with a bit of illness and he has been doing some high-level racing at the WorldTour but that can’t explain his sudden drop in performance. After all, he was also ill in 2014 and still managed to finish seventh in a tough WorldTour race.


Nonetheless, Formolo is a huge talent and he is one of the select few riders who are capable of delivering a major surprise on the Italian roads. His performances may be the result of a deliberate plan to stay fresher for the Giro and we won’t write Formolo off just yet. His excellent debut season clearly indicates that he is destined for a great future and he is clearly an uncut diamond.


Looking at the course, it may have been a better idea for him to ride the Vuelta a Espana. Formolo is a pure climber and even though he has worked a lot on his time trialling, he will definitely lose a big amount of time in stage 14. It will be a tough ask to take so much time back in the mountains that he will be a realistic top 5 contender. On the other hand, he won’t be too heavily marked and on paper he is only second in the hierarchy behind Ryder Hesjedal. This may relieve him of some pressure and allow him to go on the attack. If he can find back the legs he had on those memorable days in June, Formolo may be on everybody’s lips by the time the Giro peloton arrives in Milan.


Ryder Hesjedal (*)

It's rare for a rider to enter a grand tour just three years after an overall victory without barely being mentioned in the list of favourites. However, Ryder Hesjedal has had a very hard time since he became a very surprising winner of the 2012 edition of the Giro d'Italia.


In 2013 all seemed to be going according to plan when he lined up for his title defence. Having been one of the strongest riders in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he was riding very well in the first week of the race, seemingly at ease on the climbs and constantly on the attack. However, things started to unravel in the long time trial and just a few days later he abandoned the race due to illness.


He seemed to be bouncing back when he produced a fantastic ride in the first mountain stage of the Tour de Suisse but crashed out of the race one day later. To make things even worse, he fractured a rib in the first week of the Tour de France but still managed to ride a visible and aggressive race in the mountains despite suffering from his injury. He proved that he is still a capable bike rider though when he ended his season by taking third in the GP Montreal.


When it comes to defending his status as a grand tour contender, 2014 was a year to forget for the lanky Canadian. He lined up in Belfast for the Giro with lots of ambitions but things went wrong already on the first day when almost half of the Garmin team crashed in the team time trial. With a significant time loss, Hesjedal was no longer a potential winner of the race but he refused to give up. He rode a consistent race to gradually take back time and even got close to a memorable stage win on the snowy day to Valmartello where he finished second behind Nairo Quintana. In the end, he finished the race in 9th overall.


Hesjedal had hoped to deliver a better performance in the Vuelta but in the first week he paid the price for his usual lazy positioning in the bunch when he was caught out in the crosswinds in the first week. As he also lost time in the first mountain stage, he changed his goals and started to look for stage wins while also riding in support of Dan Martin. The efforts paid off as he won stage 14 on the brutally steep La Camperona climb.


Despite not having been in contention for the podium in a grand tour for three years, Hesjedal still claims that he has what it takes to the win the Giro and when he rolls down the start ramp in San Lorenzo Al Mare, his goal is the overall victory. With his recent results fresh on mind, that goal will be tough to achieve as nothing suggests that the Canadian can find back to the level he had in 2012.


Furthermore, he has done nothing to impress the pundits in the early part of the year. In fact, he has had a very slow start to the season where he has deliberately gradually build his condition for the Giro. He has followed a new racing programme that saw him skip the classics and instead he was the only Giro contender to do the Trentino-Romandie double which means that he goes into the race with lots of racing in his legs. He has shown signs of improvement but he is clearly still shy of his best condition.


On the other hand, Hesjedal has never been good in his preparation races. In 2012, he arrived at the Giro on the back of a 107th place in the Tour de Romandie queen stage and he still managed to win the race overall. There is no reason to be concerned with his lack of results in 2015 – the main concern is that he has been unable to climb with the best in 2014.


However, Hesjedal has lots of grand tour experience and he always gets better in the third week. That’s a massive advantage in a race where all the major challenges are gathered in the final part of the week. Furthermore, the lack of any very steep finishing climbs should suit him well. On the other hand, the importance of the time trial is not an asset for the lanky Canadian who may have won the 2012 Giro in the final race against the clock but has never been among the best in this discipline and his level seems to have dropped a bit over the last few years.


Hesjedal is part of a Cannondale-Garmin team that also includes Davide Formolo who will take much of the attention from the Italian press. In fact no one is really talking about the former winner of the race and that may be an advantage for him. No one did so in 2012 and back then he caught everyone by surprise when he won the race overall. That is unlikely to happen in 2015 but history proves that you can never rule out a strong ride from the Cannondale-Garmin leader.


Other top 10 contenders: Damiano Caruso, Igor Anton, Mikel Nieve, Damiano Cunego, Tom Danielson, Steven Kruijswijk, Franco Pellizotti, Sebastien Reichenbach, Yury Trofimov, Mikel Landa, Tanel Kangert, Diego Rosa, Maxime Monfort, Edoarzo Zardini, Darwin Atapuma, Sylwester Szmyd, Alexandre Geniez, Kenny Elissonde, Sergey Chernetskii, Sebastien Henao



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