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It came as a surprise to many when Gesink announced that he would target the Giro this year and the decision is probably mostly due to the hope of his Blanco team that a good showing can attract a major sponsor prior to the Tour de France.


















06.05.2013 @ 09:01 Posted by Jesper Johannesen

After months of waiting the time has finally arrived. The race that the Italians have dubbed "The world's hardest race in the world's most beautiful country" is just days away from its start when three weeks of fascinating bike racing kicks off with a big bunch kick in the streets of Naples. Organizers RCS have managed to attract a formidable line-up of some of the world's best stage race riders who are ready to go head to head on the steep Italian climbs and the level of competition seems to be deeper than it has been for years. takes you through all the strengths and weaknesses of the race's major favourites and most dangerous outsiders.


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.


In just his second year as race director Acquarone's quest to convince the world's most formidable stage race riders to spend the month of May in Italy has been a successful one. Last year he had not had much time to make the necessary changes but the results of his efforts are evident this year. A much more modest and well-balanced route with fewer mountain stages and no excessively steep climbs, shorter and more human transfers and an more open mind towards the riders' wishes have all contributed to what seems to be the strongest line-up for the Italian grand tour for years.


What has previously mostly been a battle between the biggest Italian stars is now a multinational affair when home riders like Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso go head to head with the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Ryder Hesjedal, Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez and Robert Gesink on the steep Italian climbs. While the race has mostly been dubbed as Wiggins-Nibali duel the depth of the field means that it is much more than that and it would be a huge mistake to reduce the number of potential winners to just those two. has assigned a number of stars to the 15 most likely winners of the Italian grand tour with 5 stars given to the number one favourite and 1 star to riders who have only an outside chance to win the race. Below we go through all the strengths and weaknesses of the race's 9 outsiders - riders with 1 or 2 stars - and in a separate article we take a closer look at the favourites - contenders who have been assigned either 3, 4 or 5 stars.



Robert Gesink (**)

Robert Gesink gave huge promises when he was younger and since then he has continued to signal a breakthrough in the near future with a number of impressive performances in week-long stage races. Had it not been for a crash, he could even have won the 2009 Vuelta. Since then he has continued to disappoint in the grand tours and even though he remains a formidable climber he seems to remain somewhat below the best when they are at their top level.


One of the key reasons for the lack of results is certainly his many crashes. He crashed out of his 2009 debut in the Tour and after a fine 5th place in 2010, new tumbles destroyed his chances in 2011 and 2012. Last year he bounced back and finished off the season with a 6th place in the Vuelta in what was his first possibility to battle for a top result in a grand tour since the 2010 Tour.


It came as a surprise to many when Gesink announced that he would target the Giro this year and the decision is probably mostly due to the hope of his Blanco team that a good showing in the early part of the season can attract a major sponsor prior to the Tour de France. It is certainly evident that the Dutch team places plenty of emphasis on the Italian race as their line-up for the race is no less than formidable.


Gesink started off the season strongly with a 3rd place in the hardest race on Mallorca and only a shower during his prologue prevented him from finishing in the top 10 in the Vuelta a Andalucia. He used a strong 4th place in the Vuelta a Murcia to prove that he was ready for his early-season objective in the Paris-Nice but illness forced him out of the French race despite a very good prologue from the Dutchman. He had not completely recovered when he started the Volta a Catalunya a week later and nonetheless he used an attacking performance to end up 6th.


However, the Catalonian race did little to remove the impression that he is still a level below the best climbers and the hope was that a training camp at altitude in the Sierra Nevada should give him those few extra percentages. While the condition of teammates Wilco Kelderman, Juan Manuel Garate and Stef Clement had certainly improved during their stay in Spain, Gesink was a hugely disappointing 54th in last week's Tour de Romandie. Keeping in mind that he is usually strong in his last preparation races - in 2010 he crushed the opposition on the mountain stage in the Tour de Suisse - it was surprising to see the Blanco management declare complete satisfaction with his performance in Switzerland.


It appears to be now or never if Gesink wants to remain number 1 in the GC hierarchy in Blanco and he has no excuse as his build-up has been perfect. His main strength is his strong team where Kelderman and Steven Kruijswijk should be able to stay among the favourites deep into the final part of the race, and if he can rediscover the feelings he had in last year's Tour of California, the 2010 Tour de Suisse or the early part of the 2011 season, he could be able to challenge the best on the hardest climbs.


In the past the time trial was a huge weakness but the Dutchman is maybe the grand tour rider who has improved most in the discipline in recent years. It all started with his win in the Tour of Oman time trial in 2011 and since then he has gone from strength to strength in the race against the clock. He will never be a specialist but there are certainly other GC riders who will lose much more than the Dutchman in stage 8. Nonetheless, he will still lose plenty of time to Wiggins and once again it is hard to see the Blanco captain match the Sky leader in the mountains.


Ivan Basso (**)

Once again Ivan Basso lines up at the Giro with huge GC ambitions and once again he is a major question mark. His results in the last two seasons suggest that the 35-year old Italian is beyond his best but major crashes destroyed his preparations for his major objectives in the 2011 Tour (he was 7th) and the 2012 Giro (he was 5th).


For the first time in years Basso lines up at the start of a grand tour after an injury- and illness-free build-up and the last time he did that he won the 2010 Giro. At his age it is, however, hard to imagine the Italian getting back to his best three years after his last top performance and he seems to know it himself. Unlike last year, neither he nor the Cannondale team have talked about the overall win prior to the race and instead they seem to focus on a possible podium place.


Basso has had a very low-key start to the season with anonymous 48th and 19th places in the Paris-Nice and the Giro del Trentino respectively and last week he decided to abandon the Tour de Romandie prior to the final time trial after having been distanced on the previous the day in the mountains. His only encouraging performance came at the Coppi e Bartali race in March in which he was 4th. Since then he has prepared his Giro bid on Tenerife and he seems to be following his traditional pattern where he is invisible in most races in his preparation of a grand tour. His 2010 Giro victory came on the heels of a modest 35th place in the Tour de Romandie.


Basso has always been known for his diesel engine and he has always been the one to get stronger and stronger as the race went one - the 2010 Giro is the most obvious example. However, his latest grand tours have all seen a different trend as he seemed to fade in the end of both the 2011 Tour and the 2012 Giro. He writes it down to a lack of preparation due to his crashes but it is difficult to completely avoid the thought that age has finally caught up with the veteran Italian.


If his diesel engine is back to his best, he will happy to see the mountain stages mostly held in the final part of the race but before he gets to this point, he has to overcome the 54,8km hurdle that awaits in stage 8. His time trial performances after his comeback from suspension have been lacklustre at best and it is difficult to imagine that he was 2nd behind Jan Ullrich in the race against the clock in the 2006 Giro and 5th in the final individual effort in the 2005 Tour. He will certainly lose plenty of time to Wiggins and it will be a very tough ask for the double winner to take back that time and challenge for a third win in his home grand tour.


Domenico Pozzovivo (**)

Domenico Pozzovivo was about to build up a reputation as the eternal disappointment in the Giro until he finally managed to put the pieces together in last year's edition of the Italian grand tour. On the heels of a fantastic overall win in the Giro del Trentino he used his formidable climbing abilities to take a stage win on his way to an overall 8th place.


His strong results finally gave him the chance in a ProTeam and he was picked up by the Ag2r squad prior to this season. From the start he was pinpointed as the team's Giro leader and he seemed to be on track when he was one of the main aggressors in the first summit finish in the Giro del Trentino. One day later he was in hospital with two rib fractures and he was forced to cancel his participation in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Despite his bad luck he has tried to continue his preparation but there is no doubt that he will be severely hampered by his less than ideal build-up when the race kicks off.


He may benefit from the fact that the crucial stages are concentrated in the final part of the race and so he has some time to ride himself into form but he could be one to lose time in one of the lumpy stages in the early part of the race where he may also be caught out due to his bad positioning. Furthermore, he will be the favourite who is most likely to be the biggest loser in the long time trial and he will face a huge task when he has to close a gap that could very well be as much as 5-6 minutes when he starts the mountain stages.


His abilities as a pure climber make him, however, perfectly suited to the very steep ascents in the final part of the race and his bad luck could maybe even provide a solution to another of his usual problems: the tendency to fade towards the end of a grand tour. Nonetheless, it will be very difficult for the tiny Italian to win the race and it would maybe be much better for him to target a big win in the mountains in the final week of the race.


Mauro Santambrogio (**)

If anyone had suggested that Mauro Santambrogio would be an outsider for the Giro d'Italia when he made public his new contract with the Vini Fantini-Selle Italia team at the end of last season, most people would probably have laughed. 6 months later the Italian nonetheless finds himself in this position.


He gave indications of his talents as a rider for the Ardennes classics in his final year with Lampre in 2009 but when he joined the BMC team he slotted into a loyal domestique role with limited opportunities to show his true potential. A strong end to the 2012 season where he finished 4th in the Tour of Lombardy did, however, indicate that he could be one of the revelations of the 2013 season and this is exactly what has happened.


He started off with a strong 6th place in the Tour de San Luis before he returned to Italy and was one of the strongest in the first one-day races in his home country. He finished 7th in the Tirreno-Adriatico and as it was the case in San Luis it was only his weak time trial that prevented a much higher finish. He had bad luck in the Coppi e Bartali race before he went to a training camp to prepare for the Giro.


If anyone thought that his good results in the early part of the season was a fluke, they were wrong. He returned to competition in the Giro del Trentino and managed to escape Wiggins and Nibali in the first summit finish before finishing 2nd behind Nibali on the steep Sega di Ala climb. On Saturday he won the GP Industria & Artigianato race in Italy in solo fashion after having escaped with Patrik Sinkewitz on the day's final climb (Sinkewitz later crashed on the wet streets of Larciano) and thereby proved that he is ready for the Giro.


Despite his obvious climbing strength several questions surround the Vini Fantini captain. First of all he has never challenged for a GC win in a grand tour before and nobody knows how he will react at the end of three weeks of stressful racing. Secondly, he has always been more of a classics rider than a man for the high mountains and nobody really knows whether he will be able to challenge when the going gets really tough in the Dolomites. Finally, his abilities against the clock are weak to say the least and he will lose plenty of time to his rivals in stage 8 - just as his team will be way off the mark in the stage 2 team time trial.


Santambrogio himself seems to know that it could be a bad idea to start the race with the objective of challenging for the overall win and instead he is focused on a stage win and will take the GC day by day. This could be a good strategy as he will probably be way down in the GC when they hit the mountains and could enjoy certain degrees of freedom. This could give him the possibility to take back some time and if one keeps his formidable climbing this season in mind, he could very well be in the mix for a good overall result in the end.


Benat Intxausti (*)

Since his 3nd place in the 2010 edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (2nd after the disqualification of Valverde), Benat Intxausti has knocked on the door for a breakthrough performance in a grand tour. He disappointed massively in that year's Vuelta and a crash took him out of the 2011 Tour when he had his own chance to go for GC result. Last year he was on his way to that elusive top 10 result in the Giro but illness in the crucial final week relegated him to a modest 38th place. However, he finally cracked the top 10 in the Vuelta later in the year when he finished 10th despite being domestique de luxe for team leader Alejandro Valverde.


This year he lines up at the Giro with the firm objective of getting his revenge for last year's disappointment and there is plenty of cause for optimism. He has had a steady build-up to the race after illness made him unable to challenge for a top result in the Tirreno-Adriatico and after a short break from competition he returned in the GP Miguel Indurain where he once again worked for Valverde. In the Vuelta al Pais Vasco he took an 8th place after finishing a week of constant improvement with a 3rd place in the time trial and the next day he escaped with Alberto Contador on the main climb in the Klasika Primavera before the duo were caught just before the line. Since then he prepared carefully for the Giro and has all chances to be in the mix as he lines up as joint leader with 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo.


At his best he is a solid climber and unlike most of the GC contenders in the Giro he is a formidable time triallist. His good performance in the individual event in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco comes on the heels of a 5th place in the race against the clock in last year's Vuelta and while he will certainly lose time to Wiggins in stage 8, he should be able to start the mountain stages with an advantage over most of his rivals. If he is as strong in the mountains as he was last year, he could very well take home a top 10 result.


Robert Kiserlovski (*)

The Croatian broke through in the grand tours when he ended 10th in the 2010 Giro even though his main task was to support Ivan Basso. Prior to the 2011 season he signed a contract with the Astana team and despite early promises in the Paris-Nice he never rediscovered his good 2010 condition with an 18th place in the Vuelta a Espana certainly somewhat below his own expectations.


However, he appeared to have taken a step up last year when he was in blistering condition in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Ardennes classics. His season was cut short due to a crash in the Tour de France and he used the break to sign a contract with the Radioshack team which promised him to be the leader for the Giro.


He has had a quiet start to the season with modest performances in the Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya but his training camp prior to the Giro has certainly paid off. When he returned to competition in last week's Tour de Romandie he once again looked like the rider who put the race on fire in the Basque Country last year and he took a very impressive third place in the uphill prologue despite his usually very weak time trialling abilities. He performance in the big mountain stage gave more cause for optimism until he - as usual - lost his GC chances due to a bad performance in the final race against the clock.


He seems to be one of the riders who starts the Giro in best condition and if he can keep it throughout the three-week race he could be a dark horse to light up the mountain stages. Once again he will be hampered drastically by the presence of a long time trial but on the other hand a huge time loss may give him some freedom later in the race. It would be a huge surprise if he ends up winning the race - and even gets on the podium - as he has never really challenged for a grand tour win before but he could be the man to deliver Radioshack their first top 10 in a grand tour since Chris Horner's 9th place in the 2010 Tour.


Sergio Henao (*)

If all goes according to the plan for the Sky team, Sergio Henao has no chance at all to challenge for the overall win as the tiny Colombian's participation only serves one purpose: to make sure that Bradley Wiggins is surrounded by strong teammates deep into the final part of the mountain stages which should make sure that the race can go on at a regular, high pace. As the 2011 Tour proves, everything does, however, not always go according to the plan for Wiggins and if the Brit is taken out of contention by some kind of misfortune, the formidable Sky team has another rider who may be able to challenge for the overall win.


With a number of strong performances in the youth ranks already in his pocket, Henao signed with the Sky team prior to last season and he immediately delivered on his promises. A good performance in the Basque Country and a reasonable debut in the Ardennes classics meant that the Colombian lined up at his first grand tour only three months after his first race as a professional rider. He had a remarkable debut in a three-week race as he ended up 9th and when he returned from a short mid-season break, the Italian grand tour appeared to have provided him with an extra gear in the mountains. He had formidable performances in the Tour of Poland and the Vuelta a Burgos before he finished 14th in the Vuelta despite spending all his energy in support of Chris Froome on the climbs. He capped off the season with a fantastic 5th place in the Tour of Lombardy.


This year he has proved that he is already one of the best climbers in the world and it seems to be unavoidable that the tiny Colombian will develop into one of the world's leading grand tour riders in just a very short amount of time. He was by far the best on the climbs in the Volta ao Algarve and after having helped Froome in the Tirreno-Adriatico he appeared to be the strongest climber in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in which he was 3rd overall. Most recently he had a good Ardennes campaign with a 2nd place on the Mur de Huy in the Fleche Wallonne as the clear highlight and since then he has prepared for his support role in the Giro.


If Wiggins fails along the way, Henao will be ready to step up and he could pose a serious threat in the mountains. He will lose plenty of time in the time trials but if he is at his best in the mountains it is not impossible to get some of it back. He will probably have to wait to the Vuelta in August before he gets his own chance but look out for Henao as the man to take over the reins if Wiggins has bad luck somewhere during the three weeks in Italy


Franco Pellizotti (*)

Pellizotti's third place in the 2009 Giro is a long way back and with a two year lay-off due to suspension in between now and then it may be a bit optimistic for the Italian to dream of the overall win in his first grand tour after his return to racing. That is probably also not the objective for the Italian champion who will most likely be happy with an overall top 10 result or - even better - a stage win in the mountains.


Unlike many other former dopers the Italian has been on fire almost from the moment he was back in the peloton. Just a month after his comeback he secured one of the most coveted jerseys in the peloton, the  tricolore jersey with a convincing win in the Italian championships. Later in the year he showed that he is also able to mix it up in the high mountains with a 4th place in the Vuelta a Burgos and 3rd in the Giro di Padania before he capped off the season with a 3rd place in the Giro dell'Emilia.


This year he has had a low-key first part of the season and he has failed to deliver any results so far. He returned to competition after a short break to prepare for the Giro in the Giro del Trentino and he made up for a disastrous performance in the first summit finish by finishing 11th on the steep Sega di Ala climb. In the two Italian one-day races in the weekend, the GP Industria & Artigianato and the Giro della Toscana, he failed to show any improvement and it seems that the Androni captain is not back at his best yet.


Nonetheless, the Italian champion knows how to prepare for a grand tour and his third place in the 2009 Giro also came on the heels of a low-key performance in his preparation races. He is not the best time triallist and he still has to show that he can be as good as he once was, but history proves that he has the talent to be competitive among the best and if he gets closer to his former level he could be the man to put Androni in the spotlight during the three weeks in Italy.


Jose Rujano (*)

As usual it is a long shot to mention Jose Rujano as a contender for a grand tour as the tiny Venezuelan almost always ends up disappointing. Nonetheless, he has twice succeeded in reaching an outstanding level in the mountains and at his best he is certainly one of the most formidable climbers in the world.


In 2005 he lightened up the Giro when he burst onto the scene with an overall third place and a stage win in Sestriere. After a number of disappointing years he was back in the Androni team in 2011 and for the first time since his breakthrough he seemed to be the rider he once was. He was the only one capable of matching Contador in the climbs and took a stage win on the mighty Grossglockner climb on his way to an overall 6th place.


Last year he was a huge disappointment and he ended up abandoning the race in controversial circumstances where he claimed to be ill while his team insisted that there the problems were more related to his mental state than to his health. He was sacked by the team and did not race during the remaining part of the year.


Prior to this season he joined the Vacansoleil team as he once again tries his luck outside the Androni team but until now he has always been unsuccessful when he is not part of Gianni Savio's team. He has had a low-key start to the season with invisible performances in Catalonia and the Basque Country but he showed signs of improvement with an aggressive showing in Romandie last week. Nonetheless, he still appeared to be way below the levels of the best climbers and as his good 2011 Giro came on the heels of a strong performance in Trentino, it would be a huge surprise to see Rujano once again mix it up with the best in the Giro.


This is, however, an assessment of the contenders' winner potential - not their top 10 potential - and Rujano is one of the few whose top level makes him a real winner candidate if he is on fire. He will be severely hampered by the time trial and he will most likely end up with another disappointment but nobody can ever say anything about Rujano with any kind of certainty.


Other top 10 contenders: Przemyslaw Niemiec, Arnold Jeannesson, Steven Kruijswijk, Wilco Kelderman, Stefano Pirazzi, Juan Jose Cobo, Rigoberto Uran, Paolo Tiralongo and Carlos Betancur



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