What's Cool In Road Cycling

Giro’11 Preview: The Contenders

There are three ‘super favourites’ for the 2011 Giro d’Italia – Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank & Spain), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas & Italy) and Denis Menchov (Geox & Russia); one ‘favourite’ Michele Scarponi (Lampre & Italy) and a handful of riders who might make the podium – Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain), Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini & Italy) and Roman Kreuziger (Astana & Czech Republic) amongst them.

But a look at the shark’s tooth profile of this year’s Giro confirms one thing – if you’re not amongst the best climbers in the peloton then you cannot win.

Whilst on the subject of sharks, let’s look at the man most of Italy – and all of Sicily – would like to win; Vincenzo Nibali, ‘Lo Squalo’ – ‘The Shark.’

Like them or loathe them, it seems that all riders must have a nickname.

Can Nibali make it two years in a row for Liquigas and Italy?

Born in Messina, Sicily in 1984, he won the Italian junior road race championship in 2002, was a Worlds junior time trial medallist the same year; and by 2004 had moved up to a podium in the Worlds U23 TT.

In 2005 he turned pro for Fassa Bortolo and one year later won the demanding GP Plouay – it was apparent that this young man had promise.

His first Giro was 2007 where he made the top 20 and shared in the Liquigas TTT stage one victory.

In 2008 he moved up to 11th in the final GC of the Giro and slipped in to the top 20 of le Tour.

Nibali on the attack at Milano-Sanremo.

The following year he was 7th in the Dauphine and Tour – continuing the solid progression which is his hallmark.

In 2010 after hitting the ground running with a win the Tour of San Luis in Argentina as early as January, he enjoyed a brilliant Giro with TTT and individual stage wins and a podium spot behind team mate Ivan Basso.

Many riders would have been happy with that as their job for the year – not Nibali; and a tough Vuelta fell to him last autumn.

Nibali will toe the start line on Saturday as the most recent Grand Tour winner in the field – he won last year’s Vuelta.

This year he started a little later but top ten placings in Milan – Sanremo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege say much about his condition.

Tall, slim, focussed, professional – he wants to win, he can win.

Let’s travel from the heat of Sicily to the chill of western Russia and Oryol (Eagle), where Denis Menchov was born.

Menchov was winning big European junior races way back in 1995 and its ten years since he won the Tour de l’Avenir and finished his first Tour de France – there’s little this man can be taught about stage racing.

In 2002 he won a Dauphine stage and in 2003 was best young rider in le Tour.

Denis Menchov has three Grand Tours to his name, including a Giro d’Italia. Can he end Contador’s Grand Tour winning streak?

The following year saw stage wins in Paris-Nice and the Vuelta, and by 2005 had made the Vuelta his own.

A year later he won a Tour stage and was 6th overall with another Vuelta coming his way in 2007.

Olympic year saw him 5th in the Giro and make the lowest step on the podium at le Tour; and in 2009 he confirmed his class; leaving us all with that spectacular image of him spinning along the wet tar outside the Coliseum in Rome as he crashed in the final time trial en route to the overall win.

Last year he was on the podium again at the Tour and but for Cancellara deciding to wait for the crash victims that fateful day – by mere coincidence, the Swiss’ team mates, the Schleck brothers were two of those fallers – Menchov would have won the race.

This year, his build up has been unspectacular but this is a man who knows himself and is aware that this is probably his best chance for Grand Tour glory, this season.

Very hard to distance by any significant amount in the mountains, extremely strong, a stage race ‘chrono’ master and with Carlos Sastre surely at his service – he can win.

Pinto near Madrid is the geographic heart of Spain and home to Alberto Contador, who has won every Grand Tour he’s ridden, since 2007 – that rather says it all about this slight man who is one of the best climbers in the world; has beaten Cancellara in time trials and wears a cloak of invisibility in the stages which don’t suit him.

As an ONCE man back in 2003 he took a stage in the Tour of Poland; by 2005 he was winning stages in races as diverse as the Tour Down Under, Setmana Catalana, Pais Vasco and Romandie.

Alberto Contador will arrive at his second Giro d’Italia with perfect preparation. He’ll be tough to beat, that’s for sure.

In 2006 he won stages in Romandie and Suisse with second overall at Romandie demonstrating his GC potential.

It was 2007 when his Grand Tour winning streak began as he triumphed in le Tour; in 2008 it was the Giro and Vuelta; 2009 was le Tour again and last year he made it a trio of Tours in what it has to be said was his hardest fought win yet.

Along the way he’s won Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco, Castilla y Leon, Volta ao Algarve – and this year, Murcia and Catalonia.

It’s difficult to bet against him, especially bearing in mind that he now has a team 100% at his disposal and Svengali Riis (with a joker card marked ‘Porte’ up his sleeve) is in the team car – he should win.

Michele Scarponi is flowering late; Italian junior road race champion in 1997 and a podium finisher in the 2001 U23 pro talent scout’s ‘shop window’ the Giro delle Regione, he rode his first Giro in 2002.

His best wins until recent years were the GC in both the Settimana Ciclista Lombarda in 2004 and the Coppi-Bartali in 2007.

Scarponi seems to just keep getting better and better. He’ll be an outside threat to the vaunted top three favorites.

A brush with a well known doctor from Spain was responsible for a fallow period in his palmares, but he was back with the irrepressible Savio at Diquigiovanni for the end of season 2008.

In 2009 he took a stage and the GC in Tirreno and two stages in the Giro; last year was another success story with a GC win in the Lombarda, a Giro stage and clutch of top placings in Italian semi-classics.

This season there have been stage wins in the Giro de Sardegna and Tirreno; GC podiums in Tirreno and Catalunya and an overall win in Trentino.

His form is unquestionable, but unlike Nibali, Menchov and Contador there isn’t a solid background of Grand Tour GC success – but if his renaissance continues then a podium is possible.

Scarponi’s crossing of the giant chasm between the chasers and leaders at Milano-Sanremo was beautiful.

Of the rest, the man whose characteristics best suit the parcours is the diminutive Joaquim Rodriguez – Etna and the Zoncolan are the type of climbs his slight frame was built for.

He was second in the Amstel and in the Fleche earlier this year and has Tour and Vuelta stages to his credit; but no Grand Tour podiums – and he can’t time trial.

Got mountains? Count Joaquim Rodriguez in as a contender.

Giovanni Visconti will animate, inspired by that tricolore jersey on his back, but will surely have at least one bad day in the mountains – unless he discovers hitherto untapped climbing talent.

Kreuziger has had an excellent spring – he looks poised to come good on the heaps of expectations placed early on on his young shoulders.

Roman Kreuziger will go top ten, so will Igor Anton – who should win a stage; but it’s hard to predict anything other than the Pisto . . (no, I can’t write it!) Alberto Contador atop the podium in three weeks time.

Igor Anton was in the process of giving Nibali a major run for his money (read: leading) at last year’s Vuelta when he crashed out of the race in Stage 14…he’ll be a rider to watch this month.

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