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Giro d’Italia – the contenders

The Giro d’Italia, the first of the season’s Grand Tours, starts on Saturday (5).

This year’s 95th edition will feature a less dramatic parcours than in recent years, following a change of race directors: Michele Acquarone has replaced Angelo Zomegnan.

The 3,504km corsa rosa is more accommodating to sprinters than recent editions, which explains the presence of Mark Cavendish on the start list. Seven ‘fast’ stages will offer a platform for the peloton’s quick men.

Cavendish will be joined in the Team Sky line-up by two stars of last month’s UCI Track World Championships, Geraint Thomas and Pete Kennaugh, who pulled on the rainbow jersey of world champion after victory in the team pursuit, but world scratch race champion Ben Swift has been forced to withdraw from Sky’s squad after fracturing his shoulder on a training ride. Thomas especially will be worth watching. The Welshman has twice worn the white jersey of best young rider in consecutive editions of the Tour de France, and having scratched the race from his schedule this year to prepare for the Olympic Games may make the Giro the focus of his Grand Tour ambitions for 2012.

The ‘engine room’ recently identified by Dave Brailsford as essential to Team Sky’s Tour de France plans will feature at the Giro: cobbled Classics specialist Juan Anonio Flecha, Ian Stannard and Bernard Eisel will demonstrate their diesel power. The in-form Sergio Hanao, and Rigoberto Urán, winner of stage four in the Volta a Catalunya, could do well in the mountains.

Among the home riders, two-time winner Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) perhaps starts with the greatest chance of overall victory. He won multiple stages of the Giro on his way to his two overall triumphs (2004, 2010). A low key start to 2012 may indicate tapering for the Giro or a struggle for form. Seventh at last year’s Tour de France showed that, despite approaching his mid-thirties, Basso can still produce in the Grand Tours.

Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) has vowed to try and win this year’s race on the road after inheriting victory from last year’s race from the disqualified Alberto Contador. He will be partnered by Damiano Cunego, winner of the Giro in 2004, who rode strongly last month in the Ardennes Classics and has top 10 finishes in this year’s Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Basque Country.

BMC Racing will ride in support of Marco Pinotti, a former maglia rosa and Giro stage winner; a rider whose sprint carried him to overall victory in the green jersey competition at this year’s Tour of the Basque Country and whose exceptional abilities against the clock have made him a five-time Italian national time trial champion. BMC’s other big guns will include former world champions Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan. Ballan showed impressive form in the Classics and could feature in rolling Giro stages.

Joaquim Rodriguez has enjoyed a superb 2012, winning La Fleche Wallonne, two stages of the Tour of the Basque Country, and finishing sixth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico after victory on stage six. Rodriguez is a contender both for stage and overall victory at the Giro.

Frank Schleck will spearhead the challenge of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek. He has proven his Grand Tour pedigree at the Tour de France but has ridden the Giro only once, finishing just outside the top 40 in 2005. Sprinter Daniele Bennati represents an opportunity for the squad to take victories on the flat.

New team, Orica-GreenEDGE, have made a blistering start to their debut year, but the rider responsible for their biggest victories, Simon Gerrans, overall winner at the Tour Down Under and victor at Milan-San Remo, will not be present at the Giro. Realistically, their greatest chance of success in Italy rests with Matt Goss, winner of La Primavera in 2011, and a sprinter likely to bring out the best in Cavendish.

Ryder Hesjedal will lead Garmin-Barracuda in a squad boasting the sprinting talent of Tyler Farrar and Robbie Hunter. Noted time trialist and useful climber Christian Van De Velde, another former maglia rosa, could go well in the Giro’s three timed efforts.

Mark Renshaw will continue his quest to emerge from the shadow of former teammate Cavendish by leading Rabobank at the Giro. Fifteenth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a race won by Cavendish, represents the high point of his season so far.

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