The start of the 97th Giro d’Italia is just one week away, with Belfast set to welcome a stellar cast for the start of the season’s first Grand Tour.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) may be absent this time out, with the Tour de France his target, but the battle for the maglia rosa is still set to be one of the most fierce yet.

Nairo Quintana was in stunning form at the Tour de France in 2013 (pic: Sirotti)

Nairo Quintana, Tour de France 2013, stage 20, salute, pic: ©Stefano Sirotti

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), second and third respectively at last year’s Tour de France, are both targeting a maiden Grand Tour victory, while Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) will be among the big-name riders looking to deny them, and home favourites Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Nico Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) will be hoping for success in Ireland before the peloton heads over to Italy.

A varied parcours awaits after the snow-hit epic of 2013, including summit finishes on the Monte Zoncalon and Monte Martello and an ascent of the Passo Gavia.

Read on for our in-depth preview of the course and the chief GC contenders, and stay tuned to RCUK next week for a closer look at the battles for the red, blue and white jerseys and an closer look at each team.

[part title="The course – part one"]

Three time trials, eight flat stages, nine mountain stages – of which there are no shortage of summit finishes – and the final circuit in Trieste amount to just shy of 3,450km of racing at this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Rolling out of Belfast with a 21.7-kilometre team time trial around the Northern Ireland capital – rolling out from the Titanic Quarter towards Stormont and then back to Donegall Square – the race spends three days across the Irish Sea in all.

The route for the 2014 Giro d'Italia (pic: RCS Sport)

Giro d'Italia 2014 route (Pic: RCS Sport)

Stage two takes the riders out to the north east coast before returning to Belfast again, while stage three runs from Armagh to Dublin. Both stages contain just two category four climbs, setting the scene for sprint finishes.

A day’s transfer to southern Italy follows, before an almost pan-flat stage into Bari for stage four. From there the race really begins to heat up.

Stage five features two ascents into Viggiano – including a summit finish – and though it's only rated as a category-four climb, it's of a sufficient distance to cause problems to the non-climbers.

The following day’s stage, which is 247 kilometres in length, concludes with an 8.5km ascent of Montecassino – a category-two climb with an average gradient of 5.2 per cent, featuring hairpins aplenty and ramps which touch closer to 15 per cent.

A brief respite from Frosinone to Foligno – with just two moderate climbs en-route and a largely flat final run-in – is then followed by the third mountain stage of the race with the Cippo di Carpegna, Villago del Lago and a summit finish atop Montecopiolo likely to cause significant splits in the overall classification.

The category one ascent of the Cippo di Carpegna is officially seven kilometres in length, but the peloton will already have been climbing for 13 kilometres beforehand.

A former training route of Marco Pantani’s, the stage is set to be a tribute to Il Pirata and concludes with ramps averaging 13 per cent  in gradient as the peloton heads to the summit of Montecopiolo.

Stage nine – the final stage before the second rest day – also concludes with a summit finish and a 16.5-kilometre ascent of the Passo del Lupo Its category-two classification belies a maximum gradients of 13 per cent, and a tough, twisting section on the lower ramps where the average gradient is closer to nine per cent.

[part title="The course – part two"]

After the second rest day of the Giro, action resumes with a flat stage from Modena to Salsomaggiore Terme, with a steady but unspectacular incline towards the finish unlikely to cause the sprinters any bother.

The next day features the longest stage of the race at 249km. Classed as a medium-mountain stage, it starts with a tough, category two climb of the Passo Cento Croci and also features the Naso di Gatto before a rapid, downhill finish.

Stage 15's tough uphill finish could create some decisive splits before the final race day (pic: RCS Sport)

Giro d'Italia, stage 15, route map, pic: RCS Sport

Stage 12, the first of two individual time trials, is 41.9km, with an uphill start and a slight uphill finish. Several technical sections feature en-route, while two long straights – either side of the second time check in Alba – will offer the strongest time-trialists a chance to claim valuable seconds.

Respite is offered on stage 13, which is just 158km in length and appears set for a sprint finish with only one category four climb.

That's in stark contrast to stage 14, just four kilometres longer but featuring the climbs of the Alpe Noveis and Bielmonte before a summit finish on the Oropa, an 11-kilometre ascent with pitches approaching 13 per cent in parts.

The final stage before the third rest day is almost entirely flat for the first 205 kilometres, but the last 20 tackle the Montecampione, at an average gradient of 7.8 per cent – a finale which could play a huge part on the shape of the race ahead of the final week.

[part title="The course – part three"]

Riders will likely need to take full advantage of their final rest day, because the race resumes with the queen stage – tackling the Passo Gavia, the Stelvio and finishing atop Val Martello.

The peloton will reach an altitude of 2,758m on the Stelvio with the summit arriving after after 21.7 kilometres of a grueling ascent which climbs 1,553 vertical metres.

The climb of Monte Zoncolan is the toughest ascent in Italy and will play a decisive role in the final destination of the pink jersey (Pic: Serafino Centenaro / Creative Commons)

The climb of Monte Zoncolan is the toughest ascent in Italy (Pic: Serafino Centenaro / Creative Commons)

The Stelvio comes after the opening climb of the day, the 16.5km ascent of the Gavia, but the longest climb of stage 16 is reserved for the finale on the Val Martello.

The final section of Val Martello is at an incline of more than nine percent and Thomas de Gendt, now at Omega Pharma-Quickstep, won the stage when it featured two years ago.

Any sprinters still in the hunt for the red jersey will have their chance to shine the following day, if their teams can keep the race together over a punchy route which features plenty of small ramps but none which should cause any major problems to the bunch.

That respite is shortlived, however, with the following three stages set to decide the final destination of the maglia rosa.

Stage 18 finishes atop the Rif. Panarotta, stage 19 is a 26.8km individual time trial up the Cima Grappa – where some of the steepest sections are at a 14 per cent gradient – and the penultimate stage concludes on the Zoncalon.

The fabled 10km ascent includes ramps of more than 20 per cent, with much of the middle section played at an average gradient of more than 15 per cent. With hairpins and switchbacks in aplenty, the winner atop the Zoncalon could well turn out to be the same rider who stands atop the final podium.

Finally, the race concludes with a circuit of Trieste, where the last points towards the red jersey (the maglia rosso) will be swept up and the Giro d’Italia 2014 winner will be crowned.

[part title="The contenders – Nairo Quintana (Movistar)"]

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) burst onto the scene last season, marking himself as a serious Grand Tour contender with second place at the Tour de France – picking up the King of the Mountains and best young rider jerseys in the process.

It's hard to believe the Colombian climbing sensation – who also won last year’s Tour of the Basque Country and this year claimed top spot at the Tour de San Luis – is just 24 years old but Quintana has taken to Grand Tour life like a duck to water.

Nairo Quintana has been a regular contender for races this season but will hope to return to the form which saw him win the Tour de San Luis (pic: Sirotti)

2014, Tirreno - Adriatico, tappa 07 San Benedetto del Tronto, Movistar 2014, Quintana Rojas Nairo Alexander, San Benedetto del Tronto

And the Giro d’Italia course, with plenty of big summit finishes, looks perfect for the Movistar man. Third on La Molina and fifth atop Vallter 2000 at the Volta a Catalunya, and second on the Cittareale at Tirreno-Adriatico show Quintana has been in steady form on the summit finishes this season and after a month away from competitive racing he will be hoping to prove he is in peak form at the Giro.

Quintana is the bookmakers favourite for the Giro d’Italia and has already proved he has the beating of riders like Joaquim Rodriguez – doing so in style on Mont Semnoz at the  2013 Tour de France. Purito got the better of him in Catalunya but if Quintana arrives on top form, he will at least be on the final podium.

[part title="Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)"]

So near on so many occasions, the 2014 Giro d’Italia could be the perfect occasion for Joaquim Rodriguez to finally end his long hunt for a Grand Tour victory.

Rodriguez's last attempt to win the Giro saw him lose a 31-second advantage on the final day – Ryder Hesjedal relegating him into second in the individual time trial. But with the final time trial of this year’s race being an uphill test in the mountains, and therefore more suited to Rodriguez, there should be no repeat this time out.

Joaquim Rodriguez is a former La Fleche Wallonne champion and won the Tour of the Basque Country to prove his form (pic: Tim de Waele/Katusha)

Volta Catalunya 2014, Joaquim Rodriguez (Pic: Tim de Waele)

After a steady start to the season, Purito, world number one in three of the last four seasons, came bang into form at the Volta a Catalunya. Appearing at ease on the climbs, Rodriguez’s winning margin may have been slender but it was nonetheless deserved. A crash at the Amstel Gold Race set him back slightly, but if he can recapture his best form for the Giro then there should be plenty of opportunity for stage wins and a serious bid for the maglia rosa. Chief lieutenant Dani Moreno will be at his side too – provided Katusha do not waver from their provisional line-up.

Rodriguez was so nearly crowned Giro champion two years ago, but with a better-suited parcours this time out, 2014 could finally be the year Purito tops a Grand Tour podium.

[part title="Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale)"]

Tenth last time out, Domenico Pozzovivo has enjoyed a consistent start to this season and enters the Giro on the back of second place at the Giro del Trentino.

The Italian hasn't finished outside of the overall top ten at any of his races so far this season – contributing to a great start to the campaign for Ag2r-La Mondiale – and his form at the Giro del Trentino suggest he is approaching peak form in perfect time, too.

Domenico Pozzovivo has been consistent all season, including finishing fifth at the Giro d'Italia (pic: Sirotti)

2014, Tirreno - Adriatico, tappa 05 Amatrice - Guardiagrele, Ag2r La Mondiale 2014, Pozzovivo Domenico, Guardiagrele

Only the form of Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and a weak team time trial by Ag2r-La Mondiale cost Pozzovivo his first victory of the season at the Giro del Trentino, but as a marker of form, it shows the 31-year-old is still in the same great shape which has served him well this season.

Backed by the likes of Alexis Vuillermoz – who helped Carlos Betancur win this year’s Paris-Nice – Pozzovivo may not feature as a favourite compared to Rodriguez and Quintana but if he stays in his current form he will certainly be a contender.

[part title="Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)"]

Evergreen Australian veteran Cadel Evans is making a habit of defying his critics’ ominous predictions and will enter the Giro d’Italia on the back of Giro del Trentino victory.

Second at the Tour Down Under back in January, Evans has already dished out a reminder of how he has become one of Australia’s first Grand Tour winner and is desperate to improve on last year’s third place at the Giro. Given he achieved last year’s result when his focus was centred more on the Tour de France - which he won in 2011 - suggests Evans is likely to enter this year's Giro as one of the favourites.

Cadel Evans enjoyed a successful start to the season down under and has built on his second place since (pic: Sirotti)

Cadel Evans, Australia, Tour Down Under, solo victory, BMC Racing (Pic: Sirotti)

He will also enjoy the backing of what he believes is the strongest squad BMC Racing have ever put together, with key domestiques including Brent Bookwalter and Ben Hermans – both of whom have shown well in support of Evans this season. Samuel Sanchez is another big name in the line-up, and while Evans appeared to struggle at Tirreno-Adriatico his climbing form in the Basque Country and at the Trentino showed him approaching his best again.

[part title="Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)"]

Second at the Giro d'Italia last year as a Team Sky rider, Rigoberto Uran has almost slipped under the radar this season as Michal Kwiatkowski takes the plaudits for his new team, Omega Pharma-QuickStep.

But Uran was signed from Team Sky in the winter with this race at the forefront of the Belgian super team’s thinking and he will be backed by one of the peloton’s strongest teams as he looks to go one better than last time out.

Where will Rigoberto Uran be riding next season? (Pic: Sirotti)

Rigoberto Uran, Omega Pharma-Quickstep, Tirreno-Adriatico, 2014, pic: Sirotti

Having come third at the Tour of Oman, Uran has had to ride in support of Kwiatkowski since, but with Wout Poels, Pieter Serry and Michal Golas among his support team he will take centre stage at the Giro.

The Colombian's climbing ability is undoubted, and he has looked at ease so far in the Tour de Romandie – his final pre-race preparation – where he has pulled hard on the front of the bunch and been able to give his legs a good workout.

For all their success, Omega Pharma-QuickStep have yet to make a mark on the overall classification of a Grand Tour but this could be the race which changes that.

[part title="Best of the rest"]

Alongside the aforementioned the riders, the start list for the Giro features a host of strong candidates for victory, all equally capable of featuring at the sharp end of the race and at the very least earning a spot on the final podium.

Michele Scarponi (Astana) enters on the back of fourth place finishes in both of the last two editions of the race, having previously won the Giro in 2011. The 34-year-old joins Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Ivan Basso (Cannondale) as Italians who have already won the maglia rosa in their careers – even if none of the three have set the world alight this season.

Damiano Cunego is among the former champions who could mount an overall challenge (pic: Sirotti)

2014, Trofeo Laigueglia, Lampre - Merida 2014, Cunego Damiano, Cima Paravenna

Cunego’s team-mates Przemyslaw Niemiec and Diego Ulissi are also capable of competing, giving Lampre-Merida plenty of strength and options for the race – something Garmin-Sharp also boast.

Another former champion, Ryder Hesjedal, leads the team with Dan Martin a more-than capable Plan B. Martin’s cousin, Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo), is also hoping for a strong ride given the race departs from his native Ireland, while Roche’s team-mate Rafal Majka is another outsider hoping to spring a surprise or two.

Young riders to look out for also include Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), who has enjoyed a strong start to the season having finished third in the youth classification last time out.

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