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Giro 07
GIRO ’07 Preview: I Protagonisti
Just a few short days remain until the Giro begins. The prohibitive favorite, Ivan Basso, is gone gone gone and in his place a gaggle of possibilities emerge, chief among them are three former winners who must all be licking their chops: Simoni, Savoldelli, and the Kid (Cunego that is). PEZ takes a close look at the possible Pink rider come Milano at the end of the month.

Of course the big news heading into this Giro isn’t quite the ridiculous difficulty of the looming climb of the Zoncolan’s nearly impossible side, but rather the demise of a number of Giro contenders: notably Ivan Basso. Basso confessed on Monday to his involvement in Puerto, just days before that he quit his Discovery Channel Team. Basso famously denied ever actually doping, rather, he was making some blood investments on the off-chance that he might ever slash a femoral artery and need immediate, large, mass quantities of blood. I digress. Acqua e Sapone’s Michele Scarponi was the next to follow in the mighty footsteps of Ivan Basso, declaring today that he’s been lying the whole time and that his code name was ‘Zapatero.’ Rumour has it that ‘Zapatero’ might have blown the whistle on others, so his confession is staying top secret…for the moment.

This year looks to be a wide open mad dash to the line in Milano.

Who’s Out?
Those are the two that have stepped up with confessions, then there are the others that ain’t startin because of possible linkages to Puerto: Tyler Hamilton, Joerg Jaksche (both Tinkoff), Constantino Zaballa, and Ruben Plaza (both Caisse d’Epargne). Hopefully with all that mess taken care of we can get down to the business of picking a winner. The void left by Basso is rather immense, and will completely change the character of the race. With or without the dope, I’m not one to speculate, Basso absolutely dominated the 2006 edition winning innumerable stages and taking a lead of nearly 10 minutes into Milano. It was a Lance-esque performance. In fact, it was so dominant that Gilberto Simoni, two-time winner of the Giro, called it ‘extra-terrestrial.’ Last year’s runner-up did not, however, get any ET remarks from Simoni, but probably should have. Where did that guy come from? Jose Enrique Gutierrez…seemingly came from nowhere and then just a short time later his name came up in dramatic fashion with Puerto, and his name will forever be the Buffalo.

So 1-2 are gone…who was 3rd? Ah yes, none other than Gilberto Simoni, who has two wins and more podiums than I care to look into. Behind Simoni was his dear friend Kid Cunego, who was more than solid in his return to the upper echelon of the Giro after a year in the doldrums with a bad bout of mononucleosis. You’d never guess it, but ANOTHER former Giro winner rolled in for 5th, Paolo Savoldelli, who had a not so happy Giro experience last year, complaining early and often of breathing problems due to allergies.

Expect this year’s gc battle to provide much fodder for ‘coffee talk’.

2006 Giro Top 10
1 Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC 91.33.36 (38.54 km/h)
2 Josй E. Gutierrez Cataluna (Spa) Phonak Hearing Systems 9.18
3 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Saunier Duval-Prodir 11.59
4 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Fondital 18.16
5 Paolo Savoldelli (Ita) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 19.22
6 Sandy Casar (Fra) Franзaise des Jeux 23.53
7 Juan Manuel Garate (Spa) Quick Step-Innergetic 24.26
8 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas 25.57
9 Victor Hugo Pena Grisales (Col) Phonak Hearing Systems 26.27
10 Francisco J. Vila Errandonea (Spa) Lampre-Fondital 27.34
11 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval-Prodir 28.00

What about 6th and 7th overall? They’re not in attendance for the 2007 edition: Sandy Casar (FdJeux) and Juan Manuel Garate (Quick.Step). The next closest to the Giro winning trio was Pellizotti, and he was almost 7 minutes behind Savoldelli. Nuff said.

That pretty much sets the tone for this year’s Giro: a three-way slugfest between the 2003 (Simoni), 2004 (Cunego), and 2005 (Savoldelli) winners with several extras to add some spice to the mix. The extras? Yaroslav Popovych, Danilo DiLuca, another former winner Stefano Garzelli, and Saunier Duval. I know that’s not a rider, but wow are they sending one helluva team to the Giro. More on that in a moment.

The Simoni/Cunego feud of ’04 was classic Giro – suspense, intrigue, backstabbing (!) – the Kid is on form and Simoni always gets his game on in May…

Gotta Go With Simoni
My #1 pick has to be Gilberto Simoni. He was pretty much the only rider last year that could hold a feather to Basso’s butchery, and well, Basso ain’t here this year, so using my superior deduction skills, I’m going with Simoni because there’s a lot of uphill time in this year’s Giro, and Simoni is tuff, and I mean tuff with two f’s. He’s 35, but it really hasn’t seemed to hurt him…he was a late bloomer anyway.

Simoni is also a nice bet due to his pedigree for going up wicked steep climbs very, very fast – like the Zoncolan in 2003 for instance.

Simoni Is Good, But…
Cunego goes uphill really, really fast, and he’s getting better by the second, as evidenced by his Best Young Rider victory at the Tour de France last year. Cunego has been doing everything and anything to make himself into a legitimate Grand Tour winner, and when I say Grand Tour winner, I mean Tour de France winner. Of course, this means going Superman: Clark Kent the awful, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time triallist walks down the street, hops into a phone booth and voila, emerges as a legitimate threat …after a lot of work (a couple of years now) and some serious dollars shelled out in the wind tunnel.

The best thing about Cunego? I haven’t heard anything about him when it comes to Puerto, not even a smidge of a rumour. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that his natural hematocrit is well over the normal 50 barrier. Details.

Leading up to the Giro, Cunego has been strong – taking his third career Giro Trentino in excellent fashion – winning a stage and permanently podiumed.

Cunego is more serious this year than ever – he won at Trentino, was 7th at Liege, and even spent windtunnel time to improve his weakness against the clock.

Speaking Of Good Lead-Ups
Just a week or so ago, I was beginning to wonder if Paolo Savoldelli was still alive. He’s been more or less incognito for most of the season so far, but then he shows up for the Tour de Romandie, wins the Prologue, rides ably in the mountains, and then takes 2nd in the final TT to a true specialist, Thomas Dekker (speaking of Dekker, it would seem a good place for him to start his Grand Tour contender career with the Giro, but alas).

In short, Savoldelli looks better than ever. He’ll come into the Giro pretty much under-raced, which isn’t a bad thing. He’s fresh, fit, and he knows how to win the most important bike race on the face of the Earth for any Italian. He can’t necessarily climb head to head with the likes of Simoni and Cunego, but he’ll be thereabouts, and if things go his way, and not quite the way of the two former ‘teammates,’ he could well be Maglia Rosin it into Milano.

Oh, He’s Coming Back?
Yaroslav Popovych returns to the race where he made his name only a few short years ago. Popo, then riding for the Landbouwkrediet-Colnago team was a sensation in 2002, 2003, and 2004. He finished 3rd overall in 03 and then wore the Maglia Rosa for a spell in 2004. Popovych moved on to bigger and better things after 2004 – Discovery and the Tour de France – but hasn’t shown the results we expected.

The 2003 Giro was a barn-buster – Simoni emerged on top, while Garzelli and Popo staged an epic duel for 2nd.

Here he is again though, a more mature, stronger rider and slowly being molded into a Tour de France winner. It’s kind of hard to figure out what Popovych is going for at the Giro – is it training for the Tour (as in the case of Hincapie most likely), or is he making a legitimate, if quiet, run at the Giro title? If he’s making a true go of it, it would be dumb not to count him as at least a podium favorite. I’m not going to waste my pick of the winner on someone I’m not sure about their intentions though – there’s no questioning Simoni, Cunego, and Savoldelli.

Popovych raced the Giro the last time the Giro took on the Zoncolan…he was on the wheel of a real Climber.

The Killer’s Knife Is Sharp
Danilo DiLuca devoted the whole of the first part of 2006 on a devoted push at winning the Giro. His 2004 Giro was a huge surprise to everyone. He wore the Maglia Rosa for a good while, climbed impressively, and finished JUST off the podium, but 2005 was an unmitigated disaster: he finished almost an hour behind Basso (58:50), way back in 23rd.

Danilo Di Luca had a long winter to think about 2006, and apparently he made some necessary adjustments, because 2007 is look a lot like his barn-burner 2005 campaign. He started early with a win at Milano-Torino and then stormed the Ardennes with a 3rd at Amstel Gold, 3rd again at Fleche-Wallonne, and then the career-defining win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In short, the form is hot, the confidence is through the roof, and we’ve got ourselves a real threat in the Killer.

Saunier Duval Should Be The Team Of The Race
Gilberto Simoni is the unquestioned leader of the Saunier Duval squad, but they’re bringing an explosive combination of riders that should make for some most excellent racing.

Leonardo Piepoli returns to the Giro after setting the mountains on fire last year. Simoni and Piepoli alone were fireworks on the road, but it just gets better with the addition of this year’s breakout success, Riccardo Ricco. I can’t wait to see the three of them light up the slopes of the mountains all over Italy. And those are just the three sure-things – heaven help us if the Iban Mayo of old returns. I’m not holding my breath on Mayo, but just think of the possibilities…

The Rest
Stefano Garzelli will always be listed as a contender, but it seems his best chances are in a stage win or two. Emmanuele Sella continues his rise to the fore as a future winner, but he’s still a ways off in my opinion – he would do well to get into the Top 5, but once again, he’ll probably be searching for stage wins. What about Rebellin and Bettini? Neither has ever seemed to really go for it in the mountains, but this could be an odd little Giro – they’re both tiny little people with power to weight to spare, so most likely chalk this up as idle talk – the non-idle talk though is that they’re both going well at the moment, and should be vying for stage honors at the very least.

Don’t Take My Word For It: Unibet Odds
Cunego 2.85
Simoni 3.50
Savoldelli 5.00
Popovych 10.00
DiLuca 12.00
Ricco 18.00
Garzelli 18.00
Piepoli 20.00
Nibali 22.00
Pellizotti 30.00
Nocentini 75.00
Rebellin 100.00
Bettini 100.00

How About The Speedsters?
This year’s race isn’t nearly as unkind to the sprinters as last year, which should provide some quality opportunities for the likes of Robbie McEwen, Thor Hushovd, Paolo Bettini, and the returning Alessandro Petacchi to mash big gears and sprint like hell…and most likely we’ll see some jaw-dropping maneuver from Robbie McEwen, whether it be a head-butt or a miraculous squeeze from nowhere.

It is amazing though what can happen in one year’s time. This time last year, Alessandro Petacchi was the sprinter par excellence. Sure, McEwen would swipe a few wins from the Ale-Jet, but it was pretty much understood that Petacchi was THE man to beat. Then the Giro happened.

Will this year’s Giro end up like this for Petacchi?

Petacchi was not the Petacchi of old for some reason, McEwen was impressive, then the Ale-Jet wrecked and his knee-cap went kerplunk, and that was the end of his Giro, the end of his Tour, and it wasn’t until the Vuelta came around that Petacchi was ready again – but that didn’t go so well for him either, especially after he got into a fight with an inanimate object, and he left the altercation with a broken hand.

Or like the glory days of yesteryear?

The sprinter stages should see a fair amount of Milram and Predictor-Lotto time on the front, as both teams should feel fairly confident in their respective sprinters. Credit Agricole will represent up front as well – Thor Hushovd has a knack for winning sprints too it seems, apparently that’s what the Green Jersey at the Tour de France represents.

Will Predictor-Lotto take control of the field on the flat days? Or will it be Milram? Or Credit Agricole?

Don’t forget about Il Grillo though – Paolo Bettini has won the points jersey the past two years at the Giro, and probably wouldn’t mind taking another.

What will Bettini do? Stage wins? Points Jersey? Maglia Rosa at some point?

Keep it PEZ’d the rest of the week and all of May for all the latest and greatest from Italia. We’ll have ‘crew on the ground all Giro – Ed Hood is arriving in Sardegna as we post this, Bob Cullinan will take over for week two, and the PEZ himself will bring us home through the Dolomites of the final week.


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