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Giro’09 Preview: The Contenders
The Giro is but a day away, the previews are flowing fast and I won’t say furiously. Yes, it is time for the traditional Contenders Preview. Who has a legit shot at the podium, who’s a pretender, who might surprise? I’m thinking American, but not THAT American.

Ok, if you only have a moment to read, here’s the two-horse battle: Levi Leipheimer and Ivan Basso. I think the two are in a class of their own, and I think it will take accident or injury to keep them from going 1-2. From those two, it’s all Leipheimer. Basso will be solid, sometimes great, but I don’t think he can match a Leipheimer at his absolute best – which I think he is now.

My proposed Top 10…in very particular order:

1. Levi Leipheimer
Unless Lance Armstrong has been playing a huge game of bluff – I mean a bluff of epic proportions – Levi Leipheimer should and will be the Astana leader. Lance just hasn’t been at Levi’s level so far this year.

Leipheimer is stronger and more confident than ever in 2009. And by all accounts he has relaxed at long last. That’s a scary combination.

In Lance’s former stronghold of a discipline – the time trial – Levi has soundly trounced the Texan, as well as everybody else really. Leipheimer is a time trialing machine, and he can climb with anybody, including the world’s best climber: Alberto Contador. Contador isn’t here, so I’m taking Levi.

I can’t see past Levi. I just can’t.

2. Ivan Basso
Basso hasn’t done anything to really amaze or drop jaws (like Leipheimer has), but his build-up has been steady, strong, and it seems perfect. In the pre-Giro mountaintop test up the Alpe di Pampeago at Trentino, Basso couldn’t beat a Polish D3 rider, but he was more than good enough to stick it to everyone else. The Giro doesn’t have really anything as hard as a Pampeago this year, if anything, the Giro climbs look more Tour de France-like with their 7-10% gradients, not the gradients of recent years gone by with 12+++% being all too common. What am I getting at? This year’s climbs would seem to favor the bigger riders over the pint-sized little people like Leipheimer and Simoni. These are the climbs for riders like Basso and, well, Armstrong.

There’s no way, barring accident or illness, that Basso finishes off the podium.

Basso and the time trial? That’s the real question. Before his suspension, Basso had significantly improved his time trial, to a point that it was a strength. He had become one of the best, and had he raced that 2006 Tour de France, he would have won. Really. I’m sticking to that one. BUT, he didn’t, and instead he sat out for a long, long while, and now in his new incarnation, he doesn’t seem to be able to time trial at nearly the same level. I think that will be a significant detriment unless he can bring his time trialing up to at least close to Levi’s for the Cinque Terre TT.

Basso will be solid, he will probably win a stage, but I think Levi has the edge in everything: team, climbing, and time trialing…and descending too.

3. Denis Menchov
Denis Menchov has been up to his normal shenanigans – exactly, you really can’t remember what he’s been up to. He is brilliant at being his quiet self, doing his own thing, then showing up and racing well. Menchov too will profit from a more subdued journey through the mountains this year, and should ride well in the long Cinque Terre TT.

This is a course that should really suit him. If he can avoid one of his traditional jour sans, I think he could even finish higher. He’s an outside pick for the win for me. Then again, there’s a reason that Menchov races the Giro before the Tour – he always goes better in his second Grand Tour of the year.

4. Lance Armstrong
Honestly, I have no idea where to place the man. I’m just not used to doing a Grand Tour preview and not having him as the unquestioned favorite. I’m used to not having a good idea of where he is before a big race, he was reknowned for that, but that whole retirement thing, comeback, and broken collarbone? That’s a lot.

Expect a stage win, be surprised if he cracks the final podium.

I think he’ll be good, I think a stage win is more than within his grasp, but I don’t see him beating Levi…or Basso… Then again, this is Lance, and well, it’s Lance, I wouldn’t blink if he was 10th, 6th, 3rd, or 1st or anywhere in between.

5. Marzio Bruseghin
Well, with the downfall of Riccardo Ricco last year, Bruz has a sweet 2nd place behind Alberto Contador on his palmares. That’s pretty significant. Add that to the fact that Bruz can time trial with anyone in Italy (and only Italy), and climb pretty damn well in Italy (and only Italy), and well, 5th place might not be a fair pick. This is another rider that could really benefit from this parcours: tamer climbs, long time trial.

Yep, see: Ricco gets gone, Bruz moves to Contador’s left side, and Pellizotti comes in for 3rd.

6. Michael Rogers
It’s about time for Michael Rogers. He needs a good showing here to validate the type of rider he is: he fancies himself a GC rider, I do too, maybe some of you don’t. I still remember that day back in 2007 when it all went to hell for him. He was riding into the Yellow Jersey that day…before he ended up riding into a guardrail. Anyhow, I think this is his race of redemption. I don’t think he’ll contend for overall honors, but I do expect him to surprise a few naysayers…and then go for the Tour.

His creds? Of course, Rogers is a multi-time World TT Champion, so that whole long TT in Cinque Terre should be lovely for his skillset. He has a great team in Columbia for the opening day TTT. His climbing can be solid, but it can also be crappy – we’ll wait and see on that one. I think he’s a good bet.

6a. Christian Vande Velde
Christian Vande Velde is a tough rider to place here. I would be remiss to leave him out, but it’s hard to take too much stock in a rider that admits his focus is firmly on the Tour de France, and hopes to go well in a couple of stages at the Giro. This could be classic bluffing, but I’m not sure how much Garmin will want their A+ guy for the Tour de France to give it a 100% go at the Giro.

Well, what about Levi you ask? I think he’s a different category at this point. I see Levi at a very high base level at this point. I think CVDV can get to that level-ish, but he’s still building in that direction. The Giro fits well into his build for the Tour…that’s all. Whereas for Levi – the Giro should be his Tour de France this year. It’s his for the taking – no Contador and a human Lance Armstrong. Vande Velde doesn’t need the Giro like some of the other guys do. I don’t think he’ll go too deep to go for a big placing. With that said, if he does give it even a decent go, he’s a definite in the Top 10, and will certainly be a better pick than the likes of Cunego, Sastre, and Simoni. This is a route that definitely would fit nicely into the skillset of Vande Velde. If he wants it, there’s a podium here for him.

7. Carlos Sastre
He’s talking about a podium? I don’t think so. I’ve never been impressed with Carlos Sastre as a Grand Tour threat…then he went and won the Tour de France last year. I’m still befuddled. Maybe I’m just one of the many naysayers.

How is he going? No idea. He made the big group right behind Schleck and Rodriguez at LBL, so he’s going at least moderately well. I think he’ll have a few digs here and there, and should improve over the course of the Giro, but he has his eyes (mistakenly) on this year’s Tour. Don’t worry Carlos, Contador will eat you too.

8. Damiano Cunego
I feel bad for Damiano Cunego. He’s a great rider. I just don’t see him finding his way onto the podium this year, and I certainly don’t see him going toe to toe with the likes of Basso and Leipheimer. I think he’ll have a few solid stages, maybe get a stage win in those intermediate hella lumpy stages, but it just ain’t happening.

When the Giro was still a regional World Championships back in 2004 – he was a solid bet for the win – but the Giro is so much bigger now. Remember back in the early 2000’s when a rider like Simoni would go to the Tour, talk some big game, and then get pummeled? It wasn’t that Simoni wasn’t a solid rider, it’s just that some riders are on a different level. Those ‘some riders’ are in attendance this year. Sorry, Kid.

9. Gilberto Simoni
Same goes for Gilberto Simoni. If anything, the Giro this year just isn’t hard enough for him. He’s a rider that thrives on those silly inclines like the Zoncolan, Tre Cime, or Plan De Corones. Remember his track record at the Tour de France with all of its moderate climbs and long time trials? Nuff said.

10. Danilo Di Luca or Pellizotti or Rodriguez
He’ll have the whole support of his team, he’s great here and there, he’ll profit from those tough, middle mountain stages, but he’s going to suffer in the long TT (climbing or not), and he just doesn’t have that whole package thing going…at least not against the big boys. Ok, stop throwing things at me, I know he’s a former winner, but I don’t think the Di Luca we see today is the same as the one that won the Giro. That’s all.

Franco Pellizotti should be limited in a big way by the fact that he is on the same team as Ivan Basso, but I think he should still acquit himself just fine. Pello also has a Giro podium on his palmares following the bye bye of Ricco. Pellizotti has the Tour de France on his agenda for later in the year, so it probably won’t be too hard for him to defer to Basso this month. Or maybe I’m vastly underestimating him. He could be the pick that I get really wrong. We’ll see.

Joaquin Rodriguez? I see him in the Top 10 or close by. He’ll be solid, he’ll be a protected rider, he goes uphill well.

Would anyone laugh at me if I said that Fabian Cancellara is a rider I think that could go well here? I don’t think he’ll vie for any of the big time top placings, but if he actually has a go of it, I think we might be surprised. That’s a big if though, and he probably doesn’t need to or want to make a big go of it, so this is all just idle speculation.

I should probably mention Tom Danielson too…just in case everything falls into place and he goes crazy like it seems he could at some point do. So if he does pull out the super special ride, I can at least say I mentioned him. That’s good, right?

Don’t Listen To Me: These Guys Get Paid To Make Odds
Basso 2.85
Leipheimer 3.50
Cunego 11.00
Menchov 13.00
Armstrong 13.00
Bruseghin 14.00
Scarponi 18.00
Di Luca 18.00
Sastre 18.00
Nibali 22.00
Pellizotti 35.00
Simoni 35.00
Vandevelde 40.00
Soler 40.00
Lovkvist 55.00
Cobo 55.00
Garzelli 65.00
Pozzovivo 80.00
Van Den Broeck 80.00
Rodriguez 80.00
Cancellara 200.0

Happy, Angry, Satisfied, Did I get something wrong? Have a cool idea for a new place in Europe for Ashley and I to ride? Let me know all about it: jered at pezcyclingnews dot com.


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