NAPOLI -- OK, I'm not actually in Napoli, but I have been humming "That's Amore" for about three days straight. Friday the Giro d'Italia opened its festivities with the classic team intro, done in a grand piazza in Naples, where the bright, warm sunshine of southern Italy bathed the pink stage in all its glory. It's springtime somewhere, and where better to enjoy it than la bella campagna?
Oh, and by the way, the Giro has been very excited about the jersey makeovers instituted this year, courtesy of Paul Smith, a famous clothing designer (I'm told). Frankly, I'm very supportive of this. Some of the recent editions, loaded with things like watermarks, were getting pretty awful. You can't have a race finish in Milan (some years) and distribute ugly clothes.
Maglia Rosa -- Overall Winner
Heard of the maglia rosa before? It's been around since 1931 when, aping the Tour de France, the race began styling a leader's jersey in the color of the sponsoring newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. Which, by the way, is not only still in existence but is still pink.
Anyway, I cannot emphasize this enough -- this year's competition is the most impressive in years. That's hardly a guarantee that we'll have a great race, but there is something wonderful about reigning Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky dedicating his season to winning the Giro, rather than a defense of his Tour crown. Wiggins often comes off as an odd and difficult person, but it's probably more accurate to say that he is his own dude and doesn't care much what people think. One day he'll use a genitalia curse word toward journalists at an official press conference, and the next he'll do something thoughtful and daring, like forsake the conventional wisdom and claim that he wants a pink jersey for his wardrobe.
To the Giro, this is incalculable. The British audience now has a very strong reason to tune in, for the first time in a while (do Irish contenders move the needle in the UK?). Meanwhile, the Giro essentially gets put on par with the Tour by the reigning winner, as big a platform as exists in cycling. Won a Tour? Now you need a Giro. If that's the next big thing, count me in.
- Wiggins (Sky): The secret to his success is against the watch, and this year's Giro includes three time-trial events, including a 54-kilometer beast a week from Saturday. That kind of distance can allow Wiggins to put two minutes or more into his competition. And with a fairly awesome supporting cast, Sky can control the peloton in the mountains well enough ... if Wiggins needs them to. I wouldn't call him the best climber out there, but he's pretty close, and on a good day he can win the hardest stages.
- Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp): Hesjedal is the defending winner, having surprised the climbers last year with some competent ascending and otherwise stomped them in the time trials, enough to become Canada's first winner of any grand tour. Hesjedal does everything Wiggins does, only slightly less well, so it's hard to see where he has an advantage. Maybe in the team time trial, but that's a mere 17km, and will gain him tens of seconds, not the minutes he'll need later. However, betting against Hesjedal has been costing gamblers money for several years now. It'd be a surprise if he won, but not a shock.
- Michele Scarponi (Lampre): With Ivan Basso of Cannondale dropping out (some sort of cyst, you don't really want to know where), Scarponi becomes the veteran face of the home defense force. Declared the winner in 2011 after Alberto Contador's victory was annulled, Scarponi is a regular in any uphill race in Italy, and climbs better than either Hesjedal or Wiggins, when he's on. But his season has been a bit lackluster, having spent the winter in team limbo after a brief suspension for consorting with doping types (but not actually doping). May comes pretty fast once the season begins, so I wonder if Scarponi can get it all together in time to really compete here.
- Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): The Shark of Messina bids to become the first Sicilian to win the Giro this year, and frankly it's kind of a shock that he hasn't done so already. Once derided by teammate Roman Kreuziger as having a "small engine," Nibali has defied any conventional wisdom about his qualities with an array of physical and psychological strengths that include an unusually aggressive mentality, the ability to descend like a stone, and the fortitude to hold it together on the steepest slopes in Europe. He's been second and third at the Giro, while sharing leadership with Basso, and was third at the Tour de France last year. Only the presence of long time trials gives Wiggins the favorite role right now ... but two weeks ago at the Giro del Trentino, a key Giro d'Italia warmup, it was Nibali and his crack young helpers (Kangert and Aru) who smashed Team Sky and stole the big prize. Since I'm not an actual journalist, I get to say how much I love how Vinny rides and love the team he has around him. Gonna be close.
- Cadel Evans (BMC): Speaking of Tour de France winners, here's another ... but this is an example of former maillot jaunes on the downslope of a glorious career, coming to Italy to see if they can squeeze out another grand victory. Evans isn't fully fit, so the answer is a resounding no. In fairness, a truly fit and in-prime Evans would absolutely love this course. Here's hoping.
- Robert Gesink (Blanco): For several years the hope of Dutch cycling, Gesink has moments of pure brilliance, especially in the big climbs, and can save face in time trials as well. But he falls a lot and has withdrawn from too many races to count on him. His whole career has been a bit rough. But he has class, and his focus on the Giro rather than the Tour is a grasp for redemption.
- Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel): Another rider worth mentioning, since he like Wiggins and Evans could usually be expected to take a pass on the Giro and focus on the Tour. Samu is a Tour podium finisher and has been as high as second in the Vuelta a Espana, the third of the three grand tours. Another great (re terrifying) descender like Nibali, and a decent time trialler, nothing is hopeless for him, but he's probably past his sell-by date as far as winning goes.
- Other notables: former winners in attendance include Danilo Di Luca and Stefano Garzelli, both of Vini Fantini, and neither considered a contender. Keep an eye on Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R), JJ Cobo (Movistar), Robert Kiserlovski (Shack) and Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini).
Maglia Rosso Passione -- Points Competition
It's tempting to think of the points competition as the sprinters' jersey, but that's almost never quite true at any of the grand tours. Points go to the top several finishers on each stage, and in the end the competition rewards consistency above all else. Worse, at both the Giro and the Vuelta, the number of stages for sprinters often pales in comparison to the climbing stages -- France is simply a flatter country than Italy or Spain. So it's often a tossup as to whether the points jersey will go to a guy who can sprint at all.
This year, it might. I count seven legit sprints, and one or two where certain sprinters who can actually climb might find themselves in line for some points. Moreover, the last guy to sprint his way into the maglia rosso passione was Daniele Bennati in 2008, and he's back for more this year. But he's not the big name.
- Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): Another British star at the Giro? I guess it's just in time, given that the race begins in Belfast next year. [UK, amirite?] Cavendish is the world's fastest sprinter, bar none, but struggles in the climbs, and will have to win almost every stage he can finish near the front to have a chance. Any weakness in the flats will doom his hopes.
- Matt Goss (Orica GreenEdge): My pick to win. Goss likes him some Italy, winning the Milano-Sanremo classic two years ago, and is coming off third in the Tour points comp ... ahead of Cavendish. The two guys he lost to are Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel, neither of whom is here. So the moral of the story is, Goss's consistency and ability to stay in the front even where some hills are involved give him an edge over Cav.
- John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano): Up and coming German sprinter was the top point-getter at the Vuelta last fall among non-climbers, showing the ability to finish off grand tour stages and climbing that's superior to Cavendish's (but probably not Goss's). Really, this is a three-way race where we won't know who is favored by the course til it happens.
- Daniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff): Make that a four-way comp, if the hills matter. Benna is more climby than the others (except maybe Goss?) and never to be underestimated in a sprint. He's a crafty veteran who knows how to win competitions like this, where positioning means big scores.
- Other sprinters to watch for: Fabio Felline (Androni), Sacha Modolo (Bardiani), Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), Francesco Chicchi (Vini Fantini).
- And as for those climbers ... former winners include Scarponi (when he was better), Joaquim Rodriguez (great stage finisher but not here this year), and Evans (consistent... when he was younger). I don't really see anyone who will be at the front every day, except maybe Wiggins -- who will get some points in the time trials too -- and Nibali. So I say a sprinter gets it.
Maglia Azzurra -- King of the Mountains
This competition awards a small cache of KOM points at the top of every mountain, with extra points offered when that summit is the end of the stage. But there are way too many summits in most grand tours for the stage winners to take this competition away from another class of riders -- guys who can climb but who have so little prayer of winning the overall that they're allowed to solo away on mountain stages and scoop up all the KOM points.
It's a bit of a shame that the King of the Mountains usually winds up being a C-list climber, and the Tour de France has started shaking things up in its version of events, but the fact remains that stage strategies will always dictate that some guys are left to go off on their own, while the main contenders keep their powder dry. So who wins? These are sheer guesses.
- Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani): Good climber, utterly non-threatening, definitely a candidate to attack constantly in insane ways that nobody will react to... which is really the description of who wins this thing.
- Stefano Garzelli (Vini Fantini): the embaldened veteran (and former winner, if you still respect anything that happened in 2000) always has a card up his sleeve, and is always a candidate to go away on his own. The biggest problem for him is that everyone knows this, so he's bound to have company.
- Matteo Rabottini (Vini Fantini): Winner last year -- again, a handicap. As you can see, another quality is the ability to ride for a secondary Italian team, one with so few flashier ambitions that it can (and will, with relish) devote resources to a minor competition.
Maglia Bianca -- Best Young Rider
The best young rider is simply the guy highest up in the general classification who hadn't turned 25 by this past Jan. 1. It's generally the second-most-coveted jersey to the extent it speaks to future success toward pink. But it's also hard to guess how some of these kids are gonna go. Worse, almost everyone from last year's top 10 turned 25 too soon, so no clues there. Here are a few stabs at it.
- Fabio Aru (Astana): Way too young to expect anything from him... except he was brilliant two weeks ago at the Giro del Trentino, which shot expectations for the wunderkind Italian climber back thru the roof.
- Rafal Majka (Saxo Tinkoff): Decent at everything. Was 32nd at the Vuelta last year, which isn't a big result but at least he has finished a grand tour.
- Stefano Locatelli (Bardiani): Talented kid off to an excellent spring. He didn't finish last year's Giro, but at least he started it.
- Carlos Betancur (AG2R): Colombians are completely taking over the sport, and while Betancur will get stretched out over a three-week format, someone has to win this thing, so it might as well be a guy who's shown us some brilliant climbing in his young career.