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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: Sirotti












07.05.2015 @ 23:58 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Giro d'Italia was once known as a predominantly affair but a clear strategy to internationalize the race has paid off. For the second year in a row, the two biggest favourites for the Italian grand tour are international stars as Alberto Contador and Richie Porte prepare themselves for a very exciting battle in the first three-week race. The start list may not be quite as star-studded as in 2014 but with local heroes Fabio Aru and Domenico Pozzovivo and the ever-consistent Rigoberto Uran all in the mix, the scene is set for three weeks of great racing. takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.


When Michele Acquarone took over the reins from Angelo Zomegnan as race director of the Giro d'Italia, he had a firm objective. He wanted to internationalize what was by many seen as a mostly Italian race in an attempt to challenge the position of the Tour de France as the world's leading bike race and the first premise for success in that regard was the attraction of more international stars to the race's line-up.


The effort has clearly paid off as a more balanced route design with shorter transfers, no excessive climbing and more time trialing has convinced several international stars to make the Giro a big  target of the season. Last year Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez both made the race their biggest goal of the season and it is the first big objective for Alberto Contador and Rigoberto Uran.


With Vincenzo Nibali again focusing on the Tour de France, the local fans will again have to look to Fabio Aru and Domenico Pozzovivo to come up with the goods while riders like Rigoberto Uran, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Ryder Hesjedal, Prsemyslaw Niemiec, Carlos Betancur, Ilnur Zakarin, Roman Kreuziger and Leopold König add more international flavor. The line-up may not be quite as star-studded as it was 12 months ago but the organizers have nothing to be ashamed of as they invite the cycling world to one of the most beautiful cycling festivals of the year. has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to five of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the 2-star riders that should all be solid podium candidates.


Carlos Betancur (**)

It may look like absolute lunacy to mention a rider who hasn’t finished in the top 20 of a single race since March 16, 2014, as a potential podium contender in a tough race like the Giro d’Italia. However, the Carlos Betancur’s case is not too far from being lunacy and nothing is as you would expect when it comes to the punchy Colombian.


Betancur almost came out of nowhere to finish second at the U23 Worlds in Lugano in 2009 and that kind of surprise emergence has perfectly characterized his inconsistent career. His first two seasons at the pro level were pretty anonymous until he suddenly finished off a gutsy late attack by winning the Giro dell’Emilia, beating riders like Bauke Mollema, Rigoberto Uran and Joaquim Rodriguez.


That result signaled what was to come in 2012 when he won the queen stage of the Tour of Belgium, a stage in the Giro di Padania and the Trofeo Melinda in addition to taking two second places in tough mountain stages at the Giro del Trentino. In fact his final year at Acqua e Sapone was marked by the kind of consistency that has been missing in the later part of his career and the performances earned him a contract with the Ag2r team for the 2013 season.


Few would have imagined him to have the kind of impressive debut as he had at the WorldTour level. It all started when he finished 7th in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco after nearly having won a stage and from there he went from success to success. He was third in Fleche Wallonne, fourth in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and 13th in the Tour de Romandie on a course that didn’t suit him but his performances in the Giro were the ones that really caught the attention. Betancur rode consistently and aggressively throughout the entire race to win the white jersey, finish 5th overall and take no less than three second places on some of the hardest stages.


However, his rise to fame also started his downfall. Having returned to Colombia, he returned to Europe in a completely unfit state and the first of the many images of a clearly overweight Betancur started to attract attention on the internet. He did a terrible Vuelta where he was one of the first to get dropped on the climbs but managed to find back to some kind of form towards the end of the year when he finished 12th in the Tour of Beijing.


Unfortunately, that race marked the end of his season and then it was time to head back to Colombia and the overwhelming amount of food that the South American country can apparently present. When he returned to racing in the Tour de San Luis, he was again far from his racing weight but it is testament to his huge talent that he managed to get into excellent condition for the European spring. He won the Tour du Haut-Var – where he even beat John Degenkolb in a sprint – and Paris-Nice overall in addition to winning a total of three stages. Manager Vincent Lavenu even claimed that he was still 5kg overweight.


However, that was the last time we saw Betancur at the pointy end of the races. He suffered a knee injury in the Volta a Catalunya which meant that he never reached his best condition for the classics and then he travelled back to Colombia to prepare for the Tour de France. From there things unraveled. He didn’t return to Europe for the Tour de Suisse as planned and even his manager was unable to get into contact with him. Finally, he emerged from the Colombian darkness, claiming that he had fallen ill and he decided to skip the Tour in favour of the Vuelta.


However, it was a case of déjà vu when he lined up for the Spanish grand tour. Again he was clearly overweight and one of the first to get dropped and even though he got slightly better for the Tour of Beijing, he ended the season on a terrible note.


Ag2r changed their minds and decided to give Betancur a second chance but until now he has done nothing to prove them right. The management has denied him the chance to do the Tour and instead he will be lining up alongside Pozzovivo at the Giro and the Vuelta. Despite doing lots of racing, he was unable to reach any kind of condition for his first goal at the classics and in the recent Tour de Romandie he was again off the pace.


However, there are signs of improvement for Betancur who is no longer one of the first to get dropped on the climbs. In the classics and the Romandie queen stage, he hung onto the best for a pretty long time and even though he was ultimately distanced, he is clearly in a much better state than he has been for a long time.


Betancur is such a huge talent that he shouldn’t be too far from his best condition and the main issue is whether the start of the Giro comes too early. We have little doubt that he will be absolutely flying by the time we get to the big mountains towards the end of the race but at that point he may already have dropped out of GC contention.


On the other hand, the course does him a favour by not including any very tough summit finishes in the first two thirds of the race and so he may actually still be within striking distance of the podium by the time we get to the long time trial on stage 14. Unfortunately, that will be a huge challenge for him and he is likely to lose a significant amount of time on that day.


However, that may provide him with the freedom to ride aggressively in the mountains and even though the easy climbing stages don’t suit him well, he can do a lot of damage if he has the legs he had in the Dolomites in 2013. Back then, he was the second best climber behind the superior Vincenzo Nibali and he may be able to match that performance.


With Betancur showing clear signs of improvement, we have little doubt that the Giro will be the race that finally ends his long period of anonymity. The start may come a bit too early and he may have to settle for the search of a stage win or the mountains jersey but if he can find his best legs back and avoid any major time losses in the first part, it may be time for the talented Colombia to improve on that 5th place from 2013.


Roman Kreuziger (**)

If everything goes to plan for the Tinkoff-Saxo team, Roman Kreuziger will not be in contention for the overall win. The versatile Czech goes into the race with one single objective: to help Alberto Contador win the race. His personal ambitions will all be secondary to the overall goal for the team which is to get their ambitious Giro-Tour plans off to the best possible start.


However, Kreuziger had a similar role when he lined up for the start in the 2013 Tour de France and that race gave an indication of what could be the Tinkoff-Saxo approach to the race. Back then, Contador was far from his best level and could only manage fourth. However, Kreuziger was also keeping himself in GC contention and finished just one spot further down in the standings for his best ever result in the world’s biggest race.


There is a big chance that Tinkoff-Saxo will have a similar plan in the 2015 Giro d’Italia. For several reasons, it would be wise to keep Kreuziger in GC contention for as long as possible. First of all the 2014 Tour de France is a not too distant reminder of how important it is to have a back-up plan if the captain crashes out of the race. Secondly, it may be wise strategy if they want to threaten a very strong Sky team and their in-form leader Richie Porte.


The course for the Italian grand tour doesn’t suit Contador very well. He is likely to lose time to Porte in the long time trial and will probably have to ride aggressively in the mountains to take back that time. Unfortunately, none of the summit finishes are very hard and on paper they will only produce pretty small time differences. That means that Contador may have to make the racing hard from afar and here Kreuziger may be a valuable weapon.


If the Czech is still in GC contention, he can be used to attack from the distance in one of the hard mountain stages in the third week to put Sky under pressure and force them to ride hard. In any case, there is no reason for Tinkoff-Saxo not to try to keep their second option open and we expect Kreuziger to stay close to the best for as long as possible.


If that is the case, Kreuziger may end up high in the overall standings. For several years, he was regarded as one of the biggest grand tour talents and it seemed that it was only a matter of time before he would win a three-week race. However, while his teammate Vincenzo Nibali continued to improve, his progress stalled and his decision to move to Astana to get a clear leadership role didn’t pay off.


Kreuziger seems to have accepted that he will probably never be a prolific grand tour star and so he has decided to sacrifice his own chance to ride in support of Contador. However, his move to the Russian team seems to have added another notch to his level and in the 2013 Tour de France he was riding better than ever before. In fact, he was climbing so well in that race that he was even strong than Contador on multiple occasions.


Since then, nothing has gone to plan for Kreuziger. The biological passport case which dates back to his time at Astana, destroyed his 2014 season and even though he got back to racing towards the end of the season, he never achieved any noteworthy results. The case is still ongoing and in fact it may be the main reason for his decision to do the Giro. There is a risk that Kreuziger will be banned by the time the Tour de France starts and so it is a wise decision of the team to benefit maximally from his skills in the Giro.


The 2015 course suits him really well. The summit finishes are not very steep and include the kind of regular ascents on which he excels and he is part of a formidable team that will do well in the team time trial. The main challenge will be the long time trial. Kreuziger was once known as a great time triallist but for some reason he has been far from his best in that discipline for several years. Nowadays, it is all about limiting his losses in the TTs but the 2013 Tour de France gave an indication that his move to Tinkoff-Saxo has improved his level.


Since then, his disrupted racing schedule means that he has done very little time trialling and there is a chance that he has found back to his former level. If that is the case, this course is tailor-made for him and if he had been given the chance, he would have been an obvious podium contender.


He was riding really well in the Ardennes, is obviously in excellent condition and there is no doubt that he is fully ready for this race. If something goes wrong for Contador, he will be ready to strike and then he will be a potential winner of the race. However, even if Contador achieves his objective, there may be a top result waiting for Kreuziger in Milan.


Leopold König (**)

Having learned from bitter experiences, Team Sky always go into a grand tour with a back-up plan. In 2011 Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour, in 2013 he fell ill during the Giro and in 2014 Chris Froome crashed out of the Tour. In all three cases, the British team had made sure to keep a second rider in GC contention and in 2013 that back-up plan was enough to secure a second place with Rigoberto Uran in the Giro.


For the 2015 edition of the Italian grand tour, the task of being plan B has been given to new signing Leopold König. The young Czech has always been regarded as a big talent and when he finally made his belated grand tour debut at the 2013 Vuelta – after injury had prevented him from starting the 2012 Giro – he shone immediately. Riding for the small NetApp team, he both managed to win a big mountain stage and finish in the top 10 overall.


Last year he got the chance to test himself on the biggest scene when NetApp were invited for the Tour de France. After a slow start to the race, he found his legs and he rode a consistent race to finish the race in seventh. Again he got close to a big stage win in the mountains when a gutsy attack on the stage to Chamrousse nearly paid off.


With such a great start to his grand tour career, many were surprised to learn that he had signed a contract with Sky. The British team is stacked with stage racing talent and it was always clear that it would be hard for König to find room to ride for himself.


However, König is convinced that the best place to learn the trade of being a grand tour contender is by joining the most successful grand tour team of the last couple of years and the team management is keeping the option open that König could develop into one of their leaders. He may not be given sole leadership in a 3-week race in 2015 but it is a clear sign of trust that he will be lining up as the second protected rider in the Giro.


At one point, König may have to sacrifice himself for his leader and there is a big chance that he will find himself riding on the front in the hard mountain stages in the third week. Porte could easily find himself in the race lead after the time trial and then Sky will get under pressure from a very aggressive and strong Tinkoff-Saxo team. That could spell the end for König’s GC campaign but if something unexpected happens to Porte, the Czech will be ready to assume leadership.


With his two top 10 places, König has proved that he has the potential to do well in grand tours and the course for the Italian race suits him really well. The climbs are not too steep and should suit him well but most importantly the single most decisive stage is a time trial. König has made massive strides in the race against the clock and at last year’s Tour, Nibali was the only GC rider to beat him in the final time trial where he took fifth. The hilly course for stage 14 should suit him well and Sky could very well find themselves with two riders in the top 3 at the end of that stage.


There is a small question mark regarding his form. He got the race off to a great start in Mallorca but he has been far from his best level in most of his races. After a training camp at altitude, he showed signs of improvement when he finished third in the Giro del Trentino that was won by Porte, but he was not the third best climber in the race. In fact, it was Sky’s strong team time trial that laid the foundations for the result and if he wants to be a contender in the Giro, he needs to improve.


However, König has rarely been very good in his preparation races and history proves that he knows how to time his condition for the most important races. We would be surprised if he is not fully ready to go when he rolls down the start ramp in San Lorenzo Al Mare and so he will be ready to take over if Porte fades. It may still be too early for him to win a grand tour but if he can add another notch to his level, he may be a podium contender on this kind of course.


Ilnur Zakarin (**)

One week ago we would not have considered mentioning Ilnur Zakarin as a podium candidate for his first grand tour. By all means, he has always been a big talent but he had not shown anything that suggested that more than a top 10 would be possible in his first outing in a three-week race. After all, there is a massive difference between winning the Tour d’Azerbaijan and taking second in the Tour de Slovenie.


However, the Tour de Romandie has turned everything on its head. After his great performance in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, we already mentioned him as an outside bet for the podium but we would never have expected him to be in contention for the win in a race that had an impressive line-up spearheaded by Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali.


Nonetheless, it was the 25-year-old Russian who stood on the top step of the podium when the curtain fell on the Swiss race after the time trial in Lausanne. With a very impressive performance in both the queen stage and the TT, Zakarin had managed to beat his famous rivals in a dominant fashion that even allowed him to have a very untimely mechanical which may even have prevented him from beating Tony Martin in the final stage.


Of course Froome, Quintana and Nibali were clearly far from their Tour de France condition but they took a firm beating by Zakarin. Froome rode full gas behind the Russian in the queen stage but he was unable to catch him back and the Brit was not even close to matching his rival in the time trial.


The performance doesn’t mean that Zakarin is going to win the Giro d’Italia but it definitely raises the expectations of what he is capable of. After all, he has had a tremendous start to his WorldTour career at Katusha and no one knows what he will be capable of in the long term.


After a slow start with limited racing, he impressed most with a great performance in Pais Vasco where he was close to winning the queen stage. In fact, it was only a surprisingly poor time trial that prevented him from finishing on the podium and so his performance in Romandie is definitely not a major shock.


However, there is a vast difference between a one-week race like Romandie and a grand tour and there is definitely no reason to expect a repeat performance. Zakarin clearly knows that and his main objective will be to learn. On the other hand, there is no reason for Katusha not to keep their young talent in GC contention to see how far he can come in his first three-week race.


It remains to be seen whether he can already recover well enough to maintain his condition for three weeks and avoid any bad days but on paper he has the versatile skills to do well. He is both a very good climber and an excellent time triallist. In fact he first made a name in the race against the clock but after he has improved his climbing and lost 10kg, he does no longer have the same power on the flats. Nonetheless, his performance in Romandie clearly proves that he is still a very good time triallist and this means that the course for the 2015 Giro suits him really well. The mixed course for the TT has a combination of flats and climbs and this should make it one for the Katusha rider.


It may very well happen that Zakarin cracks in the final week and finishes far off the pace but it is this kind of young talent that can create a major surprise in a grand tour. In recent years, riders like Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru have both been on the podium in one of the first three-week races which proves and in the past riders like Jan Ullrich and Andy Schleck have delivered similar performances. We don’t expect it to happen for Zakarin but as the Tour de Romandie proves, it will be a very good idea to keep an eye on this lanky Russian.



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