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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 3-star riders who may be seen as outside bets for the overall win.


Fabio Aru (***)

For years, Italy has been looking for the next great climber after the late Marco Pantani. Ivan Basso and Riccardo Ricco both showed the potential to emulate the national hero but after they both got embroiled in doping scandals, they never returned to their former level. Vincenzo Nibali may have emerged as their greatest GC riders for years but the Italian is a much more complete rider and definitely not the kind of climber that makes him comparable to Pantani.


In 2014 the Italians went crazy. On May 25, a skinny Italian climber emulated Pantani by taking a huge solo win on the climb to Montecampione in a stage that had been dedicated to the late Italian. On that day, Fabio Aru rode away from the likes of Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, Domenico Pozzovivo and Rafal Majka and suddenly went from hugely promising talent to established star.


Suddenly, Aru carried the weight of the entire home nation on his shoulder which is an arduous affair for a 23-year-old rider. However, he coped with the pressure and went on to nearly beat Quintana in a hugely exciting drama on the Monte Grappa where the crucial mountain time trial virtually decided the race. On that day, Aru moved himself firmly onto the podium and despite a less than stellar ride up the Monte Zoncolan in the penultimate stage, he ended his first grand tour as team leader on the podium.


On paper, that third place may be his best result but it was probably his performances later in the year at the Vuelta a Espana that really proved his potential. In that race he found himself up against much better riders as Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez were all part of a formidable line-up. However, Aru was unfazed by the prospect of riding against some of the best climbers in the race and he left the race with two big stage victories in the mountains and a great fifth place behind the four giants.


The result marked another step forward and at his young age there is still plenty of room for improvement. It would be naïve to expect his progress to stall and there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be climbing at an even higher level when he lines up in San Lorenzo Al Mare as the clear captain of a very strong Astana team. It speaks volumes about his status and potential that the Astana management has even forced Tour de France champion Nibali to stay away from his home race to make room for Aru to ride as a team leader.


However, Aru may have a hard time repeating last year’s excellent result. It would be no surprise if he turns out to be able to match Contador and Porte in the mountains but the organizers have not done the biggest Italian hope any favours. For years, the Italian grand tour was known for its small amount of time trialling as the TTs were a clear disadvantage for the home riders. Nowadays internationalization is more important than patriotism and this year RCS have designed a course that is not suited to pure climbers like Aru.


Aru is perfectly suited to the hardest climbs and with the Mortirolo, Passo Daone and Colle delle Finestre all on the course, he should find plenty of terrain to his liking. However, those climbs all come early in the stages and the summit finishes are all characterized by very easy finishing climbs where only small differences can be made. At the same time, they have added a mammoth 59.4km time trial which seems to be the single most decisive stage of the race.


That’s a massive disadvantage for Aru. Last year he lost 2.55 to Uran over just 42.2km in the Giro and he was 1.48 slower than the Colombian in the 36.7km TT in the Vuelta. In a much longer time trial that includes a completely flat first half, his time losses are likely to be substantially bigger and he can expect to enter the high mountains with time to make up on Contador, Porte and Uran. That won’t be easy with the kind of mountain stages on offer and Aru has to be much better than he was in the Vuelta if he realistically wants to contend for the victory.


Furthermore, Aru has had a disastrous build-up to the race. He wasn’t at his best in Paris-Nice but showed signs of improvement in the Volta a Catalunya. That was no major issue though as he has never been strong in his preparation races. After a training camp at altitude, he was expected to polish his form at the Giro del Trentino but a stomach virus ruined his plans. It did not only prevent him from doing the race, he also missed several days of training and lost several kilos in just a few days.


Aru considered doing the Tour de Romandie to make up for the lost racing but he decided to stick to his original plan. He has been training at altitude with his teammates where he has tried to emulate racing conditions but there is no doubt that he will need some time to get into the racing rhythm in the first few stages.


In that sense, he has been helped by the organizers. The first 13 stages don’t include any major summit finishes and will be most about survival for the GC riders. The main challenges come in the third week and by that time the effect of the less-than-ideal preparation will be less evident. In fact, he may now be a little fresher and it would be no surprise if he is flying up the climbs when we reach the mountains. Here he can rely on a formidable team that includes several strong climbers and will be able to do a lot of damage.


Aru is destined for a great future and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t take another step forward in his quest to grow into a potential grand tour winner. However, on this kind of course it will be hard for the talented climber and the Italians may have to wait for another year before their star rider can realistically challenge for the top step of the podium.


Domenico Pozzovivo (***)

When Domenico Pozzovivo finished 9th in the 2008 Giro d'Italia at just 25 years of age, lofty expectations were made for the tiny climber. Pundits started to announce him as a potential podium finisher in the grand tours but for several years it seemed that it would all come to nothing. While he continued to shine in most of the Italian races, he was a perennial disappointment in the Giro and it seemed that he couldn't handle the stress of three weeks of successive racing.


Things turned around in 2012 when he arrived at the Giro on the back of a dominant victory at the Giro del Trentino. It was now or never for the tiny climber if he wanted to keep his status as the grand tour leader of the Bardiani team. Finally, things came together for Pozzovivo who not only finished 8th overall but also took a magnificent win in the stage to Lago Laceno.


Instead of moving down the internal Bardiani hierarchy, Pozzovivo suddenly found himself with a chance to join the WorldTour. With Ag2r desperately looking for points - which Pozzovivo possessed in abundance - he was picked up by the French team to lead the line in the Giro and the Vuelta. Immediately, he proved himself fully ready for the highest level but his Giro campaign was derailed by broken ribs sustained in a crash at the Giro del Trentino, with the injury severely hampering his preparations. He even crashed in the three-week race itself but battled through the pain to take 10th overall.


Later in the year he proved how far he had come as a grand tour rider when he rode a very consistent Vuelta to finish 6th overall. In fact he would have made it into the top 5 if it hadn't been for a stupid lack of attention in a windy stage where he lost more than a minute to Nicolas Roche who would eventually finish 5th.


In 2014 he stepped up his level a further notch. In a complete turnaround, the rider who was formerly known for his inconsistency, is now one of the most consistent riders on the WorldTour. Before the start of the Giro d’Italia, he lined up at 7 races and he finished in the top 10 in all of them. He didn’t choose an easy path to make that feat as the list included 3 WorldTour races and two one-day races that are not perfectly suited to his characteristics as a pure climber.


In the Giro, Pozzovivo confirmed his steady progress by riding to a career-best fifth and was even on track for another top 10 before he fell ill in the Tour de Suisse. He bounced back with his 9th top 10 in his national championships where he was seventh and then turned his attention to the Vuelta.


Unfortunately, we never got the chance to gauge Pozzovivo against the likes of Contador and Froome as a cat crossed the road in front of him during a training ride. He was left with a broken leg and only managed to return late in the season, albeit in a form that was far from competitive.


Usually it takes some time to get back on track after that kind of major injury but Pozzovivo has had an amazing recovery. He was back in action already at the Tour Down Under where he finished sixth. Then he took a small break to undergo surgery related to his broken leg which cost him a week off the bike. Hence, he didn’t expect to be in contention at Tirreno-Adriatico which had one of the most impressive line-ups of the spring season. Despite finding himself up against classy competition and riding on a course that didn’t suit him, he surprised himself by finishing 8th. Since then he went on to finish third in the Volta a Catalunya and seventh in the Giro del Trentino and suddenly he has even turned himself into a winner, taking a stage victory in both events. Finally, he ended his preparations for the Giro by taking 8th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, meaning that he again goes into the Giro with an unbroken string of top 10 results in the early part of the year.


Pozzovivo’s climbing in both Tirreno-Adriatico and Catalonia suggests that he has added another level to his already excellent performances. In those races, he wasn’t far off the mark of the best climbers and it is testament to his increased strength that he now has the ability to launch race-winning attacks. There is even room for more improvement as he was deliberately at a lower level than usual in Trentino as he wants to be fresher in the third week of the Giro.


That’s not a bad idea for the Italian as his main weakness has been his ability to maintain his level. He has always been stronger in the first two weeks while he has had a tendency to fade in the final part of the race. To realistically contend for the podium, he has to improve that aspect.


Furthermore, the organizers have designed a course that doesn’t suit him at all. Pozzovivo is at his best on very steep climbs that are not too long. Mortirolo and Passo Daone both suit him down to the ground but none of them are finishing climbs. Instead, the summit finishes are all pretty easy and most of them are very long without any steep sections. That makes the completely unsuited to Pozzovivo’s characteristics. Furthermore, the main challenges are all gathered in the final week when he is usually no longer at his best.


Finally, the addition of a 59.4km time trial is not an advantage for Pozzovivo. Due to his tiny stature, his TT skills are generally underestimated and he is actually a very decent time triallist. In 2013, he even finished third behind Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin in the Vuelta TT. However, that course was significantly harder than the one he faces in Italy as he will have to tackle a completely flat first half. In that kind of terrain, he is destined to lose time to Porte, Uran and Contador and he is also guaranteed to lose some time in the team time trial. With no very steep summit finishes, it will be hard for him to take all that time back in the mountains.


Nonetheless, Pozzovivo will be a major protagonist in the Giro and he is likely to add another level to what he showed last year. He may never win a grand tour but the ever-consistent Italian is destined to one day step onto the podium. This course doesn’t do him any favours but if he can produce one of his standout time trials, it may be time for the tiny Italian to finally crack the top 3.


Jurgen Van Den Broeck (***)
On the list of nations with most Giro d’Italia victories, Belgium is only surpassed by the home nation but while the tiny, cycling-mad nation still has a major impact on the classics, it is no longer a major force in the grand tours. In fact, Thomas De Gendt was the first Belgian on the podium since Johan De Muynck’s 1978 victory when he surprisingly finished third in 2012 and the country is in desperate search of a rider that can challenge the best in the grand tours.


Jurgen Van Den Broeck is the rider that carries the country’s hopes of the shoulders and by finishing in the top 5 at the Tour de France twice, the Lotto Belisol captain has proved that he is a very realistic podium contender. He is fully aware of the fact that he is unlikely to ever win a grand tour but a top 3 is certainly within his reach.


However, things have turned sour for the Lotto Soudal rider since he finished fifth in the 2012 edition of the Tour de France. In 2013, he crashed out early in the race and was left with a very bad knee injury that proved to be much more severe than originally thought.


Van Den Broeck’s way back to top form was a long and hard one. Depressed by his situation, he put on 9kg in the aftermath of his accident but as soon as he returned to training, he was back at his usual weight.  He didn’t do any racing in the second half of 2013 and when he started his 2014 season, it seemed that his layoff had had a great impact on his form. He struggled in the first part of the season and things didn’t get any better when he suffered another crash in Tirreno-Adriatico that saw him being far from his best in the Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Ardennes classics that were his first goals.


The fact that he had shown nothing in his first races caused his team to put him under pressure for the Dauphiné. If he was unable to convince the team that he would be up there with the best in the Tour, the team would be built entirely around André Greipel and there would be no room for Van Den Broeck at all.


However, rumours suggested that Van Den Broeck was back at his former level and when the Alpine race kicked off, they were confirmed. Right from the beginning, he did a surprisingly good time trial and after having been among the five best climbers in the race, he joined forces with Andrew Talansky in the final stage to make a big coup that saw him finish the race in third overall – his fourth top 5 finish in the French race.


That made him confident for the Tour but again bad luck stroke. After a solid start to the race, he fell ill and he finished the race as an anonymous 13th. He tried to bounce back in the Vuelta but left the race at the midpoint without having been in the spotlight at all.


The lack of results has changed his status in the Lotto Soudal team. Much to his frustration he has been refused the chance to lead the team in the Tour de France and the management even put him under pressure to prove that he deserved a spot for the Giro d’Italia. Despite not taking any major results, his solid support performance for Bart De Clercq in the Volta a Catalunya was enough to convince the team that he deserves another chance and he has been given full leadership of the team for the Italian grand tour. André Greipel will also be at the start but the German hasn’t been given many riders to support him in the sprint.


Van Den Broeck will now return to the race that was the scene of his big breakthrough in 2008 when he surprisingly finished 7th overall. In Italy he may find himself under less pressure and he will be pleased to know that both Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert will be present to take some of the attention from the Belgian media.


Looking at his results in the last two years, nothing suggests than Van Den Broeck will be in podium contention in Italy. However, his performance in the Dauphiné proves that he hasn’t lost the edge yet. If he can rediscover those legs, there is no reason to suggest that Van Den Broeck won’t be a major protagonist as he has so often been in the Tour de France.


However, the build-up to the race has been far from splendid. He was unable to make it into the top 10 in Tirreno-Adriatico and in the Volta a Catalunya we never got the chance to see what he could do as he rode in support of Bart De Clercq who suddenly had a chance to win the race. After the Spanish race, he has trained at altitude but his return to competition in Romandie didn’t get off to the best start as he was off the pace in the mountains.


However, the Swiss race must still be a cause for optimism in the Lotto Soudal camp. On the final day he finished fourth in the time trial – clearly his best ever performance in a race against the clock. That again suggests that he has improved a lot in the discipline in which he was once a junior world champion but then lost the edge. That will be very important in a Giro whose long time trial will be the most important stage and even though the course to Valdobbiadene suits him less than the one in Lausanne, he may be able to create another surprise here. Furthermore, the lack of very steep finishing climbs mean that the mountain stages are perfectly suited to his skills and it will be no major issue that the challenges are gathered in the third week as he has proved his excellent recovery in the past.


It has been heartbreaking to watch Van Den Broeck’s downfall but his performance in the Dauphiné shows that the potential is still there. If he can rediscover those legs, the Giro may mark a turnaround and if that happens, he will have come full circle as the Italian grand tour will be the event that relaunches his career 7 years after his big breakthrough on the Italian roads.



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