Milan – The experienced legs of former Tour de France champion Cadel Evans face the test of a climb-heavy Giro d'Italia, and some more sprightly rivals, when the three-week Italian epic begins on Friday.
Evans, a third-place finisher last year when Italian Vincenzo Nibali triumphed ahead of Rigoberto Uran, comes into the 97th edition amid a promising season and on the back of overall victory at the Giro del Trentino.
In what is the twilight of his career and with Nibali and several other big names concentrating on the Tour de France, the 37-year-old Australian has faith in a “committed” BMC team coming good against a pack of hungry, younger riders over three tough weeks of racing.
“I'm delighted with the Giro team we have,” Evans said. “They are absolutely committed riders and these are really my guys I trust and know I can rely on.”
Boosted by the inclusion of 2008 Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez of Spain, one of the best climbers in the business, Evans added: “Having a lieutenant like Samuel is far more than I could have hoped for.”
Yet with a total of nine of the 21 stages in the mountains, Evans will have to deal with at least one true climbing specialist as well as more rounded overall rivals all determined to make their mark.
Colombia's Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who climbed his way to a runner-up finish behind Chris Froome on his Tour de France debut last year, is a huge favourite and is expected to come good in the final week when recuperation will be key to tackling a series of high-altitude climbs.
Countryman Uran (Omega-Pharma), who pipped Evans to runner-up place behind Nibali last year, is another strong bet, as is Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez and Italian veteran Michele Scarponi (Astana).
Quintana, speaking at a pre-race conference on Wednesday alongside Uran, Rodriguez, Evans and Scarponi, said he would be taking his bid day by day.
“Everyone sat here has virtually the same chance of winning the Giro,” said the Colombian.
“At the moment it's all square but that will soon change once the race starts.
“I'm in good form and ready to fight for the title. All I can do is hope everything goes well.”
Known for its famous pink jersey, awarded to the overall winner on the final day, the Giro's opening stages will take on a slightly green hue.
The opening three days will be held on the Emerald Isle, beginning with a team time trial in Belfast on Friday and ending with stage three from Belfast to Dublin on Sunday.
The race returns to Italy on Tuesday for stage four and the beginning of the hostilities as riders and teams battle for stage wins and the overall title.
On the way, there will be opportunities for the fast men of the peloton, like Germany's Marcel Kittel (Shimano).
“I think the route this year is good for me as a sprinter given the different opportunities for bunch finishes,” said Kittel, who won the opening stage of last year's Tour de France to take the yellow jersey.
Kittel claimed a further three stages last July, including the final stage when he ended the four-year winning streak of British rival Mark Cavendish, not racing the Giro, on the Champs Elysees.
The battle for the pink jersey will also be held over three time-trials, adding to the difficulty of five stages in the medium mountains and four at high altitude, including the 20th and penultimate stage to Monte Zoncolan.
Victory in the opening stage team time-trial could give one team command of the race, and plenty of air time, for the opening stages.
However the next race against the clock, the 41.9 km-long “wine stage” from Barbaresco to Barolo, will play an early role in whittling down the field on stage 12.
The final time-trial will be held over 26.8 km from Bassano del Grappa to Monte Grappa on stage 19, a day before the stage to the notoriously difficult stage to Monte Zoncolan. – Sapa-AFP