Blazin' Saddles

Everything you have to know about the 2014 Giro d’Italia

Blazin' Saddles

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For the few riders not waylaid by illness, visa complications or the Tour of California, the 97th Giro d'Italia gets underway on Friday with a 22km team time trial in Belfast.

From the Guinness dens of Dublin to the ramped staircase that is Monte Zoncolan, the 2014 route has something for everyone - including two unorthodox time trials and some confused homage to the late Marco Pantani.

Our cycling blogger Blazin' Saddles answers the key questions ahead of a race.

Why has this sheep been dyed pink?

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Because it lives in Northern Ireland, where there are a lot of sheep, and where the Giro d'Italia starts this year. A farmer in Balintoy decided to give several of his flock the full treatment, making them look like Toyah Willcox circa-1982, in order to welcome the Grand Tour - whose leader always wears a pink jersey - to the Emerald Isle.

Can anyone beat Nairo Quintana?

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Probably not. The Colombian 24-year-old may only be making his first appearance in the Giro but given his performance in last year's Tour - plus the uber-strong Movistar team that he will now lead for the first time - it will take an Italian meltdown of Bradley Wiggins proportions to keep Quintana from the top rung of the podium come Trieste. In the face of as much experience as Dad's Army, it should be the apparent youth of Quintana that prevails.

So, no chance of a home victory?

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Former winners Damiano Cunego (2004), Ivan Basso (2006 and 2010) and Michele Scarponi (2011) all feature in an impressive roster of riders that also includes the Canadian 2012 champion Ryder Hesjedal. But there's nothing to suggest in the form of any of those Italian veterans that they will bring home the pancetta for the host nation.

With reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali sitting out to concentrate on the Tour de France in July, Italian hopes may lie with the diminutive climber Domenico Pozzovivo - particularly seeing that one and a half of the two individual time trials involves riding uphill.

Could we see the oldest winner since 1955?

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Chris Horner showed in the Vuelta that age counts for nothing in this new era of Tramadol-infused clean cycling, the American becoming the oldest Grand Tour victor in history just shy of his 42nd birthday.

What are the likelihoods of the Giro witnessing its oldest winner since Fiorenzo Magni triumphed aged 34 and 180 days? Quite low, is the short answer. We've already established that the likes of Basso, Cunego and Scarponi don't really have a hope in hell - and while antipodean fans are getting all excited about Cadel Evans' recent Trentino triumph, the 37-year-old Australian lacks the explosiveness of Horner and could struggle to impose himself on the race once we hit the final week.

However, should tearful, cigar-smoking climber Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) finally graduate from being a Grand Tour bridesmaid then the Spaniard will be 35 and 20 days by the time the race ends and Magni's record would come to an end. It's a big ask, mind.

Who are the dark horses of the race?

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Domenico Pozzovivo has already been mentioned so he's about a dark a dark horse as the one in the Lloyds Bank adverts. Dutch youngster Wilco Kelderman may just be 22 but he probably shades the Belkin leadership over Steven Kruijswijk although expectations will be considerably lower than those for Rafal Majka, who took seventh place for Saxo last year.

Dan Martin stands a better chance of success than his out-of-sorts Garmin-Sharp team-mate Ryder Hesjedal, but the jury's out on the Irishman's ability to stay upright on punchy uphill finishes and he may struggle on some of the lengthier climbs such as the Stelvio.

Now that Scarponi has scarpered, the experienced Pole Przemyslaw Niemiec could emerge from the shadows at Lampre-Merida, while former Euskaltel riders - Movistar pair Igor Anton and Gorka Izagirre, and BMC's Samuel Sanchez - will be on hand to step up should their respective team leaders come a cropper.

Team Sky's eighth and ninth choice GC riders Dario Cataldo and Kanstantsin Siutsou could well grasp a rare opportunity to make hay while the sun shines (provided they're not struck down by a mysterious illness during the race).

And finally, Pierre Rolland's decision to mix up his usual season schedule and take part in the Giro for the first time is an interesting one. Should the Frenchman be in the mix entering the last week, he may decide to put his annual Tour ambitions aside and go all-in for the Giro. Provided he tackles this with as much gusto as he did his bid to cover himself head-to-toe in polka dots least July, then we could well see the first Frenchman topping the podium since Laurent Fignon in 1989.

Who hasn't made it to the start?

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Besides the likes of Sky's third, fourth and fifth ranked GC riders - Richie Porte, Sergio Henao and Peter Kennaugh - through a mixture of illness and altitude sickness, the participation of a whole raft of riders is in doubt owing to problems with visas.

Having been forced out of the Tour of Turkey last week, the fate of the whole of Team Colombia is undecided because of faulty paperwork. Astana's Kazakh duo Alexey Lutsenko and Maxim Iglinsky have also been ruled out because of dodgy visas, while Tinkoff-Saxo Russians Nikolay Trusov and Ivan Rovny, may follow suit. Colombians Edward Beltran (Saxo) and Julian Arredondo (Trek) and Venezuelans Yonder Godoy and Jackson Rodriguez (Androni) are also in a pickle.

Will we see an Irishman in pink on home soil?

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Not unless we see a breakaway that sticks on the Giants Causeway in stage two or the coastal road to Dublin in stage three. You see, the opening stage of the Oirish grande partenza is a 22km team time trial that seems ideally suited to the Orica-GreenEdge team of [insert name of current or former Australian national time trial champion] as opposed to the Garmin, Sky or Tinkoff teams of Irishmen Dan Martin, Philip Deignan and Nicolas Roche.

Where will the race be won?

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The final eight stages of the race include five summit finishes so it's fair to say that the action will be bottom-heavy. Before the third rest day there are back-to-back Marco Pantani-themed stage finishes at Orapa and Montecampione - sites of two of the controversial Italian's most spectacular attacks.

Following the third rest day, a bruising 139km of a stage features the Gavia and Stelvio passes before finishing atop Val Martello - a route that featured last year but was cancelled because of the adverse weather conditions. If that wasn't enough, a mammoth 27km mountain time trial up the Cima Grappa for stage 19 could produce humongous time gaps and see off the chances of many GC contenders even before a penultimate day slog up the fearsome Monte Zoncolan.

Only a lunatic would bet against Kittel winning the red jersey, right?

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Wrong. The German youngster - who grabbed four wins in last year's Tour - may be the only really big-name sprinter to feature in the race, with the likes of Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan keeping their powder dry for the Tour.

But while there are eight possible sprint stages, many of these feature punchy uphill finishes and so may favour a breakaway over a group gallop. What's more, there's a big chance that Kittel will throw in the towel at the end of the second week to spare himself the hell of all those summit finishes.

A double stage winner in the Vuelta last summer, Australia's Michael Matthews actually has the silverware to back up his proclivity for all things 'Bling'. The GreenEdge man is riding strong this year and will look to open his Giro account with a win or two.

Still on the hunt for his own maiden Grand Tour scalp, French bruiser Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) will look to muscle in on the action, while Roberto Ferrari (Lampre) will have his own engine primed. With Sky not standing any realistic hope in their pursuit for pink - and his own days at David Brailsford's bug-beleaguered outfit looking numbered - Edvald Boasson Hagen will see the Giro as a good chance to put himself in the shop window and get his career back on track.

Should the Giant-Shimano train not work out for Kittel, then his Slovenian team-mate Luka Mezgec - a triple stage winner in the Volta a Catalunya - could benefit. But the favourite for red is perhaps home hope Elia Viviani - the only rider to beat Cavendish in a sprint in Turkey last week and one bent on reaching the finish for Cannondale.

What about the white and blue jerseys?

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The white jersey has been something of a Colombian sideshow of late, with Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur winning it in the last two years. And unless someone young tops Quintana on GC then that series looks set to continue. As for the blue jersey - Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) will no doubt defend his crown with gusto, but will face stiff competition from his compatriot Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale). It will be interesting to see how Trek's pocket-rocket Colombian Julian Arredondo fares, too, after a fairly active spring. Although not getting a visa would obviously damage his hopes.

Blazin' Saddles' predicted top ten?

1. Quintana, 2. Rodriguez, 3. Niemiec, 4. Uran, 5. Pozzovivo, 6. Majka, 7. Kiserlovski, 8. Scarponi, 9. Sanchez, 10. Rolland

But what about Evans and Hesjedal?

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There's nothing to suggest that Hesjedal was anything but a flash in the pan while Evans's tenacity may be admirable, but he just doesn't have it in him to go the distance. Rolland was a last-ditch addition to the top ten at the expense of Maxime Montfort. Basso and Cunego's dual absence cannot come as too much of a surprise to most fans.

Do you agree with any of the above? Have your say in the comment section below...

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