Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida)
No longer clad in baby blue with a token Italian national champion's flag stamped across his barrel chest, the Shark of the Strait will be Italy's numero uno following the withdrawal of his former Astana team-mate Fabio Aru. Now in the classy red of Bahrain Merida, Nibali enters the race having done very little this season besides beating the likes of Jaime Robson and Jan Hirt (no, us neither) in the Tour of Croatia.
In any normal year, you wouldn't bet against the defending champion making it three maglia rosa.
But this year Nibali will come up against some top-drawer riders in the battle for pink, and a visit to his hometown of Messina is unlikely to inspire him enough to come out on top. Still, he'll be fun to watch – whether it's sticky bidons, mechanical breakdowns or brave downhill attacks. Indeed, surely the 32-year-old is a shoo-in for the controversial new fastest descender's competition – provided it ever gets past Health and Safety.
Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo)
Destined to win last year's Giro until some pressure from Nibali resulted in that infamous body-check by a wall of snow, Kruijswijk clearly has unfinished business in Italy. The 29-year-old Dutchman has followed a similar pattern this season, opting to spend most of April training at altitude in Tenerife before a brief foray on the roads of Yorkshire (holding his cards close, Kruisjwijk withdrew ahead of the final stage).
Known as De Kleerhanger – the Clothes Hanger – because of his broad swimmer's shoulders, Kruijswijk finished seventh in 2015 and, agonisingly, fourth last year, despite looking odds on to become the first Dutch Grand Tour winner since Joop Zoetemelk snared the 1980 Tour de France. If the stars were aligned last year they didn't take into account the banana skin on the Colle dell'Agnello. The jury's out if he can now bounce back.
Kruijswijk certainly seems bullish about his chances, saying this week:
I didn't lose [last year's Giro] because I wasn't good enough. I lost it because of a crash.
If he avoids a similar incident this year, then he and compatriot Bauke Mollema of Trek Segafredo – another rider who missed out on a Grand Tour podium because of an untimely fall last year – are certainly decent bets for the podium. But they'll both struggle to win the thing.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
We've been here before with Brits trying to win the Giro and it didn't exactly finish favourably for Bradley Wiggins in 2013, did it? And remember, Wiggo was actually a Tour champion; all Thomas has done – besides admirably support the latter and Chris Froome on multiple occasions – is twice finish 15th.
Can a rider who has never finished a major three-week race in the top ten be a viable Plan A for a team as big as Sky? Of course not, which is why Sir Dave Brailsford has thrown in Mikel Landa and a heavy supporting crew that includes Diego Rosa, Vasil Kiryienka, Kenny Elissonde and Philip Deignan. But it's hardly the strength in depth that Sky will unleash on the roads of France in July and – frankly – it could all go belly-up.
But then again, perhaps this is the year for Thomas to finally emerge from the shadows of others. The Welshman won the Tour of the Alps last week and looks in good nick. He has the experience and all-round skills – and won't be phased by the two time trials. But come on, that hashtag #GForGiro is surely the kiss of death…
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb)
The rangy Dutchman looked so at home during his maiden Giro last year it became increasingly difficult to take his word and discount him for GC. Having won the opening time trial on home soil in the Netherlands, Dumoulin wore the pink jersey practically the entire first week, came close to winning the first uphill finish and took time off his rivals on the second at Roccaraso… all while telling the gullible media that he wasn't targeting the overall classification.
That prophecy came true in quite cruel circumstances when, suffering from saddle sores, Dumoulin struggled on the Strade Bianche to Arezzo and dropped out of the top ten. He continued in a bid to win the time trial at Chianti but was outclassed by the winner that day, Primoz Roglic, who, it's worth adding, came within a hundredth of a second of matching Dumoulin's time in the opening ITT.
If Dumoulin hasn't raced much this year then he's still looked strong with a top ten in Tirreno-Adriatico and a star turn on the Cipressa and Poggio in Milan-Sanremo. The two time trials will almost certainly gift Dumoulin two stage wins in May, but it remains to be seen how he copes with the high stuff – particularly the double ascent of the Stelvio in stage 16. One senses the 26-year-old will have a very good race, but he won't come anywhere near winning the maglia rosa.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
The only thing stopping Quintana from winning a second Giro crown, it seems, is the man himself. Dig too deep and he may jeopardise his tilt at the Tour in July, but not give enough and he won't even put himself in the reckoning for a rare Giro-Tour double. In reality Quintana could probably ride this on autopilot and still emerge victorious. But the flat 29.3km time trial to Milan means the Colombian will have to take a large cushion into the final day if he wants to guarantee himself the maglia rosa.
Quintana won't have the support of team-mate Alejandro Valverde but that hasn't troubled him so far in a season in which the 27-year-old has already won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and Tirreno-Adriatico. While strong, his Movistar team won't be as sturdy as it will be in July and he may well have to make most of the difference himself in the key mountain stages, but Quintana will be the man to beat this May provided he keeps his allergies at bay.
The only remaining question is: how will he cope without Chris Froome or Alberto Contador's wheel to follow?
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Read the original article on Eurosport: Blazin' Saddles: The five top contenders for Giro d’Italia glory