Paolo Tiralongo (Astana)
With Fabio Aru ruled out of the race with a knee injury and Astana opting to race with an eight-man team following the tragic death of Michele Scarponi, us sentimental types will be hoping for a strong showing from another Italian veteran in Tiralongo, who last week said his friend's death had left him "destroyed".
Of course, it goes against the grain and defies any kind of common sense – after all, Tiralongo will enter his fifth decade on this planet in a couple of months – but perhaps the likeable 39-year-old can dig deep and pull off the impossible. After all, the third of his three stage wins on the Giro came as recently as 2015.
While we're not ever suggesting Tiralongo can win the Giro, we include him on this list as a rider who has the potential to do something special – in his case, getting an emotional stage win and dedicating it to his late team-mate Scarpa. Such a thing would perhaps be the most welcome sight in pro cycling this whole season.
On a tangent, the leadership vacuum and nothing-to-lose dynamic at Astana may play into the hands of Tanel Kangert and Dario Cataldo, who should have the opportunities to ride their own races. The Kazakh-funded team may start one man down and rocked by the sad death of the most popular man in the peloton, but Astana could react with a flurry of stage wins. What a fitting tribute that would be.
Rohan Dennis (BMC)
Poor Tejay van Garderen: he started last season as co-team leader with Richie Porte but has now dropped so far down the pecking order that he may even be eclipsed by the likes of Silvan Dillier and Ben Hermans. One rider who has certainly surged ahead of the American in the hierarchy is the Australian Dennis, who has notched four wins this season and finished behind Quintana on the Tirreno-Adriatico podium.
The Australian national time trial champion is perhaps the only rider who can realistically give Dumoulin a scare in the two ITTS, while his climbing has come on so much that he can genuinely be classed in the all-rounder category. He says he's still a few years away from being a bona fide GC rider in a Grand Tour – but here's the perfect opportunity to fast-track this expected transformation.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe)
In a race that will offer slim pickings for the sprinters, a maiden Grand Tour stage win for Irishman Bennett shouldn't be discounted. Many thought the 26-year-old may find his opportunities limited at Bora following the arrival of world champion Peter Sagan, but Bennett notched the biggest win of his career in March with victory in stage 3 of Paris-Nice – beating the likes of Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel in the process.
"If he doesn't win a Grand Tour stage soon then they won't let him back into Carrick," joked Eurosport commentator Sean Kelly, the former cycling legend who hails from the same town as the Irish sprinter. No pressure, then, Sam…
Lotto Soudal's Greipel will be among the sprinters who will line up alongside Bennett, with young bucks Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) and Grand Tour debutant Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) also strongly tipped to make a splash. At least two of the first three stages in Sardinia should conclude with a bunch gallop, as should stage 5 to Messina in Sicily. Stage 7 to Alberobello, stage 12 to Reggio Emilia and – most certainly – stage 13 to Tortona should also see the fast men do battle before disappearing.
And who can blame them packing up shop? The final eight days are all in the mountains and, what with the concluding Milan ITT, there's not even the incentive of a final day bunch sprint to keep the likes of Bennett around. All this doesn't bode well for the return of the cyclamen points jersey, which will almost certainly be won by an all-rounder – or eternal Giro bridesmaid Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Segafredo) for the third time running.
Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac)
Is the man to end Cannondale's two-year barren run the same man who recorded the team's last WorldTour win? Quite possibly. Formolo has been on lively form this season and will look to double his tally of pro wins and should at the very least improve on his career best of 31st in his home Grand Tour (his result in both 2015 and last year).
Should the Italian falter then Jonathan Vaughters' green Argyle army have traction from an exciting line-up that also includes the Frenchman Pierre Rolland, American Joe Dombrowski and the exciting British climber, Hugh Carthy. Forget about the drought – we could well soon be in for a monsoon.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ)
It all seems to make sense, now, doesn't it? Home rider does well in Tour de France and carries the expectation of the world on his shoulders every July – sometimes in Spain in August if things go awry. The same rider doesn't like the pressure cooker atmosphere, nor does he ride particularly well in hot weather. The solution? Shake things up and try switching your focus across the border and much earlier in the year.
So Pinot makes his long-awaited debut in the Giro – off the back of a season largely spent racing in Italy.
And you know what – he seems to be rising to the occasion. He looked impressive for ninth on the dirt roads of Tuscany in Strade Bianche; he finished third in Tirreno-Adriatico; he won a stage and finished every stage in the top five in the Tour of the Alps en-route to coming home seven seconds down on Thomas.
What's more, FDJ are serious – sending a Tour-esque team in support of their 26-year-old talisman. Could a podium place be on the cards for a revitalised, mojo-finding Pinot? Quite likely.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin)
Like Kruijswijk, Zakarin's battle for pink last year was derailed on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello – albeit much further down on the French side, well below the snowline that did for the Dutchman. The high-speed crash ruled him out of the race and ended his podium hopes; earlier in the race he had been on course for the maglia rosa before hitting the deck three times on the sodden ITT in Chianti.
A stage win in his debut Tour was a timely reminder of the Russian enigma's class, and while this year he's been solid if unspectacular (sixth in Paris-Nice, for instance), Zakarin's focus is on a high finish both in Italy and at the Vuelta.
A bit of an outlier – he lives in the sleepy Cypriot town of Limessol and looks more like Shaggy from Scooby Do fame than a pro cyclist – Zakarin could do well or could come a cropper. But before we know either way, we'll see him attacking a fair bit.
After winning last year's mountain ITT, compatriot Alexander Foliforov (Gazprom-RusVelo) could be a dark horse – although he's a bit of a one-trick pony: he won the Tour of the Alps mountains classification but finished the race in lowly 34th place around 18 minutes in arrears.
Adam Yates (Orica-Scott)
Last (well, not exactly) but not least in our list of riders to watch is the man we expected to see line up alongside his twin brother, Simon. But concerns over Esteban Chaves' fitness means Simon has been drafted into Orica-Scott's Tour squad, leaving Adam to lead the charge for the exciting Aussie outfit.
His form hasn't been as strong as his brother's this season, but it will be interesting to see if he can build on his breakout fourth place in last year's Tour. A maiden Grand Tour stage win will be a priority – in the wake of Simon's Vuelta scalp last season – but he may find his mountain exploits undone in those two long time trials. A top ten should be the target.
And a few others…
Last year he won the pink with pride en route to finishing sixth on GC – and this year Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) is Eurosport commentator Kelly's wildcard tip. His reasoning? The way Jungels held off the peloton during the finale of the Fleche Wallonne. Until the race hit the Mur de Huy, that is. And there'll be a fair few similar walls on the menu this May. Still, Jungels' time trialling and stay-ability in the climbs could make him an outside factor.
In the veteran's corner, it's about time former world champion Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) delivered on the main stage and this, astonishingly, will be his first stab at the Giro (the Portuguese has only ever ridden the Tour – eight times).
If calling a 30-year-old a veteran seems harsh then let's redress that by shifting to Filippo Pozzato (Wilier Triestina – Selle Italia) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale). The Peacock of Sandrigo needs a result to continue justifying his existence beyond being a mere poster boy; his only win in the Giro came in 2010 – but is that about to change? Probably not. As for the piano-playing economist Pozzovivo – he used to be a regular fixture in the Giro top ten but slipped to 20th last year and has not won on home soil for five years.
Meanwhile, Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal) rides his seventeenth consecutive Grand Tour in search of repeating his stage win antics from the 2013 Giro. Another Australian, Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), has had a lively season and surely it's a matter of time before he notches a big win. Haas and team-mate Omar Fraile could dovetail nicely in some of the undulating stages.
We can't finish a preview without mentioning Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF). Expect a shedload of futile attacks from the man who has dined out to the max on his blue jersey in 2013 and subsequent stage win one year later. If Pirazzi won't deliver then his wildcard team boast a whole host of firecrackers in Nicola Boem, Giulio Ciccone and Nicola Ruffoni.
And finally, perhaps we were a bit harsh on Tejay Van Garderen (BMC). Sure, his stock has fallen since Porte arrived from Team Sky, and yes, Dennis has looked more of a package than the oft-hapless American. But, like Pinot, Van Garderen has thrown out the rule book this year and, aged 28, makes his long-awaited debut in the Giro d'Italia.
Perhaps a shift in focus will be revelatory: could Van Garderen have found his level in Italy, far away from the spotlight of the French roads in July? Or will he pick up an illness on the third rest day and ship half-an-hour on the double ascent of the Stelvio? Take your pick…
Follow the Giro d'Italia live on Eurosport and the Eurosport Player as Jonathan Edwards takes up presenting duties before and after live coverage each day.
With Rob Hatch and Sean Kelly on commentary, Brian Smith offering coaching insights, and Laura Meseguer, Juan Antonio Flecha and Ashley House on the ground interviewing riders, Eurosport's Grand Tour coverage should be bigger and better than ever.
Read the original article on Eurosport: Blazin' Saddles: Introducing the Giro’s dark horses and ones to watch