To the first Grand Tour of the year and the race of the cycling connoisseur: the Giro d’Italia and some rather lovely nuggets of cycling trivia…
It is the fourth year out of five in which the reigning Giro d’Italia champion is not present to defend his crown. This year the missing man is Ivan Basso who has foregone the honour of wearing the number ‘one’ on his back in order to focus solely on the Tour de France. Last year, the 2009 winner Denis Menchov was absent for the same reason. As was Alberto Contador the year before that.
The only Giro champion to have defended his Pink Jersey in the past five years was Danilo Di Luca in 2008 when he finished an underwhelming eighth.
Basso, the 2006 winner, was again missing in 2007 as he had been rumbled in Operation Puerto and was suspended. Basso’s absence this time around means that Franco Balmamion will remain the last Italian rider to have won back to back Giri d’Italia, a whopping 48 years ago.
In fact there has been no back to back winner at all since Miguel Indurain won consecutively in 1992 and 1993. There has been no ‘era of domination’ in the Giro in recent times such as those of Indurain and Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France. As such, the variety of Giro champions means there is always a clutch of former winners present at each edition of the race. This is in contrast to the Tour where it is not unusual for there to be no former winners present; 2006 and 2008 are examples and depending on the outcome of Alberto Contador’s hearing, 2011 may be another (although in that case, Andy Schleck would most likely be considered a former winner).
There are four former Giro winners present this year, Contador, Di Luca, Menchov and Stefano Garzelli. It has been eleven years since Garzelli won the Giro and he is now, thanks to Lance Armstrong’s recent retirement, the oldest active Grand Tour winner.
There are two active professional cyclists who have worn the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours. As he has actually won all of them, naturally Contador is one of them. The other is Cadel Evans, who conversely hasn’t won any of them.
At the startlist of this year’s Giro, there are two riders who have a chance of completing the hat-trick of wearing Grand Tour leader’s jerseys having already done so in the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana.
One of them is the 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre who also wore the Vuelta leader’s jersey for one day in 2006 after his CSC team won the opening team time trial. The other is the Scottish rider David Millar who won the opening time trials of the Tour in 2000 and the Vuelta the year after that. Millar’s best opportunity to wear the Maglia Rosa has probably passed him by already. Although his Garmin-Cervelo team are usually excellent at the team time trial discipline, their lineup lacked the usual chrono strength and they only managed fifth on Stage One this year.
Sastre has a better chance of nabbing the Pink Jersey with such a mountainous route. However Sastre will probably aim to lose time in the first few climby stages in order to go for stages later in the race. He will also be trying to aid Denis Menchov in his quest to win the race for the second time.
Unusually, of the three winners of the Grand Tours last year, it is only the Giro champion who is absent. Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali and Tour winner Alberto Contador are both accounted for and of course they are two of the main favourites for overall victory. A further trivial quirk is that both Contador and Nibali won Grand Tours last year without winning a stage of the race, although both ‘gifted’ stage wins to their nearest rivals on the final summit finish of the respective races; Contador to Schleck and Nibali to Mosquera.
Nibali has never won the Giro, but has won a stage. Contador vice versa. The Spaniard will want to put that right this year as he remains the only Giro champion since Balmamion in the early sixties to have never won a stage of the race.
Moving away from the general classification riders, Alessandro Petacchi will be looking for victories amongst the meager opportunities on offer for the sprinters this year. Should Petacchi win one stage he will draw level with Eddy Merckx in fifth place on the list of all time Giro stage winners, but still some way off the massive tally of 42 achieved by Mario Cipollini. The Lion King broke Alfredo Binda’s record in 2003 while wearing the Rainbow Jersey of World Champion.
Mark Cavendish has stated his intentions to ride all three Grand Tours this year. He’s scored multiple stage wins in every Grand Tour he has ridden since the Giro in 2008, that’s six Grand Tours and counting. If he scores a stage win in all three this year he will become only the fourth man to do so after Miguel Poblet (1956), Pierino Baffi (1958) and Alessandro Petacchi (2003).
However, with the way the Grand Tours are constructed this year there is a chance that Cavendish could make an even bigger piece of history by becoming the first rider to wear the leader’s jersey in all three of cycling’s major tours in the one year. With his HTC-Columbia team’s victory in the opening team time trial of this year’s Giro, Cavendish is poised to take the Maglia Rosa off his team mate Marco Pinotti’s shoulders, as there is 20 bonus seconds on offer for the first man across the line on Stage 2.
In addition, the opening stage of this year’s Tour de France is a road stage. Reports suggest that it inclines slightly toward the finish line but Cavendish may still be in the mix. If he doesn’t win the stage outright, there is also a team time trial the following day with which he could take the first Maillot Jaune of his career. This would see him complete a hat-trick of leader’s jerseys in Grand Tours (as he wore the Vuelta leader’s jersey in 2010), but to complete the set in one calendar year would be even more remarkable. And with another team time trial kicking off this year’s Vuelta he may well find himself wearing each of the three leader’s jerseys in 2011. It would take a brave man to bet against Cavendish pulling it off, or in this situation, pulling it on!