ROME: Embattled Tour de France champion Alberto Contador will start as favorite when the 2011 Giro d’Italia begins in Turin Saturday with a 19.3km team time-trial.
Contador won the Giro the only year in which he participated in the race, in 2008, but comes into this three-week epic without the element of surprise and with a cloud hanging over his head.
The Spaniard is still awaiting a decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which could overturn a Spanish cycling federation decision to clear him of any wrongdoing following a positive test for clenbuterol at last year’s Tour de France.
Contador claimed his positive was down to contaminated meat he ate, an excuse the Spanish authorities accepted and which the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found hard to digest.
Both bodies appealed the Spanish decision to CAS, which in June is set to rule whether cycling’s stage race maestro is banned for two years or not.
Controversy aside, Contador has shown that when it comes to racing bikes in Grand Tours, and even the one-week stage races, he is the man to beat. He is defending a record of not having lost any of the Grand Tours he has competed in in five years.
Following his yellow jersey triumph while riding for Discovery Channel in 2007, Contador’s Astana team was barred from the 2008 Tour de France following Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive test for blood doping.
Contador focused on the Giro and Tour of Spain in 2008 instead, winning both despite only being called up at the last minute for the Italian event.
“In 2008, I knew absolutely nothing about the Giro,” he admitted.
“This year, on the other hand, I know the riders that are going, I know the route, and I’ve been able to do tailor-made preparations for the Giro.” Since then he has won the Tour de France twice, and despite the protracted controversy of his positive test in 2010 he comes to the Giro expected to be a protagonist on some of the race’s many climbs.
The Spaniard insists he is going for victory but says the pressure will be on Italian rivals Vincenzo Nibali, third last year, and Michele Scarponi, the winner of this year’s Tour of Trentino.
“I’m sure that riders such as Nibali and Scarponi will be under more pressure than me,” said Contador, probably mindful of the Italian peloton’s poor season to date.
“I tackle the Giro in a completely different way to the Tour where I’m under more pressure. Sometimes the Tour turns out to be easier than it seemed whereas when you get to the Giro it turns out to be harder to win.
“Compared to the other Grand Tours, at the Tour you climb the mountains faster.
“The flat stages are also ridden at full gas whereas in the Giro they are managed a little more.”
Nibali and Scarponi will present the major home challenge in the absence of last year’s winner Ivan Basso, who is concentrating on the Tour this year.
The course features two individual time-trials, one of which will be a mountain time-trial while the other is just 31.5km.
While they could play a decisive role – the last time trial is on the 21st and final stage – the numerous and brutal mountain stages are expected to separate the pretenders from the contenders well before then.
“I’ve never seen such a hard course, but I’m ready for the Giro,” admitted Contador.
The Spaniard’s other rivals include Russian Denis Menchov, who won in 2009 but didn’t race last year. He will be shouldered by 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre of Spain in their Geox team.
Another Spaniard, Joaquin Rodriguez (Team Katusha), and compatriot Igor Anton (Euskaltel) will also be looking for a top finish, as should Czech Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas.
– Agence France-Presse