May , 2015 – If this year’s Giro d’Italia were a fantasy videogame then the result would be a forgone conclusion: 1. Alberto Contador (Spain), Tinkoff-Saxo; 2. Richie Porte (Australia), Team Sky; 3. Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Etixx-Quick Step. Barring accidents, that may well be the outcome of the 98th stage race around Italy when it ends in Milan on May 31. But three-week grand tours often have a habit of throwing up shocks—as we saw at last year’s Tour de France when hot favorites Contador and Chris Froome both crashed out before they reached the serious mountain stages.

By: John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

Among the potential surprises at this Giro, which opens on the Ligurian coast of northwest Italy this weekend, is the coming to age of Italy’s best GC hope Fabio Aru of Team Astana; the blossoming of a 25-year-old Russian named Ilnur Zakarin of Team Katusha; and a return to the limelight of one of the Giro’s former champions—Ivan Basso of Tinkoff-Saxo, Damiano Cunego of Nippo-Vini Fantini or Ryder Hesjedal of Cannondale-Garmin. While the biggest shock of all would be a below-par performance from Contador.

ARU

Still only 24 years old, Aru already proved last year that he’s an able deputy for his team leader Vincenzo Nibali—who is again focusing on the Tour de France. (Interestingly, the two Italian stars both grew up on islands, Nibali on Sicily, Aru in Sardinia, before they moved to the mainland to further their cycling careers.) In Nibali’s absence, Aru came in third at the 2014 Giro, a significant 4:04 behind winner Nairo Quintana (who’s not defending his title), but only 1:06 behind runner-up Urán. And at the end of the year Aru came in fifth at the Vuelta a España (behind Contador, Froome and Spanish veterans Alejandro Valverde and Joachim Rodriguez), but the young Italian won two of the Vuelta’s mountain stages to prove his climbing ability in such lofty company.

Aru has a few drawbacks. Besides his youth compared with Contador, Porte and Urán, his main weakness is his time trialing, which could prove fatal to his victory prospects in the lengthy 59.4-kilometer TT awaiting everyone on stage 14. But an even greater problem could be Aru’s lack of racing going into this Giro. He has ridden just two stage races this year, both in March, placing 39th at Paris-Nice and sixth at the Volta a Catalunya, before sickness prevented him riding the mountainous Giro del Trentino (won by Porte) in late-April. Aru’s lack of racing will likely work against him in the first week—especially on the lumpy stage 3 to La Spezia next Tuesday, the summit finish at Abetone the next day, and the marathon 264-kilometer stage 7 to Fiuggi on Friday. If he can survive that opening week without losing time, Aru could benefit from his relative freshness in the grueling final week.

ZAKARIN

When race organizer RCS Sport issued a press release Friday that reviewed the complete field of 198 starters, it mentioned 42 riders. Zakarin wasn’t listed. On the other hand, as you will see elsewhere on this website, the Paris-based Agence France-Presse makes the upstart Russian one of its five pre-race favorites—while the Internet has already dismissed Zakarin as a doper because of his two-year ban for a steroids positive that ended four years ago.

So who’s right?

At last week’s Tour de Romandie, Zakarin showed by winning the six-day Swiss stage race and beating the past two Tour de France champions, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome, in the process that the consistent form he has shown through his first UCI WorldTour season might give Contador, Porte and Urán a major headache. But it’s worth looking in detail at how Zakarin reached this level, rather than simplifying his zigzag path to prominence.

To the cycling public, Zakarin maybe new, but those who pay more attention to our sport will remember the Giro d’Italia’s under-23 version three years ago. It proved a three-way battle between Aru, Zakarin and the then 21-year-old American climber Joe Dombrowski (who’s riding for Cannondale-Garmin at the Amgen Tour of California this coming week). The first decisive stage came on the fifth of 10 stages, finishing atop Monte Terminillo, where Dombrowski took over the race lead with a solo win by 50 seconds over Aru, with, yes, Zakarin in third another five seconds back.

The very next day, on a course that went over the infamous white roads of Tuscany, Zakarin made a solo break to win the stage, Aru came home in a 15-strong chase group two minutes back, while Dombrowski flatted on a gravel section and arrived another minute behind. With Zakarin in the overall lead, the race came down to the penultimate stage that finished on top of the Passo di Gávia in the Dolomites. With three minutes to make up, Dombrowski attacked solo at the foot of the final climb and won the stage impressively, 43 seconds ahead of Aru, while Zakarin cracked, reaching the finish in 16th place, 9:40 back. Overall, the American was first, the Italian second and the Russian ninth.

After that defeat in the high mountains, Zakarin knew he had to lose weight and, like Brad Wiggins, who lost 6 kilograms (13 pounds) between his 2008 Olympic gold medals on the track and finishing third at the 2009 Tour de France, the Russian slimmed down by 10 kilos (22 pounds) over the next two years (2013 and ’14), while he was riding for the second-tier RusVelo team. Besides a couple of short time trial wins, Zakarin’s most significant result was winning last year’s Tour d’Azerbaidjan—mainly due to taking second place on the mountaintop finish at Pirqulu in a two-man break with former Tour de France stage winner Linus Gerdemann.

So what about Zakarin’s steroids positive? That came back in late 2008. His ban started in early 2009 and wasn’t announced by the Russian federation until July that year. Zakarin, whose hometown is Naberezhnye Chelny in the semi-independent Republic of Tatarstan, 500 miles east of Moscow, was then 19 years old and part of the Russian national squad that trains on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus—where he still lives. He was suspended for taking a common steroid pill, Dianabol, which is popular among bodybuilders for increasing muscle strength and is readily available in eastern Europe. Banned for the same drug at the same time was the former Russian women’s mountain bike champion Ekaterina Melnikova.

Asked about that doping offense from six years ago, Zakarin said after winning the Tour de Romandie last weekend, “I was young and stupid. Things are different now.” Certainly, his body is very different now, at 6 feet 1½ inches and 147 pounds—about the same as Froome, the two-time Romandie champion who fought hard to win again. But he was beaten into third place by Zakarin and Katusha teammate Simon Spilak—who didn’t seem too pleased that he was upstaged by his lanky Russian colleague.

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What Zakarin did last weekend—podium finishes on the two hardest stages, one in the mountains, the other a time trial—was racing of the highest quality. Saturday’s mountain stage into the Swiss Alps contained four category 1 climbs in its 166 kilometers, including two nasty ascents in the final 30 kilometers: the narrow, 5.1-kilometer, 9.8-percent-grade Petite Forclaz and the 14.2-kilometer, 7-percent climb to the finish at Champex-Lac. Those closing climbs, as challenging as any in a grand tour, were made tougher by heavy rainfall.

That stage to Champex stage was won by French climber Thibaut Pinot, who wasn’t a danger for the overall title and who had the benefit of a passing TV moto in his initial attack. Pinot—third at last year’s Tour de France—finished seven seconds ahead of a chasing Zakarin, who counterattacked to gain 13 seconds on a small group led by Froome (Urán finished 46 seconds behind Zakarin). Froome was expected to take back that deficit in the 17.3-kilometer time trial and win Romandie again, but on the hilly, technical course through the wet streets of Lausanne it was Zakarin who shone. Despite jamming his chain and changing bikes when he muffed his gear-shift at the top of the second of two cobblestone climbs, he finished third on the stage, only 13 seconds behind world TT champ Tony Martin—and Zakarin would have beaten the German had he not lost an estimated 16 seconds with his bike switch.

So Zakarin is not the “unknown” he’s been made out to be, and his performance in the coming three weeks could well show him to be the man his Katusha has been looking for to replace its aging Spanish team leader, Rodriguez, who will be riding the Tour, not the Giro, this year.

HESJEDAL

Few, if any pundits are predicting a podium finish for Cannondale-Garmin’s Hesjedal. Of the previous Giro winners (other than Contador), the Canadian has the best chance of another high finish (he was ninth last year). Two-time Giro winner Basso is now one of Contador’s three strongest climbing support riders at Tinkoff-Saxo, and Cunego is more interested in attempting to win a stage than shoot for a top-10 overall.

It should be remembered that when Hesjedal won the Giro in 2012 (by just 16 seconds over Rodriguez) he had a similar early season as he has had this year. Three years ago, he rode the Tour Down Under (placing 39th), the Eroica Strade Bianche classic (35th), Volta a Catalunya (75th), Tour of the Basque Country (19th), the Ardennes classics (ninth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and Tour de Romandie (not starting the final TT stage). This year, he did Down Under (65th), Eroica (75th), five stages of Tirreno-Adriatico, Catalunya (104th), Giro del Trentino (14th) and Romandie (24th). That’s five stage races and 29 days of racing compared with four stage races and, yes, 29 days of racing in 2012.

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At his winning Giro, Hesjedal’s strongest teammates on the mountain stages were the Americans Peter Stetina (on BMC Racing this year and currently injured) and Christian Vande Velde (now retired); this year, his best support riders in the mountains are likely to be another veteran American, Tom Danielson, and the Colombian climber Janier Acevedo. Hesjedal is recognized as one of the best tacticians in the business and, at 34, one of the most experienced. This will be his 16th start in a grand tour and if precedent means anything, the ultra-tough Canadian may well be up with the leaders and fighting for the podium when they’re grinding up the Passo del Mortirolo and Colle delle Finestre in the final week.

CONTADOR

There is an awful lot of pressure on Contador to win a seventh grand tour (nine if you include the two that escaped because of a much-delayed suspension for his 2010 clenbuterol positive). He’s one of cycling’s few multi-million-dollar-salary riders, and his Russian team boss Oleg Tinkov is more than anxious to see the Spaniard return to his winning ways. Contador has won a single race this year—a stage of the Ruta del Sol (ahead of Froome) back in February—and it has been exactly 40 days since he last crossed a finish line (finishing fourth overall in Catalunya).

Since then, Contador has done several weeks of high-altitude training on Mount Teide in the Canary Islands—and done plenty of talking. It’s possible that at 32, and probably in his penultimate season, he may not have the form he needs to carry out his declared goal of doing the Giro-Tour double. He would much rather win the Tour again, so if Contador finds himself minutes off the pace after the stage 14 time trial, he may well ease off the gas pedal in the final week and reserve his efforts for the Tour.

Such a scenario would depend on some tremendous performances in that long time trial on Saturday May 23 by Porte and Urán (who placed second in the past two editions of the Giro), and maybe Zakarin. In contrast to Contador, Porte has been winning all season long. He has done five stage races, winning them all except for the minor Tour of the Algarve, and put 32 days of racing under his tires (compared with Contador’s 19). Porte’s last race, Trentino, was only two weeks ago, and it included a stage win on a mountaintop finish in the Dolomites.

Porte’s major negative factor is his lack of results in grand tours: His best finishes are seventh at the 2010 Giro, 19th at the 2013 Tour (riding support for winner Froome) and 68th at the 2012 Vuelta (also riding for Froome). But his proximity to overall winners and the confidence he has gained these past four months give the team Sky leader the strongest chance of becoming the first Australian to win the Giro.

And that wouldn’t be a shock.

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