The season's first grand tour, the Giro d'Italia, kicks off on Saturday and though it looks to be a decidedly Italian affair, the last minute inclusion of Team Astana has turned the race inside out. Well, sort of. While Astana's roster includes, arguably, the three best grand tour riders, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, only Kloden appears to be in shape to contest a major stage race.
OK. Can Levi and Alberto come off the couch and ride circles around yours truly? Do you even need to ask? But, dropping Bruce like a bad smell is different than keeping it all together in a three week race. One look at the race map should strike fear into anyone with a heartbeat and knowledge of the route.
The Passo Manghen on Stage 14 is pretty darn hard and the finish of that stage on the Alpe di Pampeago is humongous. The next day is brutal with the Passo Giau at 6mi of 10% and then the finish on the Marmolada(Passo Fedia) which is probably the hardest climb in the Dolomites, the last 3km averaging 15% or so. But, wait, there's more. The next day is an individual time trial which finishes at the Plan de Corones with sections up to 25% in the last 4 miles. Ouch!
Hey, but the hardest stage on paper may be Stage 20 five days later which includes the Passo Gavia and its ramps up to 16% and then the fearsome Passo del Mortirolo which is probably the second or third hardest pass in any grand tour. The 8-mile climb averages 11% and it is just a never ending climb of pain and suffering. Anyone who is hoping to do well in the race and has questionable fitness is going to have nowhere to hide.
With Astana's snub from the Tour I am hoping that the boys in blue lay down some serious smack and show why they deserve to be in France come July. Given their current lack of race conditioning it might be a tall order, but don't count out Alberto and Levi.
ps - rumour has it that there will be a stage start or finish in the central valley town of Visalia in the 2009 (insert you favorite sponsor here) Tour of California. That may mean a mountain stage up into Sequoia National Park where 6-7000' climbs exist. Hmmm.