Giro features plenty of contenders

2013 Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana is eyeing the podium at the 2014 Giro d'Italia. AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari/Lapresse

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The Giro d'Italia starts Friday without its defending champion and without cycling's biggest general classification contenders, but that hardly means the corsa rosa is going to be anything less than spectacular.

In fact, the absence of 2013 Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Tour de France favorites Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) could make the Giro more wide open and unpredictable than the big race in July.

A Giro without a clear favorite will see a mix of aging veterans and rising stars rushing to fill the vacuum. With no dominant team to control the pace of racing and a brutal final week looming, the Giro should deliver some of the most thrilling, explosive racing of the season.

"I think we'll see a clash of generations," Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué said. "You can win or lose the race anywhere, but the overall will be decided in the final week, which is brutal."

Despite the absence of the top stars, the list of Giro contenders is perhaps longer than at the Tour, which has only five or six riders who can seriously challenge for the yellow jersey.

The Giro, in sharp contrast, has a solid dozen or more riders who could ride away with the pink maglia rosa. Nearly every major team is bringing at least one rider with ambitions for the top 10, meaning many will line up Friday in Belfast for the opening team time trial believing in their GC ambitions.

Veterans topping the list

First among the seasoned riders are Joaquim "Purito" Rodríguez (Katusha) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing). Both are experienced and bring strong, deep and dedicated squads to protect them.

Rodríguez, who turns 35 next week, has been agonizingly close to winning a grand tour -- second to Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) at the 2012 Giro by just 16 seconds -- and is putting everything on winning the Giro. Bolstered by his third-place finish at last year's Tour, which gave him podiums in all three grand tours, the attacking Spaniard also realizes this could be his last realistic chance to win a major tour.

"I am racing to win the Giro, and I am not thinking of anything less," Rodríguez told VeloNews earlier this season. "This Giro course is perfect for me. Winning a grand tour would round out my palmares perfectly. I've been close before, I know I have the qualities to win."

Rodríguez was impressive at the Volta a Catalunya, beating back challenges from Contador and Tejay van Garderen (BMC), but a heavy crash at Amstel Gold Race disrupted his final preparations for the Giro.

Evans, meanwhile, reluctantly gave up on trying to win another Tour, ceding that role to van Garderen this year, and enters the race with the Giro as his central focus of his season.

A surprise winner at the Giro del Trentino, the 2011 Tour champ could be a major factor in the second half the race. Always reliable, the 37-year-old Evans will be hard to shake if he can stay close to the brutal accelerations deep in the mountains.

Rodríguez and Evans both have years of experience handling the pressures and unexpected hurdles that are part and parcel of any grand tour, giving them an advantage against their younger, more inexperienced rivals.

Both seem to get better as the race unfolds and both have strong, dependable engines that will prove critical in the final decisive week. A victory by either rider would be a huge boon for their respective teams.

Another veteran looking to fight and scrap his way into contention will be Michele Scarponi, who moved from Lampre-Merida to Astana on a one-year deal for 2014.

A winner by default in 2011 when Contador was disqualified as part of his clenbuterol ban, Scarponi, 34, leads a solid Astana squad. With Nibali aiming to regroup for the Tour following a less-than-spectacular spring, Astana is hoping to deliver a surprise despite his absence.

"We have Michele, who knows how to race the Giro, and [Fabio] Aru. He's young, but he is a quality rider, so we'll see how far he can go," Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli told VeloNews. "Nibali is preparing for the Tour, and we never considered changing the program. We will have a strong team to honor the Giro."

Lesser names in the veteran ranks include two-time winner Ivan Basso (Cannondale), 36, who continues to believe in his chances even though many others do not. The other is Franco Pellizotti (Androni Giocattoli), 36, who would be content with a stage win but will be aiming for a top-10 overall finish.

Generation next

If Movistar's Unzué is correct about his prediction of a generation clash, it will be his Colombian phenom Nairo Quintana leading the charge of the new challengers.

The 24-year-old was the sensation in last year's Tour, winning a stage, finishing second overall, and claiming both the best young rider and climber's jerseys. Many have criticized Unzué for packing Quintana off to the Giro instead of returning to the Tour this year, but Movistar is racing the Giro to win.

"This is the first time Nairo will start as the clear GC captain in a grand tour, so it's an important next step in his development," Unzué said. "We bring a very strong team to support him. To win? There are many challengers. In principal, we are aiming for the podium, but anything can happen."

Colombians will be in the thick of the action throughout the Giro. Behind Quintana will be the Colombia team, back for its second Giro, with former under-23 world champion Fabio Duarte looking to step up.

"We hope to see the true Duarte during this Giro," said Colombia sport director Claudio Corti. "He has tremendous potential. We bring a solid team, and we will be attacking every time there is a mountain."

Another Colombian with big ambitions is Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Second last year, the 27-year-old Urán is also poised for a breakout Giro.

Omega Pharma, a team renowned for its prowess on the pavé, lines up Friday with ambitions to win the team time trial as well as carry Urán deep into the final week.

"This is a new chapter for us at Omega Pharma. This is the first time we come to a grand tour with a major candidate for victory," said sport director Davide Bramati. "We bring a strong team to support Rigoberto. He has shown his qualities last year. We start with ambitions of racing for the podium."

The hits keep coming with Tinkoff-Saxo, which lines up with Nicolas Roche, who is excited to make the most of racing on home roads in the opening three days in the Emerald Isle, and Rafal Majka, who punched into the top 10 last year.

Another Irishman, Daniel Martin, co-captains Garmin with Hesjedal. Martin has suggested he's motivated to win a stage while Hesjedal will be looking to rebound from his disappointing defense last year, when he abandoned with illness.

A winner in 2003, Damiano Cunego lines up for Lampre, which brings Diego Ulissi, 24, and Przemysław Niemiec, 34, as its GC options.

Another young gun looking to impress is Belkin's Wilco Kelderman, 23, who is looking to improve on a 17th-place finish in his grand tour debut at last year's Giro. He's targeting a top-10 result.

Final week to decide all

So which will prevail, cagey experience or youthful exuberance? Either way, nearly everyone agrees the winner will emerge in the final week.

Although the first half of the race will have its fair share of fireworks with a team time trial, two road stages in Ireland, and a mix of sprint stages and uphill finales back in Italy, the real fight for the GC will begin in earnest after the first of two individual time trials at Barolo.

A few GC contenders are sure to lose options early, either through crashes, mishaps, or perhaps to strong coastal winds that could develop in Ireland, but once the Giro turns into the mountains of northern Italy the real battle for pink commences.

"I think it will be an interesting Giro. It's a very open field, with many contenders," said Astana's Martinelli. "There are many favorites, and the final week is very, very difficult. The mountains will decide everything."

There are some brutal climbs, including the Stelvio in a repeat of the stage that was canceled due to weather last year, and the penultimate stage up Monte Zoncolan. A climbing time trial at Monte Grappa only further tilts the balance toward the riders who can hold their form in the final week.

"We will have five high mountain stages with summit finishes in the last eight stages, so it's a tough week," Omega Pharma's Bramati said. "The team has to be there to do well in that last week. Every day can include a key moment for the overall. We have to be consistent, there is no room for an off-day in terms of performance because it will be too difficult to recover from with such a challenging route."

The Tour might have the stars and the prestige, but no one can ever accuse the Giro of being boring. This year's wide-open field and dynamic course should deliver action-packed racing from start to finish.