The Giro d'Italia -- the three-week spin around Italy that is the first Grand Tour of the season -- is always difficult, dramatic and chaotic. This year's edition is no exception.
Action kicks off with a few fast, furious days in the Netherlands, followed by an early rest day, followed by 12 straight days of racing -- a draining stretch that begins with the always-stressful team time trial and ends with an uphill finish that caps one of the most punishing climbs in Europe, the Monte Zoncolan.
The final week isn't any bargain either, starting with a meat-grinder of an uphill individual time trial. Two brutal days of climbing, including the Giro's queen stage that takes the peloton over the famous Gavia pass, precede the final time trial in Verona.
None of the three men who finished on the podium in 2009 will race this year. Defending champion Denis Menchov of Russia elected to skip the race and train for the Tour de France; runner-up Danilo DiLuca was disqualified after testing positive during the race for CERA, a form of the red blood cell-boosting EPO; and just this week, Franco Pellizotti, who was slated to start as a co-leader for the Liquigas team, was pulled from the race after international cycling authorities announced they were investigating irregularities in blood values in his biological passport.
A new scheduling conflict with the Tour of California this year forced most Pro Tour teams to make difficult roster choices. RadioShack passed on the Giro altogether and will send its A-team, including Lance Armstrong, to the Tour of California to try to help Levi Leipheimer win a fourth straight title. Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, the 2008 Giro champion, is devoting the month of May to Tour recon and training.
But there are still plenty of legitimate contenders vying for the honor of wearing the winner's maglia rosa on the final day, and a fascinating group of sprinters contesting the race-within-the-race.
A few storylines to follow:
Can Cadel capitalize?
Team BMC leader Cadel Evans has already amassed a résumé that makes him one of the most complete riders of his generation. He can climb and time trial, he has the power to win one-day events and the stamina to podium in three-week races, and he enters this Giro, his first since 2002, wearing the rainbow jersey of the world road cycling champion. Now the Australian has a chance to fill in one last blank: Grand Tour winner.
This is the first time Evans has come into a Grand Tour as such a strong favorite, which could be challenging for a rider who's had to work at being comfortable in the spotlight. Evans' supporting cast includes three American riders competing in their first three-week race -- Brent Bookwalter, Jeffry Louder and John Murphy -- and minus top lieutenant George Hincapie, who's racing in California, but BMC's seasoned staff will help compensate for the experience gap.
The squad will have to guard against losing too much ground time in the first week's team time trial amid stiff competition and Evans, who's seldom the aggressor in the mountains, must be calculating about where he makes his moves. Evans has publicly targeted this race for months and will start in bib No. 1, a nod to his current stature. He may never have a better opportunity for a breakthrough.
Best of the rest
The other overall contenders are a mixed bag. Italy's favorite sons -- Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Michele Scarponi (Androni Giocattoli) and Gilberto Simoni (Lampre) -- are either aging or not in the best of form or both. (Two-time Giro champion Simoni has said this will be the last race of his career.) We could see lieutenants on their teams emerging as the home country's best hopes.
Cervelo's Carlos Sastre, the 2008 Tour de France champion, a double mountain stage winner in last year's Giro and third overall (he was promoted from fourth following DiLuca's doping suspension), has raced sparingly this season, but shouldn't be counted out. Riders like Garmin-Transitions' Christian Vande Velde and Sky's Bradley Wiggins are racing primarily to get miles into their legs and peak for the Tour de France. Both would love to score wins in the team trial, seize available opportunities and finish in the top 10, but if the choice is between being realistic and opportunistic, they'll likely focus on the longer-term goal of July.
Lampre's Damiano Cunego, who won the 2004 Giro at a precocious 22 years old, hasn't podiumed in a Grand Tour since. Some are touting the prospects for Colnago team leader Domenico Pozzovivo, who has logged good results in Italy this season. But the biggest cipher -- and this is not the first or last time that phrase will be applied to him -- is Astana's drama magnet, Alexandre Vinokourov. Vino is coming off wins at the short Giro del Trentino stage race and the one-day Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but he's famously inconsistent over the longer haul and is surrounded by a team of relative unknowns. His post-suspension success has reignited the debate about what riders convicted of doping offenses do or don't owe the sport in terms of public contrition.
The battle among the sprinters could be as entertaining as the overall, even with Mark Cavendish California-bound and injuries or illness sidelining Daniele Bennati of Liquigas and Oscar Freire of Rabobank. There's a mano-a-mano-a-mano shaping up between Lampre's much-decorated Italian Alessandro Petacchi, Garmin's American flyer Tyler Farrar and Cavendish's HTC-Columbia teammate Andre Greipel of Germany.
Farrar had a frustrating five top-five finishes in bunch sprints at the 2009 Giro, including one second place apiece to Cavendish and Petacchi. The Seattle-area native won his first Grand Tour stage in Spain later that season and had a strong classics season. Greipel, chafing at his intra-team rivalry with Cavendish, is gobbling up wins and has publicly stated he'd like to start the Tour de France. He and Petacchi may have stronger trains to deliver them to the finish, but Farrar will have more help this time around and is a more evolved, intuitive sprinter at this level than he was a year ago.
Aussies Graeme Brown of Rabobank and Katusha team veteran Robbie McEwen, coming off a year largely lost to injury, could figure into the mix, too.
Other riders to watch
HTC's Craig Lewis, long considered one of the best young American talents, will make his Grand Tour debut at this Giro, and New Hampshire native Ted King will ride his second straight Giro for the Cervelo team, which could also try to propel Spaniard Xavier Tondo to a stage win.
Garmin's Irish climbing specialist, Dan Martin, will play a crucial support role for Vande Velde -- or vice versa, depending on how the cards play out. Another Garmin rider, Svein Tuft of Canada, will start his second three-week race after missing much of last season with a serious concussion. The 2008 world time trial silver medalist, Tuft will bolster Garmin's hopes of taking the Giro team time trial and perhaps the leader's pink jersey.
French teams Bbox Bouygues Telecom and Cofidis, led by veterans Thomas Voeckler and David Moncoutie, respectively, were dropped from the Pro Tour this season. They're also assured invitations to the Tour de France, but still will be under pressure here to show they belong back in the big leagues.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.