THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TURIN, Italy — With a doping case still hanging over him, Alberto Contador goes into the Giro d’Italia as the big favourite in what he calls the "most difficult race I have ever faced."
The Spaniard races in the year’s first multi-stage starting Saturday after winning the Volta of Catalunya and Vuelta of Murcia.
The Giro starts with a team time trial in Turin and, after 19 stages, concludes with an individual time trial in Milan on May 29.
"At the start of the season after talking with the team we decided to focus our attention on this race," Contador said. "It will be the most difficult race I have ever faced. My objective is to have the pink jersey on the final day or at the least be in contention for it."
Contador, who tested positive for clenbuterol while winning last year’s Tour de France, was cleared of doping by the Spanish cycling federation after he blamed the result on eating contaminated beef.
Cycling’s governing body and the World Anti-Doping Agency have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is expected to issue a ruling before this year’s Tour.
"I prefer not to think about that and only concentrate on sporting matters," Contador said. "The hearing with CAS is still in the future. I have total trust in the people that work for me and that we will get a favourable verdict."
Contador, winner of the 2008 Giro, says Spanish Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali will be his main challenger after defending champion Ivan Basso dropped out. Nibali emerged as the leading Italian contender after Basso withdrew due to poor conditioning.
"He has made a step up in class over the last two seasons," Contador said. "He did well in the 2009 Tour, then last year he was the last rider called up for the Giro and finished third.
"Then he won the Vuelta with great consistency, which shows how much he has matured. For me he is the favourite. He is a good racer and has spent the whole season thinking about the Giro."
Another Italian expected to challenge is Michele Scarponi. In 2010 he finished fourth, but since then he has changed teams from Androni to Lampre and is confident the change will help him improve on his final position.
"Contador is stronger than me but we are starting from the same point," Scarponi said. "I want to be competitive in this Giro until the very end.
"This year I have prepared better. I feel more mature and I know myself better. Furthermore I am in a stronger team and we are ready."
Toronto’s Michael Barry rides for Sky Procycling.
Meanwhile Highroad sprinter Mark Cavendish may have won the green jersey for winning the overall points classification in the 2010 Vuelta, but he is not necessarily expecting to repeat that success in Italy.
"I’m been pretty solid all season," he said. "Throughout the year I’ve been in solid form. I’m not at the stage I’ll be in the Tour, but I am pleased with how I’m feeling.
"I can’t keep comparing everything to 2009 with nine Grand Tour stage wins though. That was an exceptional year. I was flying then."
In total, the Isle of Man rider has won five Giro stages, but the last of those was in 2009 after he missed the 2010 Giro.
"This is my favourite event, because the whole team gets to celebrate, so the whole team has to do it right," he said. "So as long as we get on the podium, it isn’t really important who gets the jersey.
"Like with every Grand Tour one win constitutes success. If you don’t go away with one win, you’ve failed. You have to try for every stage. I’ll be trying for the five sprint stages and we will try to win the team time trials."
Nine of the stages are rides of over 200 kilometres, while three have climbs of over 2,000 metres.
"It’s just going to be mad," Garmin-Cervelo rider David Millar told The Associated Press. "The course is bananas. It’s all over the place and ridiculously difficult. Then we have these transfers that are, again, catastrophic at times.
"It’s very demanding physically and psychologically for everyone involved. It’s exhausting from all angles. It’ll be a good race, I think, because Italy will be behind Nibali and you’ll have Contador there who’s the world’s best stage-race rider."
– Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.