The Giro d'Italia is always one of the highlights of the cycling year, but this year it's shaping up to be an extra special affair.
For one thing, the peloton will be packed with potential winners. Last year's Maglia Rosa Ryder Hesjedal, Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali are the names on everyone's lips, but the experience of riders like Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans means that they can't be counted out either.
Hesjedal looks to be in cracking form and put in a flawless performance at the recent Liege-Bastogne-Liege to help his Irish teammate Dan Martin win the oldest of the one-day classics.
At the Giro del Trentino—always a good indicator of form—Nibali finished one minute, 40 seconds ahead of Wiggins to take the overall win, but the Englishman had serious mechanical, or rather electronic, problems with his bike on the final stage, effectively ending his challenge. Final result aside, Wiggo put in a strong performance and is showing exactly the kind of form he'd want right before a Grand Tour.
The route is a little different to last year's, in that it features far more of southern Italy. The stages are also a little shorter, and there's what could be a crucial individual time trial in Stage 8. That TT is massive at 55km, and could be where Wiggins' Giro is won or lost.
The Olympic TT champ has been looking lighter than usual of late as he focuses on developing his climbing legs, so whether he'll be as strong as he used to be in the individual discipline remains to be seen.
He's shedding the kilos and hitting the hills for good reason, though. This Giro, like all Giros, will be decided by the mountains. There are some brutally tough alpine stages and anyone who's not able to keep up has no chance of pulling on the pink jersey after the final day in Brescia.
This is certainly going to suit the likes of Wiggin's team mate Rigoberto Uran, who is a sublime climber, but it could make it difficult for the world's fastest sprinter Mark Cavendish to make it to the finish, because the Manx Missile has a lot of trouble on the slopes.
Cav will want to make it to Brescia, of course, because he's chasing the prestigious red jersey for points leader. The Omega Pharma—Quick-Step rider narrowly lost out on the accolade last year to Joaquim Rodriguez, and he'll be desperate to go one better this time around.
In the build-up to the first stage in the beautiful southern city of Naples, the event's organisers have put together a series of videos, talking to the main contenders and offering some insight into how the race could develop.
The key moments will come late in the game. At 138km, Stage 19 might look short at first sight, but those kilometres travel over two of Europe's most legendary climbs, the Passo di Gavia and the Passo di Stelvio, before a mountain-top finish at Val Martello.
It will be attacks right from the start, because there's absolutely no part of this stage that's flat. If one of the big boys is up for this one, there's no telling how much damage they could inflict.
The next day is not for the faint-hearted either. The peaks might be less famous, but there's five of them, including a savage high-altitude finish at Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
By comparison, the final day's racing is a walk in the park. A flat stage will bring the peloton to Bescia, where it will loop the city several times and allow the sprinters—assuming they make it over the mountains—to have one last shot at glory in front of the adoring crowds.
There's no way of knowing who they'll be cheering for on 26 May, but one thing is for sure: it's going to be a spectacular race.
Here's the full list of starting teams, each with a couple of names to watch out for (courtesy of Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport):
- Ag2r La Mondiale: Pozzovivo (ITA), Betancur (COL)
- Androni Giocattoli–Venezuela: Pellizotti (ITA), Sella (ITA)
- Astana Pro Team: Nibali (ITA), Aru (ITA)
- Bardiani Valvole–Csf Inox: Modolo (ITA), Battaglin (ITA)
- Blanco Pro Cycling Team: Gesink (NED), Kruijswijk (NED)
- Bmc Racing Team: Evans (AUS), Phinney (USA)
- Cannondale Pro Cycling: Basso (ITA), Viviani (ITA)
- Colombia: Atapuma (COL), Duarte (COL)
- Euskaltel Euskadi: Sanchez Samuel (ESP), Egoi Martinez (ESP)
- FDJ: Bouhanni (FRA), Casar (FRA)
- Garmin Sharp: Hesjedal (CAN), Millar (GBR)
- Katusha: Paolini (ITA), Caruso (ITA)
- Lampre–Merida: Scarponi (ITA), Serpa (COL)
- Lotto Belisol: Bak (DEN), Hansen (AUS)
- Movistar Team: Capecchi (ITA), Visconti (ITA)
- Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team: Cavendish (GBR), Pauwels (BEL)
- Orica Greenedge: Goss (AUS), Weening (AUS)
- Radioshack Leopard: Kiserlovski (CRO), Popovich (UKR)
- Sky Procycling: Wiggins (GBR), Uran (COL)
- Team Argos–Shimano: Degenkolb (GER), JI Cheng (CHN)
- Team Saxo–Tinkoff: Majka (POL), Boaro (ITA)
- Vacansoleil–Dcm Pro Cycling Team: Marcato (ITA), Rujano (VEN)
- Vini Fantini–Selle Italia: Garzelli (ITA), Rabottini (ITA)