Wiggins, doping case in spotlight as Giro starts
NAPLES, Italy (AP) - With cycling again shadowed by doping, Bradley Wiggins begins his possible attempt Saturday to accomplish that rarest of doubles - victories in the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France in the same year.
The Briton followed his Tour de France triumph last year by winning the gold medal in the time trial at his home London Olympics. Now, Wiggins is the favorite for the three-week Giro.
He has declared all along that the Giro is his top priority this year, but earlier this week indicated he might challenge Froome instead of helping him in the Tour. Nobody has pulled off the Giro-Tour double in the same year since Marco Pantani 15 years ago.
Italy's Vincenzo Nibali is regarded as his top challenger in the Italian classic, while defending champion Ryder Hesjedal could also contend again.
Attention, however, remains on a Spanish court's decision Tuesday to destroy the blood bags seized in the 7-year-old Operation Puerto case.
Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was found guilty of endangering public health and given a one-year suspended jail sentence in the case. But the World Anti-Doping Agency is considering a possible appeal of the ruling by Judge Julia Santamaria, who ordered the destruction of more than 200 bags of blood and other evidence gathered in police raids on Fuentes in 2006.
Two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi, who was awarded the 2011 title after Alberto Contador was stripped of the honor in another doping case, were both banned in the Puerto case.
Basso pulled out of the Giro on Thursday because of a cyst on his buttocks.
"My morale is shattered,'' said Basso, who won in 2006 and 2010. "But the first thing to do is take care of this problem and come back right away to prepare for the Tour de France and Spanish Vuelta.''
The race could come down to a contest between Wiggins' time trial ability and Nibali's climbing prowess - or vice versa: how each rider performs in his rival's strongest areas.
Nibali's biggest victory thus far remains the 2010 Spanish Vuelta title. In last year's Tour he finished third behind the Sky duo of Wiggins and Chris Froome. In the Giro, he clearly will have the home fans' support.
"The Giro has been our declared goal since the start of the season,'' Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov said. "We're all working exclusively to help Nibali win.''
Wiggins won the opening-day time trial at the 2010 Giro in Amsterdam and wore the leader's pink jersey for one day before finishing 40th. His climbing, however, has improved drastically since.
Nibali was third in the 2010 and 2011 Giro and was moved up to second in 2011 after Contador's suspension. Having moved from Liquigas to Astana, Nibali no longer has to split leadership with Basso.
This will be the fifth Giro for both Wiggins and Nibali. They already went head-to-head in the four-day Giro del Trentino last month, which Nibali won while Wiggins struggled with mechanical problems in the final stage.
Hesjedal, meanwhile, has had a quieter buildup. But his combined skills of climbing and time trialing, with solid support from a strong and experienced Garmin squad, make him a threat.
While Froome, Contador and the injured Joaquim Rodriguez are absent, other contenders include 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, Scarponi and Robert Gesink.
The race begins with an 81-mile sprinting stage in downtown Naples, which should draw large crowds to watch the likes of Mark Cavendish, Matthew Goss, John Degenkolb and Daniele Bennati vie for the first pink jersey.
It's the first time in 10 years the race has opened with a sprinting stage. Cavendish, who has won a combined 36 stages at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, is undoubtedly the man to beat.
But Cavendish won't have Alessandro Petacchi as a lead-out man. Cycling's ruling body has blocked the Italian's attempt to join the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team after announcing his retirement from the Lampre squad.
Wiggins could be in good position after Sunday's second stage, a 10.8-mile team time trial on the island of Ischia, a discipline in which his Sky squad excels. In all, there are three time trials for a total of 58 miles.
Remaining in the Naples region, Stage 3 travels along the picturesque Amalfi coast. The course then heads down into the southern region of Calabria before turning north again into Basilicata. After a few stages in central Italy, the serious climbing begins in the north.
Including an uphill time trial for Stage 18, there are eight major climbing stages, with the final week featuring legendary peaks like the Galibier (one of two stages passing through France), the Gavia and Stelvio (in the same stage) and the Giao pass and Tre Cime di Lavaredo peak in the next to last leg.
The race finishes in Brescia on May 26.
AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in London contributed to this report.