Phinney heads list of four American Giro hopefuls

Small cadre of Americans takes aim at the maglia rosa on Saturday, led by prologue threat Taylor Phinney

Photo: Mark Johnson

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Editor’s Note: The 95th Giro d’Italia opens Saturday and VeloNews is on the ground with daily reports and analysis, tech and video features, and galleries from Andrew Hood, Gregor Brown, Caley Fretz, Graham Watson, BrakeThrough Media and Gregg Bleakney.

Saturday marks the start of the Giro d’Italia with the opening prologue taking place in Herning, Denmark, and U.S. hopes for a maglia rosa in 2012 fall on just four American riders for the second year in a row. The biggest hope for the red-white-and-blue to turn pink comes on day 1 of the race with a 21-year-old time trial phenom.

The four American riders bring a wide range of individual goals to Italy, ranging from simply gaining grand tour experience to gaining the pink leader’s jersey in the prologue. Together, Garmin-Barracuda riders Tyler Farrar, Peter Stetina and Christian Vande Velde, as well as Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) make up the smallest number of Americans to toe the line in Italy’s three-week tour since 2007, when George Hincapie, Aaron Olson and David Zabriskie made up the U.S. contingency.

Christian Vande Velde, Garmin-Barracuda

The year after the 2007 American trio rode quietly through the Giro, Illinois native Vande Velde became the first American to don the maglia rosa in 20 years when Garmin stormed to an opening team time trial win in its first-ever grand tour stage. Vande Velde won’t be the team leader for GC (that honor goes to Canadian Ryder Hesjedal), but would be next in line if Hesjedal weren’t able to contend. And he’ll use the Giro to train for July when he’ll take his shot as leader in France.

After his 2008 Italian success, Vande Velde crashed out of the next two editions of the Giro and chose to skip it all together in 2011. He’s back in 2012, but skeptical of a brutal opening week that sees the race travel from Denmark to northern Italy during a rare fourth-day rest day.

“It’s stupid right off the bat: the rest day’s a flight and then a team TT the next day. It’s a lot of stress,” Vande Velde told VeloNews last month.

“We have a good team, for sure. We have a well-rounded team. A lot of times we are just going for the team time trial, or going for Tyler [Farrar]. This year, we’ve given the race a lot of respect.”

With 100 kilometers of time trials at the Tour in July, Vande Velde has focused on the discipline that gives him a leg-up on other contenders like Andy Schleck. So long as he can leave Italy in good health, Vande Velde will point his front wheel toward the Tour’s grand départ in Liège, Belgium, on June 30.

“I’m definitely trying to get on the TT bike a little bit more,” he said. “Races like Romandie and the Giro are great preparations for that. If I get through the Giro ok and have a good rest, the doors are wide open [in the Tour].”

Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Barracuda

While Vande Velde will support Hesjedal and look for TT and climbing stages for his own palmarès, Farrar will focus on the bunch finishes. In 2010, Farrar won two stages at the Giro, and went on to win two more at the Vuelta a España. He abandoned the 2011 Giro however, two days after his good friend and training partner Wouter Weylandt died in a crash during the race. But the Gent, Belgium-based American regrouped and followed that up with a first, extremely emotional Tour stage victory in July.

Farrar is ready to put that behind him and get back on the road in Italy.

“I kind of had it in my head to maybe take a year or two off the Giro,” Farrar told Australian network SBS’ Cycling Central. “But the more I thought about it, I said, ‘the longer I wait to go back the harder it’s going to be. I might as well grit my teeth and do it and don’t let it turn into a big thing or any bigger thing than it already is.’”

After a tough spring that has seen him go winless for the longest period since early 2008 (save for the TTT win at Tour of Qatar), Farrar’s first chance in the bunch finishes will come on the final Danish stage of the race in Horsens on Monday.

Peter Stetina, Garmin-Barracuda

For his part, Stetina should have some free reign in Italy. A year ago, the Colorado native made his Giro debut in support of Christophe Le Mevel. When the Frenchman faltered in the mountains, Stetina rode on, eventually wrapping up third in the best young rider competition and 22nd overall.

“I was able to prove to others what I thought I was capable of. Especially at the Giro, to show maybe I am built for these grand tours more so than the weeklong stage races,” he recently told VeloNews.

“I am going to be Ryder’s right-hand man in the Dolomites. If the form is there, I can pursue my own high placing while helping him. If he’s climbing well, and I am climbing well enough to help him, then naturally I will have a high place.”

Taylor Phinney, BMC Racing

But while Garmin brings the numbers and experience, Taylor Phinney may just hold the trump card when it comes to pulling on the first pink jersey for an American since Vande Velde relinquished his on the second day of the 2008 race.

Phinney, 21, will enter his second grand tour Saturday with big hopes for a time trial victory. He won last year’s prologue TT at the Eneco Tour and anchored the team’s TTT win last month at the Giro del Trentino, where he earned the leader’s jersey for his efforts. Phinney can’t punch his Olympics ticket with a TT win in Italy, as USA Cycling requires a minimum length of 40km for a grand tour time trial podium result to produce an automatic selection, but the jersey formerly worn by his father’s 7-Eleven teammate provides more than enough motivation.

“I know that I can potentially change my life on Saturday. I can change my year, my career in a way and post my biggest result to date in just 10 minutes of racing. That’s just extra motivation for me,” Phinney told this week.

“I’m looking forward to this time trial. It’s been a huge goal of mine for the whole year. I’m in a really good place to tackle it and I really want to win it.”

Phinney’s team boss, Jim Ochowicz, who was in the 7-Eleven team car during Andy Hampsten’s 1988 ride through the Giro, put faith in the former U23 time trial world champion as well.

“Taylor is now in his second year and entering his second grand tour; he’s getting a feel for these races,” said Ochowicz. “He really wants to finish well in the Giro’s time trial and do a good prologue, everything in-between is going to be survival and days of opportunities.”

Phinney’s biggest opportunity — and America’s — for the elusive maglia rosa comes in just two days time in Herning.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.