May 07, 2015

ROME (AP) Alberto Contador has been riding a bit slower than usual this season.

That's by design.

The Spaniard is attempting to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France in the same year.

The challenge begins on Saturday when the three-week Giro begins with a team time trial from San Lorenzo al Mare to San Remo.

Contador's only victory this year was a stage in the Vuelta Andalucia in February. He finished second overall then, fifth overall in the Tirreno-Adriatico, and fourth overall in the Tour of Catalunya.

''My fitness level was the one I had planned this year - one or two points below that of other seasons, always thinking I would do the Giro and the Tour,'' Contador said.

Contador didn't race at all in April. Instead, he trained at altitude for three weeks on the Canary Islands.

''I carried out a huge block of work during the last three weeks on Teide, with even more meters of elevation gain than I will have in the Giro,'' the Tinkoff-Saxo rider said.

A two-time Tour champion, Contador won the Giro in 2008 and was also triumphant in Milan in 2011, but was stripped of that title for testing positive in the 2010 Tour.

Contador's preparation is a sharp contrast from the rider expected to be his main rival, Australia's Richie Porte.

Porte won Paris-Nice, Catalunya, and the Giro del Trentino in succession, and the Team Sky rider appears poised to take his first Grand Tour title.

Other overall contenders include Rigoberto Uran, the Colombian who finished second in the past two years, and Fabio Aru, the Italian who finished third last year. Then there's Ilnur Zakarin, the Russian who surprised a stellar field to win the Tour de Romandie last weekend.

Last year's Tour winner, Vincenzo Nibali, 2013 Tour champion Chris Froome, and defending Giro winner Nairo Quintana are each sitting out and focusing on the Tour.

Here are a few things to know about the Giro:

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THE ROUTE:

From the opening 18-kilometer (11-mile) team time trial on the Italian Riviera, the Giro heads down the Ligurian coastline into central Italy, and the first mountain finish at Abetone in Stage 5.

After winding back north into the Veneto region, the race's key stage could come in the 14th leg, an unusually long individual time trial at 59 kilometers (37 miles) from Treviso to Valdobbiadene, a town known for its sparkling white wine.

The time trial could affect riders' legs the next day, as Stage 15 finishes with a difficult climb to the Madonna Di Campiglio ski resort.

After a rest day comes the toughest stage, a 171-kilometer (106-mile) leg from Pinzolo to Aprica that includes five climbs, including the feared Mortirolo

There's more climbing on stages 18, 19 and 20, another leg-buster over a dirt road on the Colle delle Finestre, before finishing in Sestriere, the Alpine resort from the 2006 Turin Olympics.

The race ends on May 31 with an entirely flat stage from Turin to Milan.

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SUPPORT RIDERS:

The fight between Contador and Porte could come down to who has a better cast of support riders.

Contador's Tinkoff teammates include:

-Roman Kreuziger, the Czech who has finished fifth in the Giro and Tour

-Michael Rogers, the three-time time trial world champion from Australia who won two Giro stages last year

-Ivan Basso, the Giro winner in 2006 and 2010.

''Our clear road captain is Rogers, who together with Kreuziger and Basso represent a very strong supporting trio in the mountains,'' Tinkoff sports director Steven de Jongh said.

Porte's Sky teammates include a handful of climbing specialists:

-Sebastian Henao, the 21-year-old Colombian who finished 22nd in his Grand Tour debut a year ago

-Vasil Kiryienka, the Belarus rider who won two mountain stages in the Giro in 2008 and 2011.

-Leopold Koenig, a Czech rider making his Giro debut after top-10 finishes at the Tour and Spanish Vuelta.

-Mikel Nieve, a Spaniard who finished in the top 10 in both of his previous appearances in the Giro.

Porte can also count on the experienced Austrian Bernhard Eisel, riding his 17th Grand Tour.

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ETHIOPIAN ENTRANT:

Tsgabu Grmay Gebremaryam, a 23-year-old climber for the Lampre team, is the first Ethiopian entered in the Giro.

Gebremaryam opened the year by finishing 11th in the Tour Down Under, then became the first Ethiopian to win the African time trial championship.

There are four former winners in the field: Damiano Cunego (2004), Ivan Basso (2006, 2010), Alberto Contador (2008), and Ryder Hesjedal (2012).

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Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf

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