BIG START EARLY PREVIEW: Which riders to look out for

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Diminutive Colombian Nairo Quintana is hot favourite to win this year’s Giro d’’Italia.

With last year’s winner Vicenzo Nibili not defending his title in order to concentrate on the Tour de France, the pint-sized Quintana (pictured on the front cover) of the Movistar team has been placed at odds-on to wear the Maglia Rosa when the peleton rolls into Trieste on the last of the 21 stages on June 1.

Other top contenders in the ‘Fight for Pink’ will be Quintana’s fellow countryman Rigoberto Uran who was runner-up to Nibili last year while Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Australia’s former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans will be well up in general classification.

However, none of these top names are likely to be to the fore in the opening three stages of the Grande Partenza which will see Northern Ireland host the start of major tour for the first time.

Belfast will see the opening Team Time Trial on Friday May 9 with 22 teams of nine riders rolling down the ramps of the iconic Titanic slipway for a 21.7km skip around east and south Belfast taking in the Stormont Estate.

You can be sure that one of three Irishmen involved will hoping that their team has a good day on the opening stanza in order to become the first rider to wear pink since Stephen Roche’s epic effort back in 1987.

Tinkoff-Saxo’s Nicholas Roche, his cousin Dan Martin of the Garmin team and Sky’s Philip Deignan are in handy Time Trial teams and you can be sure they will be pushing hard to get them to the line in the quickest time.

The TTT will be the best chance for the Northern Ireland public to witness some of the top sportsman in the world.

With their skin-tight outfits, space helmets, state-of-the-art bikes, they will hitting up to 45 mph down the Newtownards Road on their way back to the city centre.

It’s all about aerodynamics and even at break neck speed, the team will be within six inches each other’s back wheel and they flow around the course.

The first five riders of each team count and the rider who comes in first in the team with the fastest time wears pink, for a day at least.

An Irish winner in any of the opening three stages will be manna from heaven for the organisers as it will undoubtedly raise the profile of the sport with its headline news.

The 219km Stage Two run up north from Belfast to Portrush and back via the Giants Causeway and the coast road is a flat course and will be a sprinters finish.

This is where the likes of Mark Cavendish are prominent. However, after an illness the Manx Missile is missing the Giro.

He plans to take another assault of the Tour de France and has warmed up by taking three of the first four stages of the Tour of Turkey this week.

As sprinters go, Cavendish’s big rival Marcel Kittel will be hot favourite to wear the Maglia Rossa (red jersey) as the points classification winner.

The big powerful German is tipped to take over Cavendish’s mantle, but not yet.

However, teams will be keen to defend their leader of the opening stage.

Stage Three, which sets off from Armagh on Sunday, May 11, before heading through the Orchard County for another sprinter’s finish in the centre of Dublin.

The odds of an Irishman still being in pink is worth a few bob!

However, for overall honours, it is still hard to veer from Quintana who weighs 59kilograms dripping wet and legs like strings of spaghetti.

He was second to Chris Froome in last year’s Tour de France and many say that it was his lack of experience that stopped the 24-year-old wearing the yellow jersey in Paris.

However, with this year’s Giro a very mountainous course with eight gruelling stages uphill and five summit finishes, you can see why this young climber is favourite.

The mountain stages feature the famous Monte Zoncolan at 1730 metres which is the penultimate stage while the biggest climb is the Passo dello Stelvio (2758m).

It is this year’s Cimi Coppi which is the highest elevation of the Giro and is named after the famous Italian climber Fausto Coppi who won the event five times winning 22 stages in total.