ROME Colombia's Nairo Quintana has trained his sights on clinching a first Grand Tour title at this year's Giro d'Italia where a dearth of local talent means foreign riders are likely to dominate on Italian cycling's old stomping ground.
The 97th edition of the Giro gets underway with a team time trial in Belfast on Friday, the first time the event has begun outside mainland Europe.
It is also the first occasion that there is likely to be no domestic challenger for the pink jersey, with last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali ducking out of this year’s Giro in order to focus on the Tour de France.
Italians won every Giro between 1997 and 2007, but they have only taken three of the last six and the prospect of a fifth edition without a single home rider on the podium, like in 2012, is looming large.
The lack of local talent has left the field open to a host of foreign riders, including favorites Cadel Evans, Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana, with the Colombian the pick of the bunch.
Quintana is riding for Movistar and a formidable climber who learned his trade while traveling to and from school in the rural mountainous areas of his home region of Boyaca.
He was King of Mountains and won the white jersey for best young rider while finishing second behind Britain's Chris Froome in last year’s Tour de France, and the 24-year-old is keen to make an even bigger impact this year.
"This is the country that loves cycling more than any other in the world and that’s why I want to try my luck at the Giro. I’m coming to win," Quintana said to Italian magazine Sportweek.
"Most of all I want to improve on what I did in 2013, but I’m in no rush. I’m 24 years old – I have 10 Giros and Tours ahead of me."
Australian Evans won the 2011 Tour de France and finished third in last year’s Giro. He also comes into the race in good form after winning the Giro del Trentino in northern Italy.
"We’ve got a strong team backing me and I hope to do well. We’ll see how the legs go against the other guys before saying how much I like the route," said the 37-year-old.
"But the Giro is always the hardest Grand Tour route. There are a lot of mountain finishes and I know I’ve got to be up there for three weeks and be good in the mountain time trial and individual time trial too."
Tour de France champion Froome and his Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins have both skipped the Giro in order to focus on the Tour de France.
(Editing by Toby Davis)