(Reuters) - The Giro d'Italia is traditionally the most unpredictable grand tour, and adding to this year's uncertainty is the fitness of Egan Bernal in the absence of the top guns.
Colombian Bernal won the 2019 Tour de France in dominant fashion but he has been hampered by back pain since and the Ineos-Grenadiers rider will start Saturday's individual time trial in Turin having not raced in more than seven weeks.
In the absence of Tour champion Tadej Pogacar and runner-up Primoz Roglic, Bernal would normally be the hot favourite, but how his back responds to the brutal challenge of the Giro's punishing climbs is anyone's guess.
"I need to rediscover my condition and my confidence but it's a long process," Bernal told reporters on Thursday.
With team mate and title holder Tao Geoghegan Hart skipping the race to focus on this year's Tour, Russian Pavel Sivakov will be the other protected rider at Ineos-Grenadiers and he will be ready to take over as team leader should Bernal fail to mount a proper challenge.
"Of course I dream about the Maglia Rosa (the overall leader's pink jersey), otherwise I would not be here. I'm here, I've got that somewhere in my mind," Sivakov told reporters.
"But Egan would not be here if he was not ready."
Other contenders include Briton Simon Yates, who had to pull out of the race following a positive test for COVID-19 last year and ended up a disappointing eighth overall in 2019 after proclaiming himself the favourite.
Double champion Vincenzo Nibali, who underwent wrist surgery three weeks ago, is hoping to add to his 2013 and 2016 titles. He finished seventh overall last year after showing his limitations in the high mountains.
Spain's Mikel Landa, last year's runner-up Jai Hindley of Australia, German Emanuel Buchmann, Briton Hugh Carthy, Russian Aleksandr Vlasov and Portugal's Joao Almeida will also have a fighting chance but according to Sivakov, who will prevail is a "million dollar question".
"It is really unpredictable. We've seen in the past years that some guys who lost a fair amount of time in the first week were able to bounce back in the final week, you don't see that on the Tour, it's really unpredictable," he said.
"It's a really open race."
Further adding to the unpredictability is the presence of Belgian prospect Remco Evenepoel.
Evenepoel, known as the "Baby Cannibal" in a reference to Belgian great Eddy Merckx, has returned to racing after eight months off the bike following a freak crash at the Giro di Lombardia for his much-awaited grand tour debut.
Evenepoel, 21, won all four second-tier stage races he took part in last season.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)