By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Alberto Contador, gunning for his seventh major tour title at the Giro d'Italia, embarks on Saturday on a three-week journey that could either cement his reputation as one of the best grand tour riders or signal his downfall.
The Spaniard, who has not won either the Giro or the Tour de France since 2009, is looking this season to achieve the first Giro-Tour double since the late Marco Pantani of Italy in 1998.
Success would give him his second Giro triumph after 2008 and boost his confidence ahead of the July 4-26 Tour de France.
Yet defeat against opposition that does not feature his biggest Tour rivals would cast doubt over his ability to win the biggest race in the world for the third time.
With 12 mountain stages, six uphill finishes and an unusually long individual time trial, this year's Giro is expected to be one of the toughest in recent history.
Only Eddy Merckx (11), Bernard Hinault (10), Jacques Anquetil (8), Fausto Coppi and Miguel Indurain (7) have won more grand tours than Contador.
The Spaniard, who said he would retire at the end of 2016 when his contract with Tinkoff-Saxo ends, admitted he is taking a big gamble.
"At the end of my career, I want to be remembered as someone who did something truly special, who made history,” he said in January.
"At this point, the possibility for me to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year is not only difficult, it’s risky."
With Tour contenders Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot only focusing on the July extravaganza, Contador's main rival for the Giro should be Australian Richie Porte.
Team Sky rider Porte has been in great form this season, winning the Paris-Nice and Tour of Catalunya one-week races.
Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick Step), runner-up in the last two editions, should be in the mix for the podium along with Italy's Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R-La Mondiale) and his compatriot Fabio Aru.
Astana rider Aru's build-up to the race, though, has been disturbed by illness.
Another rider to watch will be Russian Ilnur Zakarin, who has been in ominous form lately. The 25-year-old Katusha rider, who served a two-year doping ban in 2009, won the week-long Tour de Romandie race last week.
The Giro finishes on May 31.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)