Climbers at the ready for 2014 Giro d`Italia

Rome: Italy`s Vincenzo Nibali will kick off the defence of his Giro d`Italia title in 2014 with three days of racing in Northern Ireland before a "key" final week of epic racing in the high mountains.

Nibali, of the Astana team, claimed his maiden pink jersey after a dramatic 2013 edition that was blighted by torrential rain, a cancelled stage and a snow-hit ride to Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites.

Next year`s edition is set for an equally dramatic end with some key climbs including the 20th and penultimate day to Monte Zoncolan, labelled the `Welcome to Hell` stage, set to decide overall victory.

Nibali, who sealed his 2013 triumph with an epic ride in a snowstorm to the summit of Tre Cime, will line up as the man to beat.

The Sicilian, who did not compete at the 2013 Tour de France but went on to finish runner-up at the Tour of Spain last month, said: "It`s a balanced and great looking race, but we`ll all have to race well.

"There are a lot of stages that suit the climbers. The big riders that were here at the presentation are the ones that will go on to fight for the 2014 win."

Overall, the race will feature five stages in the high mountains, five in the `medium` mountains, eight flat stages, one team time trial and two individual time trials.

Australian Cadel Evans, who was pipped to a runner-up finish in 2013 by Colombian Rigoberto Uran, called it a "balanced" course which should suit his, and others`, climbing abilities.

Asked about the climb-heavy last week, Evans said: "It`s not as concentrated as previous editions, but they are certainly not easy stages.”

"You go into the last week already with some stages with a lot of climbs in your legs, not necessarily in the high mountains, but they are difficult.”

"At this point we have to look at Nibali (as the favourite), but experience will help guys like Ivan (Basso) and myself."

On the first of three days in Northern Ireland the race will kick off with a team time trial, with two flat, sprinter-friendly stages on the way to Dublin.

Although there are nine summit finishes, some of those will come on medium mountain stages.

The first uphill finishes come on stages eight and nine, and after the first of three rest days - one more than usual because of the transfer demands from Ireland - the first individual time trial will be held on stage 12.

"The individual time trial will balance it out a bit," said Evans, one of several contenders, including Nibali, Basso, Joaquin Rodriguez and Uran to see the inclusion of an uphill time trial on stage 19.

The Bielmonte (18.3 km) and Oropa (11.8 km) climbs will provide racing drama in the mountains, with the 18.6 km tre to Plan di Montecampione on stage 15 likely to crank the pink jersey battle up a notch.

The third and final rest day follows before another uphill finish on an epic stage 16, when just over 60km of climbing will feature.

The overall contenders will be glad of a rest on stage 17, an undulating 204 km which finishes on the flat.

The following three stages will be key. Stage 18 is another mountaintop finish which includes the climbs of Passo di San Pellegrino (11.8 km) and Panarotta (15.8 km).

Stage 19 features only one ascent, the 19.3 km climb to the summit of Monte Grappa, while the 20th and penultimate stage features three in total including the daunting Monte Zoncolan, a 10.1 km hike over steep and uneven terrain.

Basso, the 2006 and 2010 champion, believes in his own victory chances but said it will be crucial to keep some powder dry for the Zoncolan.

"Of course I believe," said the Italian when asked if he could win.

Asked about the Zoncolan, he added: "Sometimes, a climb becomes really difficult when you`re not going so well, and is easier when you are going well.

"I have god memories from the Zoncolan, so I hope it`s the same next year."