Cycling fans will be hoping for a hard-fought, scandal-free Giro dItalia to help lift the sport out of its drug-inspired doldrums when the epic road race sets off on 10 May.

The Giro, which follows a different route each year, will hit the road in Lecce, Puglia, on 10 May and wind up 3,449 km later in front of the cathedral in Milan on 1 June. It will be split into 21 stages of an average of 164 km each, including ten major climbs with five uphill finishes and 11 flat stages. The course favours a climber who can perform well in the two time trials that pit riders against the clock, which will both be held in the final week to keep suspense high.

The 2003 race will wend its way across the foot of Italy from Lecce to Vibo Valentia in Calabria before crossing into Sicily for the Messina-Catania stage. Back on the mainland, the stage finish nearest to Rome will be at the top of the Terminillo mountain on 17 May. The race will continue through Arezzo, Faenza and up to Bolzano and then take in Pavia and Chianale on the way to Milan.

The route was welcomed by world champion and national hero Mario Cipollini, 36, who will be attempting to beat the 70-year-old record number of stage wins held by the late Alfredo Binda, five-times winner of the Giro. The larger-than-life Lion King, as Cipollini is known, has won 40 stages to date, including the fastest ever stage in 1997, compared with Bindas 41.

I think Ill be given several chances to equal and beat the record during (this) years competition, Super Mario smiled after the 2003 Giro was unveiled. This route gives plenty of opportunities to sprinters.

Excitement also surrounds the return of former Giro and Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, who was expelled from the 2001 Giro after an insulin syringe was found in his hotel room. Pantani, 33, a popular figure known as the pirate for his flamboyant headscarves, has always protested his innocence. He succeeded in overturning an eight-month ban last July and recently announced his desire to win this years race as a final gesture before the end of his career.

Last years winner Paolo Savoldelli, dubbed the falcon for his ability to swoop past other riders on the descent, is a favourite again thanks to his strong mountain climbing and time trialling skills. Other riders to look out for include Vuelta a Espaa champion Aitor Gonzalez Jimenez of Spain, and former champions Gilberto Simoni, Stefano Garzelli and Ivan Gotti of Italy.

Following the death in March of Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev from head injuries sustained in a crash during the Paris-Nice race, cyclings world governing body, the UCI, has announced plans to make helmets compulsory in time for this years Giro. Until now cyclists have repeatedly rejected the use of helmets, which are currently mandatory only in certain conditions.

Harry Lodge, a former Giro dItalia competitor who now leads Team Endurasport.com-Principia, a professional British cycling team based near Milan, believes the Giro dItalia is every bit as gruelling as the more famous Tour de France. You learn a lot about yourself as a person, he says. You suffer every day, and you have to take it one day at a time. But I enjoyed the camaraderie and the respect within the group, and its a great personal achievement when you get to the end.

The three-week Giro, the first of the years blue ribbon events ahead of the Tour de France in July and the Vuelta a Espaa in September, has been marred in recent years by the kind of high-profile doping busts that have given cycling a bad name.

We really need a year where the main reports are about the racing rather than about raids on hotels, says Lodge. Cycling has been through a very bad stage in the last five or six years; sponsors havent wanted to invest because of the problems with doping. Id like to think that with the stricter controls weve got now, sponsors will come back into the sport.

Last years Giro saw 2001 champion Simoni kicked out of the race after testing positive for cocaine, and 2000 winner Garzelli disqualified after testing positive for the diuretic Probenecid. Three other cyclists were also detained in doping-related investigations.

In 2001 the Giro was almost abandoned after a series of police raids on team hotels turned up a variety of banned substances. It was the biggest swoop in cycling since the infamous 1998 Tour de France, when three teams were thrown out of the race as it became apparent that systematic doping was rife.

But these busts can be seen as a sign that the authorities are serious about cleaning up the sport. The UCI was the first international sports federation to start measuring red blood cells for signs of doping in 1997, and in 2001 cycling became the first sport to introduce a urine test for the synthetic version of the naturally-occurring endurance enhancer EPO (erythropoetin).

Earlier this year the UCI introduced an additional test which measures riders blood plasma levels for signs of possible drug use. Cyclists are tested the day before major races and banned for 15 days if they return suspicious results. At this years Giro, tests will be monitored by three separate authorities: the UCI, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and a national commission.

However, efforts to stamp out doping in the sport have been weakened by the relatively short-term penalties handed out to offending cyclists, with bans often being suspended or reduced to a matter of months on appeal. Garzelli, for example, was banned for nine months after failing a dope test in last years Giro.

Lodge believes harsher penalties would be justified. Some riders get a years ban for taking a vitamin supplement, and maybe that seems a bit harsh, he says. But as a professional you have to know the rules. I think at some stage a stronger ban should be imposed.

For more information see the official Giro dItalia web site www.giroditalia.it. For information about Team Endurasport.com-Principia see www.teamendurasport.com.

Picture: Lion King Mario Cipollini, who will be attempting to break the record number of Giro stage wins this year.