Alessandro Petacchi, now 40, is Omega Pharma's nominated sprinter at the Giro d'Italia

With Mark Cavendish heading to the Tour of California, Alessandro Petacchi is free to make history in the Giro d’Italia. The Italian stage race starts on Friday (May 9) in Belfast with a team time trail and features eight sprint stages for Petacchi. If he wins one, he will become the oldest stage winner in the race’s 97-year history.

The 40-year-old, often called Ale-Jet, will start his home tour for the 13th time and as this edition’s oldest cyclist. He won his first stage at 29, when he beat Mario Cipollini at the 2003 Giro in Lecce, the south of Italy.

Petacchi counts 22 stage victories taking out the five lost due to a doping suspension. His last one came when the 2011 Giro arrived in Parma. He took that win against Cavendish, when they were on separate teams.

If he wins this year, at 40 years and three months old, he will top Giovanni Rossignoli and become the race’s grandfather. The Italian set the record in 1920, at 37 and 186 days old, when he finished off a gigantic 421.3-kilometre stage from Trieste to Milan. Due to fans crowding the horse track finish, the organiser gave the stage win to Rossignoli and eight other cyclists.

Rossignoli also placed second overall once and third twice in the Giro d’Italia. Petacchi never contested the overall, but he has stage wins and the points jersey from all three grand tours. He also wore the pink jersey, taking his first one of seven thanks to his win in Lecce.

Another record would fall if Petacchi takes the pink jersey on Friday’s team time trial or in the following stages. He would top Italian Andrea Noè, who at 38 and 128 days old became the oldest wearer of the maglia rosa in 2007.

Petacchi’s wings are able to stretch freely thanks to Cavendish. Cavendish asked the Omega Pharma team to bring him in as a lead-out man one year ago after a brief retirement. This year instead of racing the Giro d’Italia, Cavendish is heading to the Tour of California and setting his sights on the yellow jersey when the Tour de France starts in Yorkshire.

For Petacchi to make history, he faces several serious and younger rivals like Ben Swift, Mike Matthews and Marcel Kittel.