Looking over the start list for Tirreno - Adriatico was a who's who of just about every category of rider - GC men, classics studs, and sprinters. For the sprinters, almost all seemed to decide that riding around (supposedly) sunny Italy was far superior than suffering through echelons in France, so the stage was set for the season's first big showdown between top sprinters this season.
We have seen good sprints this year, don't get me wrong. But when Cavendish is at the Tour de San Luis and Griepel is across the ocean at Down Under, can we draw too many conclusions about who has the team and legs dialed this season? Besides, those early season races are hardly a true gauge of fitness, for who can forget how Jonathan Hivert trounced Tyler Farrar in the Vuelta a Andalucia? If that happened in June, news of Farrar's demise and Hivert's rise would be a never-ending conversation but in February it is but a mere blip, easily written off as early season training.
When we show up to Tirreno, though, the racing really starts. Today was as guaranteed to go to the sprinters as any stage can be with 232 almost pan-flat kilometers to the finish. There was rain, and with rain you never really know what is going to happen... but this was still pretty much guaranteed to end in a sprint. One fast, tight roundabout with about 1.200 meters to go was the only obstacle between leadouts and the final 250 meters. And with Milan - San Remo on the horizon, you can bet that Cavendish, Griepel, Goss, Cioleck, and the bevy of fast Italians at the race were raring to test their form and start psychological warfare.
So, what happened? A doomed breakaway comprising Kevin Hulsmans (Fantini Vini-Selle Italia), Cesare Benedetti (NetApp-Endura) and Garikoitz Bravo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) played out front, apparently liking the job of riding tempo solo all day more than having 180 of their best friends to gripe about the rain with. After the duo was caught, Sep Vanmarke launched an attack inside the final 20km but looked more to be getting in an interval workout before the Classics season begins in earnest in ten days time than actually hoping for a stage win. A few kilometers later, Sep's playtime was over as the peleton hit the finishing straight and got the bell for the final circuit around town. This is where the real fun began.
I wish I could tell you whose leadout train was where in the last 5km, but with the rain and cool temps it seemed a battle between Liquigas in recognizable green and an army of riders in black. Even Mark Cavendish in the azure leader's jersey was almost unrecognizable. But, as the final 1.500 meters approached, Lotto Belisol appeared in control with Cavendish nowhere in sight. The elastic stretched through the final roundabout, fragmenting riders, but with 1.000 meters yet to go it wasn't enough to separate the sprint a-la Mark Renshaw on the Champs Élysées in 2009.
Instead, what we got was a messy sprint that Matt Goss won after coming around Peter Sagan, who opened up the sprint early. What can we learn from this? I had a few notes.
- Peter Sagan is no pure sprinter yet. He jumped early, yes, but Goss and the others still appeared to have a little edge in top end speed.
- Goss is back to his best, simply having more speed than the rest of the guys who started the sprint in good position.
- The Lotto Belisol leadout is still on fire. They were the only team to have a semblance of control in the final two kilometers, but they seemed to lose Griepel as he finished 7th.
- Everybody should be scared of Cavendish. He finished 5th, yes. But if you watch the sprint, it looks like he started it in about 20th wheel or worse after his team's leadout train imploded. And, he was boxed in against the barriers by Ciolek in the final 100m, forcing him to stop his sprint for a moment.
Want video? It's grainy (or, more accurately, blurred with water), but this will do for now: