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I due Mari - more than just the Big 3

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Rarely has one of the early season stageraces been as hyped up as this year’s Tirreno Adriatico. The reason? An early clash between the big four Tour de France contenders, Nibali, Contador, Froome and Quintana has everyone drawing their breath. Except now it’s just the Big 3 as Froome is staying at home nursing a case of the sniffles. A bummer for the hype machine but three bigs should race just as well as four.

Giuseppe Bellini - Velo/Getty Images

There is good cause to get excited about this race, the course’s seven stages really offer a compressed menu of all different challenges. With a prologue/short TT, two flat sprints, one short steep puncheur-stage, one climb/downhill finish, one mountain finish and a timetrial, it’s going to take a complete rider to win this. The original team timetrial was scratched due to stormdamage and fallen trees along the route and replaced by a plain old prologue-type TT but it shouldn’t have the huge impact in the end. It may be good news for guys like Pozzovivo, Pinot and van den Broeck who might not have had the strongest teams for a TTT but for the top guys it shouldn’t matter much.

The  Course

Stage 1
Likely the usual yawn fest. A TTT at least had the potential for some interesting cock-ups and some unexpected results, prologues are fairly predictable. It’s 5,4 km so the GC impact is negligible. At some point someone should really come up with a more inspired alternative to TT prologues. I’m thinking potatosack race or maybe bobbing for apples? Really anything would be an improvement sometimes.

ta2

Stage 2
Sprint-o-rama. Less exciting (or more?) after Marcel Kittel was forced to stay at home with a virus but there are still seven or eight interesting sprinters here. Six of them are on MTN-Qubeka so that adds extra spice to the mix. 153 km is the right length too, there is simply no point of making flat stages longer. An extra 36km is going to alter the outcome if there are no significant obstacles on the route?

ta3

Stage 3
More or less a replay of same stage last year. It’s a brilliantly evil finish. A bit of gradient about a kilometer from the finish where you can put the purest sprinters in the screaming red and then a long drag into the town centre. Sagan won last year and he will be hard to beat this year too. A duel with Degenkolb would have been yummy but hopefully someone else will challenge instead. Looks like a good chance for a second place for Greg van Avermaet.

ta4

Stage 4
Now here’s a tasty nugget. One of the brutally long, 226 km in all, Tirreno stages we’re used to seeing. It has plenty of hills in it and a finale that is mouthwatering, if somewhat cruel. The final 25 kms see the riders go up a steep 4km 9.3% avg climb twice with a downhill drop the finish (with a little uphill final few hundred meters just to add insult to injury). We probably won’t see the race decided here but it should be the best day of racing and if one of the GC contenders feels like throwing down it could go absolutely apeshit.

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Stage 5
The mountain stage and presumably the big decider most people will be waiting to see. Terminillo is the scene for the GC showdown, 16 km 7.3% avg it offers every opportunity for a massive w/kg showdown.

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Stage 6
Once more a sprinters day. A bit of a challenging start and presumably a trickier stage to control the breakaway on but should be straightforward in the end.

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Stage 7
Classic final day timetrial on the Adriatic coast. 10 km is short enough not to put a wet blanket on the previous stages but still long enough to be a decider if the racing has been tight enough during the week. With stages 4&5 as hard as they are you have to figure the top of the GC is set by now but you never know. Presumably the big question of the day will be if Jurgen van den Broeck ends up fifth or sixth on final GC which is always thrilling (I think it will be fifth this time!)

The Cast

The obvious storyline has of course been the rare occurrence that all the big favorites for the Tour face each other in an early season race. Expectations, especially since Froome and Contador showed in Ruta del Sol that top riders can be aggressive and go supersonic speeds even in races we often dismiss as "training races",seem to have gone through the roof. Such is the level of competitiveness this year. We have two contenders who are up to their eyeballs in revenge lust after 2014’s TdF debacles. Quintana and Nibali are understandably more laid back, they won their big targets last year and have less to prove. Conta should perhaps be the same but he has the whip of Uncle Oleg on his back and also he’s come to the point where it is five years since he actually won a TdF, the race most people assumed he would dominate for years.

I personally don’t expect to see much of Nibali and Quintana in this race in spite of all the hype. Nairo is just starting up and has been injured. Nibali looks to be easing into the season much like last year and he doesn’t have a Milano-Sanremo to aim for so he won’t be too bothered with peaking his form. If we see him playing some games on stage 4 I think we should be happy with that but I can’t imagine him in the big picture. We know Quintana of course come strong into races without having raced much before but it’s hard to see him stack up against a Contador who has done some of his finest work in March before, albeit mostly in Paris-Nice. It’s going to take some major upsets for this to be anything but a Contador parade but the fight behind him should be excellent nonetheless.

Thibaut Pinot

Still early days so it’s hard to say who is here for reals but there are some hot prospects. I already mentioned the three who lucked out with no TTT, in the same category we should probably put Joaquim Rodriguez these days. Why he was not at Strade Bianche I.do.not.know. He would kill at that race but maybe he hasn’t got that kind of form yet. It’s not really his course either, not really punchy enough. Pinot on FDJ could also suffer a bit with the stage 4 downhills if he still has that monkey on his back. Otherwise he likes racing in Italy and since he isn’t allowed to do the Giro this might make a good substitute. The kid is going to be under immense pressure in France this year so he’s probably like some early results to get some peace to work. He looked fine in Oman so I’m expecting a good week from him.

Pozzovivo is otherwise the obvious outsider here, hasn’t raced since Australia but perfect route for him and I wonder if there isn’t a bit of pecking order to be settled on the stacked Ag2r team? Betancur isn’t on top yet yet so he should have the support he needs this week. He’ll be joined in the scrappy little dude category by Leopold König who lucked out and got a golden chance of leadership when Froome decided to stay at home under his blanky. Needless to say, when you get your chance on Sky you had better take it. König is otherwise slated as co-leader with Porte in the Giro and co-leadership with Mr Fragile is a pretty good chance really. Still, to be taken seriously in the Sky program it doesn’t hurt to show some leadership when asked.

Three things I'm curious about

Adam Yates
Tour of Turkey flash in the pan or serious stage racer? I’m keen to find out.

BMC Italians
Signing Damiano Caruso and Alessandro De Marchi was an interesting move. Want to see how they plan to use them.

Stage 4 Finale
Finishes like the last 25 km here are what one week stage races are for. Really hoping for fireworks on this:

ta stage 4