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Tirreno-Adriatico preview

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The year’s most loaded startlist!

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On Lopez, and Climbing

I believe that Miguel Angel Lopez is the best climber in the world.

Let’s go back a bit. The editor’s draft comes with a chat room. Between picks, the conversation drifts, and is amusing, vulgar, informative, and juvenile by turn. When picks are being made, the heckling starts. Sometimes compliments are given, mostly it is a gentle recognition that we are all clichés of ourselves, picking the same old guys, and that we really could drat each other’s teams at this point. Because of my brilliance* I was picking 21st and 24th. There wasn’t much to consider at 21. MAL was still there, and I knew he certainly wouldn’t be by the time we came around to my third pick, at 65th. I took him. I then heard the most chilling heckle of all, albeit one meant in a helpful way:

ME: I’m on a phone and selecting is hard. Can you pick Lopez for me.

RESPONSE: Are you serious?

* I was second-last to pick because I finished second last year. I finished second because of my brilliance. Majope beat me because she was lucky. Obviously.

Am I serious? Well, yes. Because I believe Miggy is the best climber in the world. Also, I think that the last few years of mountain (read: Sky) cycling have blinded us to something important. Climbing brilliance is supple, electric, and – importantly for this article – precocious. I should clarify, I don’t just mean uphill accelerations, I mean the ability to attack, maintain a high rhythym, attack again, and repeat all the way up a mountain. I mean a scattista (and not a wannabe). You can win Grand Tours as a very strong climber and all-round cyclist – as Froome and Dumoulin demonstrated when they wrapped up the three titles last year – and you can be a brilliant scattista who doesn’t win titles. Still, the mountains really matter, and the best climbers are always in the conversation to win the biggest races.

How are we fixed for brilliant climbers at the moment? There certainly isn’t a Contador, Pantani, or Bahamontes at the top of the sport. Quintana probably comes closest to the rider I’m talking about, though he seems to have lost some of his brilliance in the mountains in the last couple of years. That matters, because like I say, this skill is more fungible than we think – it is a different brilliance than that which allows for multiple GT wins. Quintana was 24 when we finished second, winning the last mountain stage, the first time he rode the Tour (and just his second GT). He wrapped up his Giro win just weeks after his 25th birthday, in his third ever appearance. Last year, he struggled to climb away from Tom Dumoulin. I’m not saying he’s done, just that some of that sparkle appears to have been lost to the grind.

I can’t talk of riders like this without getting into the poetry and beauty of Rene Vietto, he was a waiter in Nice (of course he was, because this is the French-est true story ever known) who, at 20, rode as a domestique for Antonin Magne in the 1934 Tour. He won two mountain stages, climbing brilliantly. When leading a third mountain stage, and with a chance to take the overall lead, he learned that his leader had crashed. He climbed back up the mountain he’d just descended, gave his bike to Magne, and was left on a stone wall awaiting a replacement. By the time it came, he’d lost his race, but his sacrifice and his tears (of what? Frustration? Exhaustion? Pride, I hope.) made him a star. He never won the Tour, and probably wasn’t the best cyclist in the race. Climbers of such ethereal ability, though – they make an impression that goes beyond results.

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Back to Lopez. I’ve been banging the drum for him for a while now. I’ve also bigged up his potential against the watch. I think he has a chance to win multiple Tours and become the biggest name in cycling. That won’t happen in 2018, he isn’t there yet. As a climber, though? As the most exciting rider from the Vuelta 2017? If he can keep riding like that, he’ll be on the podium in the Vuelta and the Giro, and he’ll be the man everyone watches on long mountain climbs. If cycling history teaches us anything, it is that you can be too late to predict that, but you can never be too early.

We’ve seen MAL kick away from good climbers once already this year. Valverde (ugh) caught him and pipped him on the line, but that was a mere molehill of a climb in Abu Dhabi. Next Saturday sees stage four of Tirenno-Adriatico, and if the weather allows we will see the first full climb of the season. They finish by climbing the Sassotetto, more than 14km at about 6%, with kicks. This isn’t the key objective of anyone’s season, and it doesn’t matter if Lopez doesn’t win. On the other hand, the startlist is stellar and the opportunity is there to take another step towards establishing himself in the rarefied air of the sport’s true elite.

I’m writing about this because it is, for me, what matters about this race. I like watching TA (and PN, for that matter). It is a return to European stage racing after too long. It is a chance to see how riders are going, get pointers for the coming season. It often comes with close, exciting stages and classifications. I care. This year, though, the overall picture is secondary for me. My interest is focused on that climb on Saturday afternoon. It might, just might, be extraordinary.

So no, fellow editors, I wasn’t joking. I didn’t want to be the next “you can’t win anything with kids” or “Bowie over Jordan”. If Moscon proves a more mathematically sensible pick, so be it. I’m rooting for the climber anyway, and I love watching him ride. I wanted him on my team, and I could explain that pick was about potential, or two GTs, or his TT improving, but it is only really for one reason.

I believe that Miguel Angel Lopez is the best climber in the world.

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The actual preview

Meanwhile, there’s a bike race to watch, and it is stepping up to be a snorter. Let’s have a look.

The course

RAI have a pretty established formula for this race, and in their annual battle for supremacy against Paris-Nice, they stick while ASO twist. Strade Bianche definitely helps them get the names, but the parcours helps too. We’re seeing the usual process here. We kick off with a 20km flat team time trial along the Tyrrhenian coast. That’s going to spark some gaps (hopefully not too big) and will favour the biggest teams. It’ll be pretty, too.

Stage two shows that there’s no particularly hurry to reach the Adriatic, sticking on the coast for a stage that’s set up for the sprinters. There’s an early hill so that someone can don the mountain jersey, but after that it is pan-flat. Any sprinters hoping for redemption if Thursday doesn’t work will be pretty disappointed on Friday, when the route heads east and into some seriously bumpy stuff. They are going 240km and there’s barely a flat road in sight, so early-season fitness will be tested. The finish is an ascent of Trevi, a small lap, and then another ascent of Trevi. There is a very steep finishing climb, but it is pretty short. The winner could easily come from a break and, as the old cliché has it, you can’t win the overall but you can certainly lose it.

I’ve talked about stage four, which is the Queen stage. It is long enough (220km) and bumpy enough to be about far more than the finish, but Sassotetto is tough enough to make some big gaps on GC. This race has been impacted by weather before but the worst of the late-February storms appear to be over and we can be hopeful that they’ll go ahead and ride. The plan is up above.

Stage five will be emotional for many, as it finishes in the home town of Michele Scarponi, Filottrano. This is an appropriate tribute to a popular Italian rider, and it is also a finish he would have relished. This is a shorter stage than Friday’s stage 3 but a similar profile, with a tough uphill finish and plenty to enjoy if you’re looking for Sunday entertainment. Just about anyone could take this stage. For race name purists, try to ignore the fact that they reach the Adriatic halfway through this stage, and then veer back inland.

There are lots of sprinters in this year’s race, and Monday sees their second and final chance at glory. This is a shorter stage that is bumpy early but finishes with a long flat run-in and should be a bunch gallop. We wrap up the race on the 13th, unlucky for those with an aversion to chrono stages. This is the same ultra-flat 10.5km finish to the race, just long enough to make a difference on GC, just short enough not to render the rest of the race irrelevant.

The contenders

Well, this is a WT race, so we get all the big teams, with Willier, ICA, Nippo and Gazprom representing the Pro-Conti ranks. As Conor said, in this year’s unofficial race, the Race of the Two Seas has attracted a much field than the Race to the Sun. This year’s race is loaded.

In the TTT, Sky and Sunweb will be looking to get their GC men a head-start on the competition, but BMC look to have the pick of the teams and should take it. Among the sprinters, Sagan, Gaviria, Ewan, Cavendish and Kittel will be towards the fore. I think Kittel’s travails in the early season will have him hungry to make amends and he’s going to be tough to beat

Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Fourteen
Happier times for Kittel
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There are pure climbers who will be targeting stage four and trying to cling on through the other stages and the TT – Lopez obviously tops that list, but Pozzovivo and Bardet and even Roson are also worth watching. The climby classicists are represented by the likes of Ulissi, Benoot and GVA, who’ll like their chances on stages 5 and 7. Expect Jungels, Martin and Roglic to be among the leaders on the final stage.

For the overall, there are a few big competitors – you need a good team, the ability to climb strongly, survive the hilly stages, and go well against the clock, and there are plenty of contenders. Landa, Nibali and Kelderman are all very strongly positioned to go well here. Majka, Mentjes, Aru… the list of serious riders who could compete is as long as we’ll see this season.

The headliners

With a bit of artifice, I’ve gone 1,800 words without mentioning the biggest contest of the race. The course sets up very well for both Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome, who come with strong teams and excellent chances. Yes, this is Froome vs Doom, the start of what could be a major rivalry for this season and beyond. It doesn’t take an armchair psychologist to see that there’s a benefit to getting the upper hand with a win here.

Given the early season form, the concluding time trial, and the offseason of ridiculous noise, I given Tom Dumoulin the very narrow edge. I think he’ll climb well enough and pick this one up in the time trial, with Froome second. The third podium space could be anyone’s, but I’ll suggest it is Kelderman’s. Nibali, Lopez, Aru, Landa, Thomas (as a domestique), Majka and Mentjes… if that happens, it might just be the best top ten of the season.

Tirreno-Adriatico 2018. Froome vs Doom. Sprinters galore, time trials, all of the GC men in the world… and Lopez for the climb. I can’t wait.

Froome with Silver, Doom with gold.
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