Established as a preparation race for Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico seems to return to those roots in 2019. RCS Sport has, for now at least, eschewed its recent tradition of including a mountaintop finish in the Apennines, instead preferring to stitch together a series of finales that offer sprinters and puncheurs alike ample opportunity to shine.
The 2019 Tirreno-Adriatico still offers something to men with Grand Tour ambitions, mind, as the race is once again bookended by time trials: a 21km team test in Lido di Camaiore on Wednesday, and then a short individual finale in San Benedetto del Tronto on March 19. With some 9,000 metres of vertical elevation across the five road stages, there is plenty of rugged terrain on the agenda, but without a set-piece summit finish, the race seems open to a variety of interpretations.
In short, Tirreno-Adriatico sets off with its widest range of potential overall winners in almost a decade. And, as ever at this early point in the season, the riders bubbling below the surface are as interesting as the men winning races.
The cancellation of the mountain stage to Monte San Vicino helped to smooth Greg Van Avermaet’s path to overall success at Tirreno-Adriatico in 2016, although the Belgian still had to go out and seize the jersey from Zdenek Stybar with a fine victory on the penultimate stage. This year’s route lends itself more obviously to Van Avermaet’s talents and so he will set out already among the favourites for the overall win, even if he insists that his primary objective in Italy is to prepare for the cobbled Classics.
In 2018, Van Avermaet was a consistent performer through the spring without ever quite reaching the 'Gouden Greg' pitch of the previous campaign, but he has started the current campaign – the first for the revamped CCC Team – on a sound footing. He was a stage winner at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then a solid sixth at Strade Bianche this past weekend, and so could soon reattain that golden nickname from the Belgian press if things go his way.
Van Avermaet’s 2016 overall win at Tirreno was built on the foundation of a BMC victory in the opening team time trial, and while CCC have retained some strong rouleurs and Marco Pinotti’s expertise, they no longer have a locomotive of Rohan Dennis’ power to pull them through the opening stage in Lido di Camaiore. No matter, Van Avermaet can expect to be competitive on a range of stages across the week, from the explosive finale at Pomarance to the stiff muri of Recanati.
Deceuninck-QuickStep have seemingly forgotten how to lose. After completing an Opening Weekend double and then adding Le Samyn for good measure, the men in blue continued their startling opening salvo on Saturday as Julian Alaphilippe snared an assured victory at Strade Bianche. And, not for the first or last time this year, Deceuninck had a number of cards to play in the finale.
It will be a similar story at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Elia Viviani will lead the line in the bunch sprints, while Zdenek Stybar – winner at Pomarance in 2016 – can also be expected to shine. The man most likely to battle for overall victory, however, is Alaphilippe, who seems ideally suited to the succession of punchy finales across the week and can produce a solid time trial when required.
This will be Alaphilippe’s first appearance at Tirreno-Adriatico, but the Frenchman has ridden strongly at Paris-Nice in recent seasons, and is arguably the season’s most impressive performer to date. Already the winner of four races this season – two stages at the Vuelta a San Juan, one at the Tour Colombia and then Strade Bianche – it would be almost a surprise if Alaphilippe didn’t add to that haul this week.
Astana have been the other team repeatedly delivering eye-catching displays through the opening weeks of the season and, with a running tally of 15 wins to date, they are keeping pace with Deceuninck-QuickStep. Jakob Fuglsang pushed Julian Alaphillippe all the way to the Piazza del Campo at Strade Bianche at the weekend, and the Dane should again be Astana’s leading performer at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Already winner of the Ruta del Sol last month, Fuglsang has enjoyed a fine opening to the 2019 campaign. He placed second on two stages in Andalusia and also took sixth overall at the Vuelta a Murcia. This will be just his second appearance at Tirreno-Adriatico – he took 13th overall while riding for Vincenzo Nibali in 2013 – but Fuglsang has thrived when handed responsibility in week-long stage races.
The 33-year-old is equipped with a sense of invention that will allow him to contend despite the lack of a recognised mountaintop finish, although his lack of finishing speed and explosivity might once again cost him when faced with men like Alaphillipe. If he remains in contention as far as the San Benedetto del Tronto time trial, however, anything is possible.
Last season’s outstanding week-long stage-race rider, Primoz Roglic looks set to continue in the same mode in 2019. After winning the UAE Tour last month, Roglic turns his attention to Tirreno-Adriatico, and although he would surely have preferred a mountaintop finish, his form and the strength of his Jumbo-Visma team make him an obvious contender in Italy.
Jumbo-Visma won the opening team time trial in Abu Dhabi, and they have the quality to lay down a similar early marker at Tirreno-Adriatico, with Tony Martin and Jos van Emden among the men flanking Roglic here. The Slovenian, meanwhile, has already shown an aptitude for the explosive finales that pepper Tirreno-Adriatico. He escaped the clutches of the gruppo to beat Adam Yates, Tiesj Benoot and Geraint Thomas to the punch on the hilltop finish in Trevi a year ago, while at the UAE Tour he had enough pep to place third behind Caleb Ewan at Hatta Dam.
After placing fourth overall at the 2018 Tour de France, Roglic will lead Jumbo-Visma’s pink jersey challenge at this year’s Giro d’Italia on a course seemingly well-tailored to his talents. This Tirreno-Adriatico route offers a very different kind of challenge, but it will be a useful test of Roglic’s credentials all the same.
In keeping with a pattern established in 2016, Peter Sagan began his season early in the southern hemisphere, but then stepped away from racing for the whole of February. The Slovakian has spent much of the past month cloistered in a training camp atop Sierra Nevada and by rights ought to require a few days to get back up to racing speed at Tirreno – not least because he opted to forgo both Opening Weekend and Strade Bianche this time out.
However, a stomach virus in the week leading up to Tirreno has prevented Sagan from being able to train, or even eat, properly, and so easing back into racing may take longer still after his lay-off, although he'll be hoping to test himself as much as he can in the build-up to Milan-San Remo, which he's targeting this season.
In the past, Sagan has been a constant threat at Tirreno-Adriatico, winning seven stages there since 2012. This week’s race offers the usual combination of finales for sprinters and puncheurs, and Sagan will hope to recover sufficiently to shine on both. The lack of a mountaintop finish, meanwhile, gives him an opportunity, at least on paper, to improve on his second place overall of 2016.
Much will depend, of course, on precisely how much Sagan wishes to – or indeed can – give of himself in central Italy. With the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège also on his programme, he faces a longer spring campaign than usual and appears to have tweaked his preparation accordingly. He raced at both the Tour Down Under and the Vuelta a San Juan in January to bank racing miles before his early, five-week hiatus. No matter what he achieves at Tirreno-Adriatico, Sagan knows his spring will be judged on what happens from Milan-San Remo onwards.