Tirreno Adriatico, or the ‘Race of the Two Seas,’ is looking particularly tough for 2012.
The riders will cover over 1000km in the five road stages, bookended by two time trials, a team time trial to open the race and an individual one to bring it to a close.
Typically, the winner of Milan-San Remo will come from Tirreno, with Matt Goss's win last year being the only exception in over a decade.
In the past, riders preparing for the first classic of the season would often ride for a number of kilometres after one of the stages, getting their bodies prepared for the 300km which they’ll face three days after the finish of Tirreno.
However, with stage four being a very arduous 252km, that won't be necessary this year.
The nature of the race, with its long back to back stages, will really increase the riders’ chronic training load, or CTL, which is what makes it perfect as the final preparation for the classics riders before the one day monuments loom.
Let's have a closer look at the stages.
Stage One, 16.9km Team Time Trial
This flat and relatively short opening team time trial will be very intense, with the winning team’s average speed likely to be over 55kph. The teams will decide on a set order before the race, and will get up to speed as soon as possible off the start ramp.
Once up to cruising speed (around 58-60kph on the flat), the aim is simply to keep the pace steady and smooth. Each rider will have to push around 500-600w for their turn on the front of the line, before pulling off and drifting to the back. Once the last rider comes past, it’s necessary to produce another surge in power of over 500w, in order to increase speed again to that of the team.
If you judge it wrongly and go too far into the red on your turn at the front, making that next surge to get on the back of the line can be extremely difficult. This is one of the hardest parts of a TTT, and something you wouldn't think about if you've never done one before - as the coaches say; ‘your spell isn’t finished until you’re back on the string.’
For this reason, the strongest riders will do longer turns on the front, rather than increasing the speed, whilst the weaker riders will do a shorter turn and swing off before they let the speed drop. Whilst in the line, the riders will still have to produce 250-350w. Another important consideration during TTT's is how best to negotiate corners and roundabouts.
The rider at the front is keen to get back up to speed as soon as possible, but you have to consider that your eighth rider is still mid way through the corner and unable to pedal.
The best drilled teams will leave it a couple of seconds after the corner to sprint back up to speed, thus preventing any gaps appearing in the line behind. It might appear slower, but the overall result will be a smoother and faster team.
Stages Two and Three:
At 230 and 178km respectively, these are both long days in the saddle which should normally end in a bunch sprint.
Stage two is the more undulating of the two, but with the major climbs done and dusted by the midway point, and cross winds not normally a factor in this region, everything should be back together just in time for the finish.
The longest stage of the race at 252km, this will be a hard day in the saddle for all the riders.
After 190 undulating kilometres, the riders hit the Passo Lanciano; rising 958m in 11.4km and with a maximum gradient of 13%, this is a very testing climb. Undoubtedly there will be attacks here, but with 50km from the top to the finish, the GC riders might well play things a little more conservatively.
With two km to the finish, the riders face an excruciating 1km climb into Chieti with a maximum gradient of 19%. Such a short intense effort will really hurt with 250km already in the legs, but the best riders will still average in excess of 7w/kg for this last effort of around 3 minutes.
With a mountain top finish, today is the day that will decide the GC. After a flat initial 20km, the stage undulates constantly for the following 140km, before hitting the first of the two mountains, the Piano Roseto, a 20km climb which peaks at 1227m.
By the top, the group will likely be whittled down to 30-40 riders. The following descent leads immediately to the foot of the decisive Prati di Tivo, averaging 7% for 14.5km, this will be a real leg breaker, particularly after such a long stage the day before, and will be really suited to last year’s winner Cadel Evans.
At the other end of the race, the 3400m of climbing over the stage will really take its toll, and I'd expect to see a number of abandons or riders unable to finish within the time limit.
Today’s 181km stage starts and finishes in Offida, and though not mountainous, the race profile is rarely flat. The last 100km sees the peloton completing 6 laps of a circuit that was used for the 2010 junior world championships.
The team holding the leaders jersey will do their best to curtail any dangerous attacks, but they probably won't get much help from the sprinters teams as this stage is unlikely to finish in a bunch sprint. In fact, today should be suited to an all rounder such as Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Stage Seven 9.3km Individual Time Trial:
After five long hard days in the saddle, the majority of the bunch will be happy to ride at 90% in today's flat 'out and back' time trial, leaving the GC riders and TT specialists to sort out the stage win and overall honours.
It's hard to look past Cancellara for the stage victory; with his capability to average close on 500w for the duration of the test. The severity of this year’s race is sure to produce a worthy winner, but if the weather isn't favourable perhaps it could prove a little too hard for those preparing for Milan San Remo.
Time will tell, as we embark upon my favourite part of the year - bring on the Classics!