This year's Tirreno-Adriatico has a star-studded start cast, and race organiser RCS Sport invited 14 of what it considers the 'Top Riders' for a pre-race press conference and photo shoot.
The riders occupied two rows of tables, and photographers needed a wide-angle lens to included all the riders in their compositions on the roof of the race headquarters hotel in Lido di Camaiore on the Tuscan coast. Such was the riches of talent invited that there was no room for Tom Boonen (Quick-Step) before his final Tirreno-Adriatico. Strade Bianche winner Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky, Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac, Tim Wellens of Lotto Soudal and Rui Costa of UAE Team Emirates were also left off the roster.
Pre-race press conferences are cycling's equivalent of the boxer's weigh-in, except punches rarely fly. This one was more like a lesson at school, with a journalist from RCS Sport asking a single question to each of the riders. The media at the race were only allowed to ask questions afterwards in the chaos of the mixed zone that included television crews, radio stations, written press and those producing video content for social media and the internet.
The 14 riders quietly awaited their turn to answer the question, all trying to think of something original to say without causing a stir and without giving away details of their form.
As 2016 winner, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) was first to answer and admitted he would need another day of snow and another cancelled stage to win again, as was the case last year when the race's mountain top finish was canceled.
"To be honest, I think it's impossible to win it another time. I'm here to try and win a stage and build up my shape for the Classics," he said, reminding everyone that Tirreno-Adriatico is also a critical stepping-stone to the Spring Classics.
The overall contenders include Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Fabio Aru (Astana),
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and
Adam Yates (Orica-Scott).
All had their answer ready, but all warned of the strength of their rivals. It was if they had been copying each other's homework.
"The idea is to have a good Tirreno-Adriatico like three years ago. I'd like to win the title again," Quintana said boldly. "We have a great team for that. We're all in good condition but whether we win or not depends on our rivals too. The level of this race is very high."
Pinot admitted he would be happy with a spot on the podium, while Nibali, as usual, was more cautious about his chances. Aru pointed out he was making his debut at Tirreno-Adriatico. Thomas has prepared for Tirreno-Adriatico with an altitude camp in South Africa. He seemed to be looking forward to the expected early Italian spring weather that is forecast for most of the race.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) refused to dismiss his chances after it was suggested he could make history by winning.
"It would be nice to be the first American to win Tirreno-Adriatico. Everything is possible. The Terminillo will be a difficult test with all these riders… but I'm here with the mentality of fighting for GC," he said.
Dumoulin was perhaps the happiest of the lot, knowing Tirreno-Adriatico starts and ends with time trials.
"I'm looking forward to the time trial, but I've been working on my climbing skills in the last couple of months. I have a GC goal in mind here," he said.
Cavendish and Sagan update on their illnesses
Despite now being a prestigious stage race packed with WorldTour ranking points, Tirreno-Adriatico remains a springboard towards Milan-San Remo – the first Monument of the season.
The seven days of racing are the last block of intense racing for the sprinters and their teammates before the big day out on Saturday, March 18.
However, Cavendish virtually ruled out his chances for Milan-San Remo and lowered his expectations for the two Tirreno-Adriatico sprints, revealing he has been ill.
"As a team with Dimension Data, we won a stage here last year with Stephen Cummings. We'd like to repeat that. Personally, I fell sick after the Abu Dhabi Tour and I just hope to have recovered for Tirreno-Adriatico," Cavendish said.
Sagan also gave a brief update on his health after failing to finish Strade Bianche, and then won the sprint to leave the mixed zone first.
"I've been sick on the weekend but now I feel good. I rode 100km of the Strade Bianche, then I didn't touch my bike for two days. We'll see tomorrow if I'm healthy enough for racing again."
That should give Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) a better chance in the sprints.
"I believe I'm on good form, but there are a lot of strong riders here," Gaviria warned. "I'm looking for a stage victory like last year. Moreover, I want to give a good spectacle. The strongest will win the sprints, and I hope I'll be that one."
Ewan played down his new position in the sprinters' hierarchy despite his early-season success in Australia and more recently at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
"I'm not a different rider after I won a stage in Abu Dhabi, but obviously, beating all these guys gave me more confidence for the sprints and I hope to come up with another win here as well."
Gaviria beat Ewan to win the sprinter's stage in Tirreno last year only to be stopped from contesting the victory because of a crash on the Via Roma in Milan-San Remo.
Cavendish, in the absence of his form, tipped Gaviria and Ewan as the likely winners of the sprints but hinted there are others worth watching. He later admitted to Cyclingnews that he will still throw himself into the sprints with the hope of fishing a result.
"They're both wicked, young and fast," he said of the next generation of sprinters. "Gaviria would have won (Milan-San Remo) last year without the crash. Of course, they're not only the ones to look out for…."