The big-name overall contenders will finally emerge at Tirreno-Adriatico on Saturday, on the climb of Terminillo in the heart of the Apennines east of Rome.
The central Italian mountain has often sparked an early shake-up at the Giro d’Italia in years past. This season it returns to Tirreno-Adriatico, hosting the queen stage of the race and the fight to try to beat natural favourite Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and so set up overall victory.
Terminillo is a power climb. The road snakes up the side of the mountain from Rieti for almost 16km, with an average and largely constant gradient of 8% with only a brief mid-section at 4% offering any respite. Known as the Rome’s Mountain because it is a weekend ski resort for the residents of the capital, the road surface is wide and fast, and includes long straight sections of road divided by sweeping hairpins.
The stages ends at an altitude of 1675m, with temperatures expected to be close to zero despite the sun. Snow is not expected this time, with the largely flat stage meaning riders will be fresh and ready when they hit the lower slopes and climb through the trees.
The road to Terminillo should suit Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) and new race leader Rohan Dennis (BMC) as much as pure climbers Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) and Fabio Aru (Astana). The power climbers will be able to put out big watts and hope their speed will be an adequate response to any surges and some threshold attacks from the pure climbers.
Just like in in the snow in 2015?
Tirreno-Adriatico last visited Terminillo in 2015 when Quintana dominated under heavy snow with a solo attack. He finished 41 seconds clear of Bauke Mollema and the rest of the cold and wet peloton to set up eventual overall victory.
Quintana is on form and a likely stage winner but faces stiffer opposition this year, as a whole host of riders chase victory at Tirreno-Adriatico as an antipasto to their return to Italy in May for the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia.
The opening team time trial has turned Tirreno-Adriatico into a handicap race, with the climbers looking to recoup ground on Saturday’s finish to Terminillo and then Sunday’s tough stage to Fermo, which includes ten nasty climbs in the final 100km. The final 10km time trial on Tuesday will anoint the final winner of the unique trident trophy.
Quintana was dragged along by Movistar in the team time trial and so sits just 21 seconds down on Dennis and his BMC team leader Tejay van Garderen. Jungels is a little better placed at 16 seconds, with Pinot at 21 and Adam Yates at 24 seconds. Dumoulin is further back, at 49 seconds, after Team Sunweb had a poor team time trial. Other riders hit heavily by the stop watch on Wednesday include Nibali at 52 seconds, Aru at 54, Mollema at 57, Rafa Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) at 1:10. After Team Sky’s wheel failures and crashes, Thomas is at 1:22.
It will be difficult to see how any of the riders more than 30 seconds down can get their Tirreno-Adriatico back on track. Some, like Thomas, Dumoulin and Mollema will no doubt be looking for the stage victory and will race more aggressively, while Denis, van Garderen, Quintana, Pinot and Yates – all better placed - will definitely be thinking about the classification. The different scenario, goals and types of rider should inspire a fascinating race on the road to Terminillo.
With bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds also on offer at the line, that is not much to hold off the Colombian, who is likely to again hit out with three or four kilometres remaining to try to gain enough of a lead before Tuesday’s final 10km time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
Dennis will start the stage in the blue leader’s jersey, putting the responsibility on BMC to control the peloton for much of the stage. That is not a problem for the US-registered team but if they opt to play games and stay off the front, it could offer an opportunity for the breakaway to open a significant gap. However, there is only a remote possibility of someone actually managing to stay away to the finish.
Dennis is on form and learning about WorldTour racing fast but he named van Garderen as BMC’s leader, at least on paper.
“Tejay is our main leader, he’s number one. I’m the reserve but Caruso can also be useful. We can be very strong on the climb, with three guys that can do very well. We’ll use all three,” Dennis explained on Thursday after stage 3.
“Ideally Tejay is in the front at the top but the worst case scenario is that me or Caruso takes over and we still have someone in contention and in the leadership. Then it comes down to tactics and the final time trial in San Benedetto.”
Quintana keeps a dangerously low profile
Despite arguably being the favourite for a second overall victory, Quintana has kept a low profile so far in Tirreno-Adriatico, avoiding the media spotlight and expectations, in a sign of concentration and determination. He also avoiding the crashes and splits in the peloton thanks to protection from new signing and road captain Daniele Bennati, who Movistar signed from Tinkoff specifically to help Quintana just as he did for Contador in recent seasons.
Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue is as comfortable racing in Italy as he is at home in Spain after more than twenty years of experience. He said Quintana is on form but predicted a much closer fight for every second than in 2015.
“Nairo’s feeling good. He wants to do well but I suspect there will be a group of climbers who fight for the stage victory and every second they can,” Unzue said on Friday, careful not to incite expectation or pressure from rival teams for Movistar to control the race.
“We’ll try again but it could be difficult to make a big difference and even get a gap. We saw that Thomas was very strong and along with Dumoulin, we think they’re the favourites again on Saturday.”