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Vincenzo Nibali on his way to winning Tirreno Adriatico
While this year's Paris-Nice route may be one of the easiest in the history of the French stage race and made for opportunists, the route of Tirreno-Adriatico is more like a mini Giro d'Italia and will test the many Grand Tour contenders packing the start list.
In recent years, organiser RCS Sport has tried to transform "The Race of the Two Seas" from a preparation race for Milan-San Remo to a stage race that riders would love to have on their palmares. Their investments seems to have paid off and arguably only the Tour de France will only have a better field of stage race riders this year.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) may have been a late withdrawal due to his back injury, but the list of overall contenders includes Richie Porte (Team Sky), Cadel Evans (BMC), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Michele Scarponi (Astana), Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida), Michal Kwiatkowski and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
2013 winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is absent after opting to ride Paris-Nice but also on the Tirreno-Adriatico start list are Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) - who returns to Italian stage racing after his troubled Giro d'Italia, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
The race has attracted such a high-quality field that organiser RCS Sport has opted to split the pre-race press conferences on Tuesday. The first is for the many overall contenders, while the sprinters will rub shoulders and swap stares two days before they clash for the first time on stage 2.
The sprint finishes in Paris-Nice may be entertaining, but the three possible sprints in Tirreno-Adriatico will be real shown down in the lead out wars and give further indication of who is currently the best sprinter in the world.
The list of velocisti opting for Italy over France includes Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Arnaud Demare (FDJ.fr), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida) and Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), with Ireland's Sam Bennett (NetApp-Endura) getting another taste of sprinting with the best in the world after his excellent results in the Middle East.
From the Tyrrhenian coast to the Adriatic
Each stage in Tirreno-Adriatico is different and each offers something to a specific kind of rider. The average stage length is 145km but a mountain finish after super long 244km day to Cittareale Selvarotonda and another 22% wall finish in Guardiagrele, make for a tough weekend in the Apennines between the opening 18.5km team time trial and the final 9.1km individual time trial.
As in recent years, the action kicks off on the higher parts of the Tyrrhenian coast, with an 18.5km team time trial from Donoratico to San Vincenzo.
It covers most of the same roads used in the last two editions, through the vineyards that produce the Super Tuscan red wines. World TTT champions Omega Pharma-Quick Step are the favourites to win again and likely to open a nice bottle if they win. However Movistar has brought in both Alex Dowsett and Adriano Malori in an attempt to do better than last year and Orica-GreenEdge, Team Sky, BMC, Cannondale and Trek Factory Racing could all make a challenge on the long straight roads, where power and high speed will be decisive.
Whoever crosses the line first for the fastest team will wear the race leader's blue jersey for stage 2 from San Vincenzo to Cascina, near Pisa. It includes some early hills but the flat finishing circuits makes it perfect for a sprint finish. The 210km third stage to Arezzo is also a day for the sprinters, with the slightly rising road (5% in the last 900 metres) to the finish and a few late corners the only difficulties and perhaps an opportunity for Sagan and Gilbert to show of their finishing magic and outwit the pure sprinters.
The weekend stages host the decisive mountains stages with a double whammy of suffering in the Apennines. Stage 4 from Indicatore near Arezzo to the Selvarotonda ski resort is 244km long with two categorised climbs in the final half of the stage and then the 14km climb up to the finish. The average gradient is 5.3% but in truth the road ramps up, with the last five kilometres at 6.4% and the final two kilometres at 7-8%. It is a real mountain finish despite being only March, and the roads will no doubt be lined with snow. Fortunately the weather forecasts are good for the whole duration of this year's race.
Sunday's stage from Amatrice to Guardiagrele has an even more pain end to it than Saturday. The riders will be softened up by the 12.3km Passo Lanciano and then the stage ends with the Muro di Guardiagrele, a 610m long wall that climbs at a near vertical average of 22.2%, with some points at 30%.
There is a slight plateau before the final 250m kick up to the line at an easier but still steep 9%. Gear selection and position on the Muro will be vital, with the time gaps likely to be critical for overall victory.
After two days in mountainous purgatory, the sprinters get their chance on Monday's 189km sixth stage along the Adriatico coast to Porto Sant'Elpidio. A slight climb on the finishing circuit could be a launch pad for attacks but the lead out trains will be in control on the fast seafront circuit. Their only concern in the final five kilometres will be two right turns and an underpass. The final kilometre is dead straight.
As per tradition and to give the stage racer a chance to show of their complete set of talents, the seventh and final stage is a 9.1km individual time trial along the San Benedetto del Tronto seafront.
Wiggins, Martin, Cancellara and the other time trial experts will fight for the stage victory, with the overall victory perhaps also decide by a few seconds gained or lost on the final day.