RCS Sport prides itself on beautiful but tough courses, and what it designed for this year's Tirreno-Adriatico was to be balanced between flat, sprint-friendly stages and challenges for the climbers. But a 209km penultimate stage with inumerable short, steep climbs including the nearly 30% grades at the top of Sant'Elpidio a Mare proved to be too much, too early in the season for almost a third of the peloton.
One rider who suffered more than most on the day was BMC's Taylor Phinney. The American was hoping to go for a stage win on the final 9.2km time trial, but instead found himself riding solo in the icy cold rain for 120km only to finish outside the time limit after the entire gruppetto quit.
"This parcours was quite literally the hardest parcours of a stage in a stage race I've ever seen, much less ridden," Phinney told Cyclingnews. "[There was] no climb longer than 2km, yet over 10000 feet of climbing in total. It was like a mix between Amstel and Liege but after racing for 200km everyday for five days straight."
In the end, 50 riders abandoned on the day, and even race organiser Michele Acquarone admitted the stage was extreme, taking to Twitter to apologize to the riders. "Many of you enjoyed it, but it was too much. We lost the right balance," he said. "...if you lose half your peloton, you just have to be honest and learn from mistakes."
Phinney agreed with Acquarone that it was over the top. "These climbs make for spectacular racing but it would be enough just to have five of them at the finish instead of starting straight uphill and completing a grand total of 18. The spectacle would be the same, as people at home only watch the last 50km anyways."
Normally, the gruppetto would work together to finish the stage inside the time limit after being dropped, but when the caught their first glimpse of the level of suffering the most severe climb would inflict at kilometer 72, they decided to climb off when the race passed through the finishing town 20km later.
"So many riders pulled the plug because all who were dropped early were either sprinters, big domestiques or time trialists and with the busses sat at the side of the road after 90km and only a very specialist 10km final time trial the next day it was a big ask to continue," Phinney said.
"Then you throw in the weather, the course etc. I continued on because 10k is a great distance for me and also because it is in my DNA to push onwards and never give up. If it were a sprinter day tomorrow I think you'd see less DNFs for sure and more collaboration among the dropped riders."
Profoundly disappointed after suffering through on his own, Phinney admitted to shedding a few tears after the stage, but quickly regained composure and pulled some positive lessons out of the ordeal.
"It was really disappointing, I came here for the final time trial," Phinney said in speaking to his press officer after the stage. "Rules are rules, and I respect that and respect RCS and the race," he said of being time cut.
"I wanted to quit many times. Right after those guys left it started to rain and got colder. I had Fabio Baldato with me the whole day in the car behind me, and he believed I could make it. Main his belief and my stubbornness kept me going. I have to thank him for being there with me. But I learned a lot about myself and what I can put myself through."