Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot and Tejay van Garderen can count themselves among the big winners from Wednesday's opening team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, which set the early pecking order ahead of six more days of racing in Italy.
Other squads weren't so fortunate, with Sky's rough day standing out as the most disastrous. Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski and Mikel Landa all seemed to be plausible general classification hopefuls, but catastrophic wheel problems saw the team finish over a minute and a half behind stage-winning BMC.
Although pancake-flat and not overly long at 22.7 kilometres, the TTT has already put the GC battle at Tirreno-Adriatico into focus.
Damiano Caruso officially leads the race, but his teammate van Garderen is likely the BMC rider to watch as the road tilts upward in the stages to come. Van Garderen's 17-second advantage to the nearest rival isn't massive, but it's respectable in a one-week race. BMC were pre-race favourites for the TTT, however, so it's little surprise that van Garderen came away from the opener in a strong position. The question is now whether he can hold on to that advantage in the coming days.
"It is always better to start ahead than behind so it's great to get a leg up on the other GC contenders heading into the big stages," he said. "The season is still young, and I don't have a lot of racing in my legs, but I feel good on the bike and my the morale is good. We have had a good start here so if we keep this momentum going, I should be in a really good place."
Matching the climbing talents present at Tirreno will be a tall order, but van Garderen's teammate Rohan Dennis can't be ignored either given the strong start he enjoyed in the opener as well.
Quintana and Pinot will be eyeing the Terminillo finish on stage 4 as a prime opportunity to put their formidable climbing legs to use, but an off-day in the team time trial could have nullified those GC aspirations. Movistar and FDJ delivered strong rides Wednesday, however, both finishing 22 seconds behind BMC. It's hard to see Quintana and Pinot as anything other than the top two contenders in the race right now. FDJ in particular should be pleased with the day's performance—they have made big strides against the clock in recent years.
Strong rides from second-placed Quick-Step Floors and fifth-placed Orica-Scott will give Bob Jungels and Adam Yates a leg up as well. Jungels, at five seconds ahead of Quintana and Pinot, is a good time trialist. Should he make it through stage 4 in good shape, Tirreno-Adriatico's individual time trial finale will be a great opportunity for him to solidify a GC bid.
"We can be satisfied, because we did a good race and got beaten by a strong team. The boys can be proud with their performance, it's a good way to start Tirreno-Adriatico, said Quick-Step sport director Davide Bramati. "At the end of the day we don't have any regrets, because we know we gave everything on the course, rode a really smart race and proved once again we are always up there in a stage against the clock. This gives us confidence for the next stages."
Yates, a few seconds behind with fifth-placed Orica-Scott, may need to go on the attack on the fourth stage.
The home crowd was probably hoping for more from their GC contenders on the opening day of racing. Bahrain-Merida came home 53 seconds down on BMC and Astana finished 55 seconds back, not the most promising of starts for Italy's Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru.
Dutchmen Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) will need to make up nearly a minute in the coming days. It's not impossible, but it's a tall ask given the company in attendance at Tirreno. Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) may be recalibrating their GC plans after coming home over a minute down.
"It wasn't the performance we were expecting for the team," said Bora coach Patxi Vila. "It was Bora-Hansgrohe's first team time trial here, with a lot of new people working together and a lot of new riders racing together, so we were 15-20 seconds slower than we expected. We have to keep working and keep improving."
Few teams found the day as frustrating as Sky, however. The British squad seemed to have plenty of firepower for both the stage and the overall race, but technical problems led to a disastrous team time trial performance. Gianni Moscon's wheel collapsed beneath him in spectacular fashion, while others reportedly dealt with broken wheels as well. Sky ultimately set a mark a minute and 42 seconds slower than BMC's, a deficit nearly insurmountable in a one-week race.
A pragmatic Geraint Thomas acknowledged after the stage that the rough first stage may have put an early end to the team's GC hopes, saying, "We'll try to be aggressive and make up for this but I think GC is out the window now."
The GC hopefuls will need to stay on their toes Thursday, with a long, challenging stage on tap. Stage 2 runs 228 kilometres and concludes with an uphill finish at Pomarance.
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