By Jeff Jones
With the exception of Tom Boonen, who has once again chosen to race Paris-Nice, the world's top sprinters will be honing their form in the Italian stage race Tirreno-Adriatico, that starts on Wednesday, March 7. Three-time world champion and last year's winner, Oscar Freire, will front up in the Rabobank colours; Italian sprinting stallion Alessandro Petacchi will be there for Team Milram; and a somewhat bruised Robbie McEwen will be back in amongst it for Davitamon-Lotto.
Apart from these three fast finishers, the 200 rider field is also bristling with other talent: Quick.Step's Paolo Bettini and Filippo Pozzato, winners in 2004 and 2003; Milan-Turin winner and ex-world champion Igor Astarloa (Barloworld); last year's ProTour winner Danilo Di Luca and Liquigas-Bianchi teammate Franco Pellizotti; CSC's Tour star Ivan Basso and Stuart O'Grady; Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile); Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin; Credit Agricole sprinters Thor Hushovd and Jaan Kirsipuu; Discovery Channel's George Hincapie, Leif Hoste and Paolo Savoldelli; Bernhard Eisel (Française Des Jeux); Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital); and Liberty Seguros' Jörg Jaksche.
It's a quality line-up, and it will not take long to see who has the best early season form. Most riders do "the race of two seas" with a view to the first big classic of the season on March 18: Milan-San Remo. It's quite common that the winner of that race has already done Tirreno-Adriatico as part of their preparation.
The 25 teams will roll out on Wednesday, March 8 for a 167 km stage around Tivoli, which is on the western side of Italy near Rome. It's not an easy finish either, and is steadily uphill for the last seven kilometres, making life tougher for the pure sprinters. On Thursday, March 9, the riders face an up and down 171 km stage between Tivoli and Frascati, with a tricky climb in the final 10 km.
The race then heads almost due east towards the Adriatic, with a 183 km journey between Avezzano and Paglieta. Another uphill finish, with a 3 km climb at around 6.5 percent, may foil the sprinters again and see Bettini and Rebellin battle it out. Stage 4 from Paglieta to Civitanova Marche is a beachfront run, but gets lumpy towards the end as it turns inland. Still, the finish should suit the sprinters.
The fifth stage is a 20 km time trial around Servigliano, a discipline that has been absent from T-A for the last few years. That and the sixth stage should decide the general classification, with Stage 6 ending on top of the 1105 metre high Monti Della Laga in San Giacomo. The final stage is a sprinters' special, 166 km between Campli and San Benedetto Del Tronto, finishing with eight laps of a flat circuit. All up, the race is 1090 km and looks to be more challenging than in previous years.
Stage 1 - March 8: Tivoli – Tivoli, 167 km
Stage 2 - March 9: Tivoli – Frascati, 171 km
Stage 3 - March 10: Avezzano – Paglieta, 183 km
Stage 4 - March 11: Paglieta – Civitanova Marche, 219 km
Stage 5 - March 12: Servigliano – Servigliano ITT, 20 km
Stage 6 - March 13: S.Benedetto Del Tronto – S. Giacomo (Monti Della Laga), 164 km
Stage 7 - March 14: Campli - S.Benedetto Del Tronto, 166 km
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