While most stage race riders opt for Paris-Nice, the sprinters and classics riders know that Tirreno-Adriatico is the best way to polish their form for Milan-Sanremo and will head to Italy for the 'Race of the Two Seas that begins on Wednesday.
Year after year Tirreno-Adriatico has always shown who has the form, the sprint and the team to go on to win Milan-Sanremo. Few overall winners are remembered - Michele Scarponi won in 2009; instead it's the analysis of the sprints and the sprinters' form that provide the interest as the days count down to Milan-Sanremo.
Tirreno-Adriatico has more stars than the Oscar night red carpet.
Wednesday's first stages will be the first time Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam) Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) all sprint against each other this year.
Cavendish is rapidly making up for his slow start to the season. He did not finish the Strade Bianche race on Saturday but he then showed he is still targeting Milan-San Remo by checking out the final part of the race route. Cavendish may lose the early sprints in Tirreno-Adriatico but the race could give him just enough form to handle the 'capi' climbs at Milan-Sanremo and so still be a contender for a repeat. We will find out in the next seven days.
The start list includes every major team except RadioShack, who have only been invited to Milan-San Remo. Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara stand out in the Saxo Bank roster, World champion Cadel Evans and Alessandro Ballan lead BMC. Other names to watch for include Vincenzo Nibali and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Doimo), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Filippo Pozzato and Kim Kirchen (Katusha) Linus Gerdemann (Milram), Edvald Boasson Hagen and Thomas Lofkvist (Team Sky, Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia). Most of these could be overall contenders and overall winners when the race ends on the Adriatic coast next Tuesday.
With no time trial in this year's Tirreno-Adriatico, the racing should be more aggressive and the time gaps much smaller. If Boasson Hagen has the same form as he showed in the Tour of Oman, he could win stages and the overall classification.
Tirreno-Adriatico starts in Tuscany again this year and will remember former Italian national Coach Franco Ballerini, who was recently killed in a car rally accident. Tirreno-Adriatico was created in 1966, the same year Ballerini was born.
The race begins in Livorno on the Tyrrhenian coast on Wednesday. The first 148km stage includes some small hills through olive groves and vineyards but will surely end in a sprint on the long straight road in the centre of Rosignano Solvay. The winner will pull on the first leader's jersey and take the first pre-Sanremo bragging rights.
Ballerini will be remembered with a special fair play prize awarded after every stage, while this year the overall race leader's jersey will be blue, the same azzurra blue Ballerini's Italian squadra wore at world championships.
Both stages include some testing climbs but neither are perhaps hard enough to get rid of all the sprinters. Better climbers like Bennati, Petacchi and Freire could all pull off a surprising win if the racing is controlled. However, expect riders like Nibali, Scarponi, Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) and perhaps even Cadel Evans to try and avoid that scenario with attacks on the key climbs during the stages.
The usually nice early spring weather is one of the main reasons the sprinters chose Tirreno-Adriatico over Paris-Nice. However forecasts are not good for this week and so rain and cold conditions in the Apennines could also play a factor in deciding who emerges as overall winner after the final stage in San Bendetto del Tronto.
The expected sprint overlooking the Adriatic on Tuesday will also be a final form indicator for Milan-San Remo. Last year Mark Cavendish hid his excellent condition for most of the race and then scored a psychological victory by winning the last sprint. It was a warning of what he would go on to achieve just a few days later in San Remo.
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