The 2017 season has already seen some aggressive dramatic racing with the biggest names in the peloton going head to head for victory in all sorts of conditions and on all terrains. The action is surely set to continue in Italy this week at Tirreno-Adriatico, as many of the contenders for this year's 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia head to the Bel Paese for seven days of spring stage racing.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Fabio Aru (Astana), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) are just some of the big name overall contenders on the Tirreno-Adriatico start list hoping to take home the special trident winner's trophy.
There are also the many sprinters – led by Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky), who will fight for stage victories and look to polish their form to a high shine ahead of Milan-San Remo.
Throw in Tom Boonen (Quick-Step floors) looking to get his last spring campaign back on track, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Strade Bianche winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors), Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale–Drapac), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) and Tirreno-Adriatico looks set to be a classic edition of the 'Race of the Two Seas.'
From the Tyrrhenian sea to the Adriatic coast
This year's Tirreno-Adriatico route is similar to recent years, starting in the Tyrrhenian in the Tuscan holiday resort of Lido di Camaiore on Wednesday, and ending next Tuesday as per tradition in San Benedetto del Tronto. The racing starts with an out and back 22.7km team trial along the Camaiore and Pietrasanta seafront.
The BMC Racing team won last year, giving van Garderen a boost and setting up Van Avermaet for a surprise overall win due to snow forcing the cancellation of the key mountain stage. BMC beat Etixx-QuickStep by just two seconds, with FDJ a surprise third at nine seconds.
We can expect a similar result this year perhaps, with Movistar, Team Sky and Team Sunweb also expected to be within a few seconds. The time gaps and time loses will be vital for the battle for the overall classification and losses over 20 seconds could seriously compromise the chances of Nibali and Aru. Both Italians know the risk they face and spent Monday and Tuesday practicing their TTT skills.
The key will be to find the right balance between speed, power and teamwork, as Ryan Mullen of Cannondale-Drapac explained: "A 22-minute, 56-kilometre an hour blast. Easy, right? We'll all whack out five million watts and be done with it."
After the fast start, stages 2 and 3 head south through Tuscany, not far from the coast, with finishes in Pomerance and then Montalto di Castro. Both should end with a sprint finish of a kind. However, stage 2 is a testing 229km long, and the finale before Pomerance includes several rolling climbs and sharp kick up at 15 per cent just three kilometres from the finish. It is ideal for a finisseur or even a late attack, as Stybar proved last year. He surged clear over the top of the late gradient and then swooped down the short, twisting road that followed to open a small gap. The final 2.5 kilometres rose and dipped, giving it the feel of an asphalt cyclo-cross course. Small wonder, then, that the former triple world champion felt so at home in this corner of Tuscany and won alone.
Stage 3 includes several early climbs in the Maremma hills before heading to the coast for the flat finish. The final kilometre is similar to that of 2016 where Gaviria dispatched his rivals with ease as the finish kicked up slightly. It will be fascinating to see how the Colombian does on the big stage again, and if he can then get everything right at Milan-San Remo after his late crash and touch of wheels debacle last year.
The race route heads deep inland on Saturday for stage 4, and into the Apennine mountains for the big and most likely decisive finish on Terminillo near Rieti. The 16km climb is often the first mountain stage at the Giro d'Italia and was last climbed in the 2015 Tirreno-Adriatico. On that day Quintana won in heavy snow, and with the climb to the finish posing the only risk of poor weather conditions, the Queen stage is unlikely to be affected by the Extreme Weather Protocol. Quintana put more than 40 seconds into his rivals in the whiteout in 2014, going on to beat Mollema, Uran and Pinot in the final classification.
We can surely expect a similar surge from the Colombian on Saturday.
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Stage 5 from Rieti to Fermo has been dubbed the 'Muri' or wall stage due to the series of short, steep climbs in the final 90km of the 210km stage. It is a chance for a surprise attack, an ambush or long-range attack from the likes of Steve Cummings (Dimension Data), Van Avermaet or even Sagan.
The stage gives the peloton its first view of the Adriatic coast before the finish and will also visit, as a sign of solidarity, the areas hit by the two major earthquakes in 2016. The final four kilometres include the 'Muro' up to Fermo. It has a section at 22 per cent and an average of 14 per cent for almost a kilometre before a flat section and a final kick up to the line.
Stage 6 takes the race from stunning Ascoli Piceno to San Benedetto dell Tronto via an inland route in the hills of Le Marche. It is short at 159km but far from easy. The short climb of Civitanova Alta, with seven kilometres to go, splits the 15km finishing circuit and will shake out the sprinters and indicate who will be a real Milan-San Remo contender.
Tuesday's stage 7 time trial is the usual out and back individual time trial stage on the San Benedetto seafront. The 10km is enough to perhaps give a few riders a chance of victory and leave others fighting for places in the top 10 and the important WorldTour points. Victory will be a battle of the true time trial specialists. With Fabian Cancellara now retired, Rohan Dennis and Stefan Kung (BMC Racing), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and Dumoulin are likely to be fighting it out for the top spot.
The names to watch
Vincenzo Nibali was the last of the 24 Italian winners of Tirreno-Adriatico when he took back-to-back wins in 2012 and 2013. He was only sixth last season and bemoaned the loss of the key mountain stage. He is keen to make a mark for new team Bahrain-Merida but is also aware that Quintana, Dumoulin, Pinot and Mollema are on form. He will have to fight for victory on home turf and will no doubt try to use every piece of his armoury.
Many of his rivals at Tirreno-Adriatico will also challenge him for the maglia rosa in May and so it will be fascinating to see how they perform two months out. Adam Yates has largely been overlooked as a Giro d'Italia contender in Italy, despite winning Sunday's GP Larciano in Tuscany. He could be the surprise of the race who overshadows his Grand Tour masters.
The rolling stages in the Maremma and Apennines are perfect for Sagan, and anyone who wants to go on to challenge him at Milan-San Remo and then on the cobbles of the Northern Classics. Can Gaviria take Sagan's crown so soon? Will Boonen refuse to move over before signing off at Paris-Roubaix? How fast and on form really is Cavendish after his superb 2016?
The 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico will provide some fascinating racing, a vital block of intense kilometres before Milan-San Remo and a lot of the answers to those questions.
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