Tirreno-Adriatico returns to its traditional spring date after being postponed to September in 2020, when it was held in the long shadow of the Tour de France.
The 56th edition of the Race of the Two Seas again crosses from the Tyrrhenian coast to the Adriatic with seven days of racing, from Tuscany to Le Marche via the Umbria and Abruzzo regions.
The races will pass through some current COVID-19 red zones, where variants are spreading and case numbers are high, but RCS Sport have tightened their COVID-19 rules and been given the green light for the race to go ahead. If positive cases emerge in the race caravan they will use rapid testing to ensure the race can continue.
For the second year in succession, there is no opening team time trial, but the 14.5km climb to the finish at the Prati di Tivo ski resort returns on stage 4 to really test the overall contenders. The next day the so-called 'Tappa dei Muri' – the 'Stage of the Walls' – tackles four laps of a tough, 23km circuit around Castelfidardo, with a kilometre-long, 15 per cent wall up to the finish.
Tirreno-Adriatico will once again finish with a time trial on the seafront in San Benedetto del Tronto. A slightly different 11.1km course was initially presented but RCS Sport have confirmed to Cyclingnews that the traditional 10.1 kilometre route will be used next Tuesday.
Tirreno-Adriatico evolved from being a preparation race for Milan-San Remo more than a decade ago with the introduction of a testing mountain-top finish, which gives Grand Tour riders an alternative to Paris-Nice. Vincenzo Nibali, who won the general classification in both 2012 and 2013, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Michał Kwiatkowski, Primož Roglič and, most recently, Simon Yates have emerged victorious over the years.
We can expect a high-profile GC battle this year, among a cast with considerable depth. Yates returns to defend with Team BikeExchange, while Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Nibali, his Trek-Segafredo teammate Giulio Ciccone, Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), and Romain Bardet (Team DSM) are also on the start list.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has indicated he will target the overall classification for future reference but admitted he may struggle on the climb to Prati di Tivo even if the final time trial offers him a chance of a late comeback. Filippo Ganna was 50 seconds faster than Simon Yates last year in the final time trial and so Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma must know he has a shot at victory or the podium if he can limit his losses up to Prati di Tivo and on the Castelfidardo circuit.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) could also be a contender but may opt to focus on stages and fine-tuning his form for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled Classics.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) played down his ambitions but after his superb Strade Bianche victory, he is expected to be one to watch on the rolling stages and sprint stages designed for the Classics contenders.
He said he will help teammate Tim Merlier in the sprints but could alternate leadership depending on the finish. Together they will face Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Niccolò Bonifazio (Total Direct Énergie), Matteo Moschetti (Trek-Segafredo), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Álvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious).
Sagan makes his season debut at Tirreno-Adriatico as he tries to get his spring back on track after catching COVID-19 while at a warm-weather training camp in early February. Viviani is also on a comeback but has already ridden the UAE Tour, after his cardiac arrhythmia and subsequent ablation surgery.
Other storylines to watch for include Gianni Savio's Androni Giocattoli out to prove they deserved a palace at the Giro d'Italia and Greg Van Avermaet's need to find some form for the Classics, while Dan Martin leads Israel Start-Up Nation in the absence of Chris Froome, who has opted for an altitude camp rather than a March stage race.
Ineos Grenadiers are the strongest team on the start list but that throws up some interesting questions. Geraint Thomas will start as a protected rider alongside an on-form Bernal, Ganna, Pavel Sivakov, Dani Martínez and Michał Kwiatkowski. But someone other than Salvatore Puccio is going to have to fill the domestique role.
Tirreno-Adriatico is the proven route to success at Milan-San Remo and so most of the contenders for La Classicissima will be in Italy this week. Some of the favourites will hide in the Tirreno-Adriatico peloton and focus on honing their form, while others will search out victory for a morale boost. Every day is a form guide for the spring weekend to come.
The 1109km Race of the Two Seas
The 1109km race route offers something for everyone across the seven stages, with three days over 200km to help riders prepare their metabolism and mindset for the 300km in the saddle at Milan-San Remo.
The team time trial on the opening day of Tirreno-Adriatico in Lido di Camaiore has in the past offered a fast, thrilling start to the race. However, the discipline has been widely abandoned even in Grand Tours because the best teams gain so much time on the worst.
For the second year in succession, Tirreno-Adriatico will instead begin with a flat and fast 156km road stage around Lido di Camaiore. The first half of the race ascends the Pitoro climb of the former GP di Camaiore but the final 86km cover a four-corner kermesse-style circuit. The finish comes after 9km on the straight and flat seafront boulevard, making lead-outs difficult to impose and the speed extremely high.
Stage 2 is 202km in length and heads inland deep into Tuscany for a ride to Chiusdino near Siena. The climbing begins after spectacular Volterra, with little respite through the woodland, vineyards and olive trees. There are no dirt roads on this visit to the Siena area but the Poggio alla Croce climb has a sting in the tail and the climb to the finish has a 5.4 per cent and twisting final kilometre.
It offers the perfect revenge match for Strade Bianche, with Alaphilippe, Van Aert and Van der Poel sure to be up there.
Stage 3 to Gualdo Tadino is 219km long and more for the sprinters despite the 3 per cent rise to the finish line and tight left turn with a kilometre to go.
Stage 4 promises to be the pivotal day at Tirreno-Adriatico, as the gruppo faces a short but intense haul through the Apennines from Terni to the Abruzzese ski station of Prati di Tivo.
The 156km stage includes the climbs of Forca di Arrone, Sella di Corno and Passo Capannelle, each ramping up the altitude before a long descent then brings the race to the base of the final climb to Prati di Tivo. The 14.5km ascent boasts some 22 hairpin bends and an average gradient of seven per cent, with some ramps of 12 per cent.
The climb was the last part of the Tirreno-Adriatico route in 2013 when Chris Froome claimed victory at the summit, while Vincenzo Nibali was a stage winner at Prati di Tivo the previous year. Prato di Tivo tops out at 1450 metres and so the Grand Tour riders will surely emerge here and fight for the blue leader's jersey.
The big weekend of climbing continues on Sunday's stage 5 with the walls or steep muri climbs that Purito Rodríguez so loved during his career.
This year's stage starts with a 100km ride along the Adriatic coast but ends with four laps of a tough, 23km circuit around Castelfidardo. There is precious little respite on the circuit, which is composed of a succession of three steep, wall-like climbs with gradients of up to 18 per cent on each lap. The 3km-long finishing wall kicks up in three steps, with the final kilometre at 14.9 per cent going straight up the hillside.
The flat penultimate stage from Castelraimondo to the Adriatic resort of Lido di Fermo should offer the sprinters another opportunity but the early rolling hills mean they and their teammates will have to work for it and pull back any serious breakaways. The 11km finishing circuit is covered four times and includes a short rise to inspire late attacks.
The race caravan will jump down the Adriatic coast to San Benedetto del Tronto for the traditional out and back final time trial.
It's a perfect stage for Filippo Ganna to strut his stuff and for Van Aert too. For the pure climbers like Simon Yates, it will be a test of nerve and time trialling ability, with the clock confirming the final winner and awarding what is arguably the best trophy in professional cycling after the Paris-Roubaix cobblestone.
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