While the late withdrawal of Chris Froome (Team Sky) scuppers the “Fantastic four” marketing that has characterised the build up to the 50th Tirreno-Adriatico, there remains a fascinating race in prospect.
The participation of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), offers the first significant confrontation of the season between the Grand Tour heavyweights, even if the course contains just one summit finish: the 1,675m Terminillo on stage five.
The parcours is challenging, rather than debilitating. Even the best time trialists are unlikely to gain significant time on the courses that bookend the race: tests of 5.7km and 10.5km respectively. The first has been shortened in deference to the high winds that have battered the Tuscan coast of late.
Of the aforementioned trio, Contador is likely to start as favourite. The Spaniard rode strongly at the Vuelta Andalucia, despite losing out in the final analysis to Froome. Quintana hasn’t raced since crashing out of the Colombian national championships in February, and while the Nibali camp have promised race-winning form earlier than last year’s well-timed peak at the Tour, he gave little indication of such in the Middle East last month.
Other areas of interest include Marcel Kittel’s withdrawal. Giant-Alpecin’s sprint leader suffered a miserable race at the Tour of Qatar and ceded leadership to Niki Arndt, who handled his new responsibilities with aplomb: the 23-year-old finished third on stages four and five. Sam Bennett was another who impressed in the desert – he looked formidable in winning the final stage in Doha – and is hungry for greater success.
Cavendish will start as a heavy favourite for victory on the flat finish of stage two and perhaps even on stage six, though the penultimate stage is more selective. But with the fastest men of the early season engaged elsewhere – Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff at Paris-Nice and Andrea Guardini (Astana) at the Tour de Langkawi – sprinting talent will be thin on the ground at Tirreno, with fast finishing rouleurs like MTN-Qhubeka’s Edvald Boasson Hagen and Gerald Ciolek likely to provide Cavendish with his stiffest opposition.
While on the topic of rouleurs, they will roll out in force tomorrow at Lido di Camaiore. The men who have animated the most prestigious of the early-season races to date – Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Ian Stannard (Team Sky), Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Sep Vanmarcke (JumboNL-Lotto) – are all on the start list, though how many will finish on March 17, with Milan-Sanremo then only five days away, remains to be seen.
The ‘race of the two seas’ has grown into a race of genuine stature in recent years, outgrowing its earlier function as a form-finder for Milan-Sanremo; a development reflected by a winner’s list that, since 2011, has included Cadel Evans, Nibali and Contador. The Spaniard again looks like the man most likely, but Quintana might upset the recent form book.