All the way from the Tirreno Sea to the Adriatico Sea, backended with time-trials, going through the Apennine mountains in the cold month of March. We can only be talking about one race, one that is heading for it's 54th edition and one that attracts many of the big starts of the peloton every year.
This year the route has been re-designed significantly so we are in for a different kind of show, the general mapping remains similar but the lack of a long climb during the week will give puncheurs and time-trialists the advantage to win the race, instead of the climbers as it is every year.
During the week there will be 5 stages where gaps can appear, with no real stage to recover time it is essential to do well in every one of them. The opening day will already be a vital one. The Lido di Camaiore opening TTT is already a classic so there won't be any surprises in the route, it's a very straighforward one where pure power is the essential.
There may be some big gaps in here so every rider that goes up the hills really well must make sure there are some powerhouses in the squad, it's a very fast parcours but it's also 21.5Km so there is plenty of road to settle differences.
First challenge of the week, both in 2016 and 2017 we saw late attacks work by Zdenek Stybar and Geraint Thomas respectively. The stage is somewhat shorter than both those editions, and it doesn't have as much climbing beforehand so it may favour a more compact finish.
The truth is there's been a bunch sprint on both occasions but in both of those there was someone ahead. The stage favours the kind of sprinter who can climb and if there is a constant pace in the main group those will fight it out for the win. With a slightly easier approach to the climb this might be the year where we'll see a sprint for the win.
This stage will be the first opportunity for all of the sprinter field to shine. With a bulk of them racing in France there may be some outsiders trying to bundle in the results sheet. It won't be an easy day for anyone though, with 226Km on the menu and the first half of the stage on a fairly rolling terrain, this stage represents the definition of transition stage to it's core. Besides some wearing out those hills won't have much other influence.
It's also a very technical finish, right before the 1Km to go banner there's an "s" turn that will certainly cause a big stretch in the bunch, so to be in front is already vital before that. After it there's another "s" turn although this one much less meaningful, then the charge will be made for a right-hander with 250 meters to go, another crucial point as the riders will have to sprint out of the corner and then hold it until the line.
Perhaps the hardest day in the race on stage 4, after some already very long days the rider's will face another one, this time even bigger with 221Km en route to Fossombrone. After going through the middle of the Apennine valleys where the riders will face some seriously steep bumps like in the Villa Del Monte climb (max. 19%) and Monteguiduccio (2.7Km at 7.1%, max. 19%) the riders will enter the final circuit with 16Km to go.
After the 1st passage through the finish line the riders will turn left and will quickly feel the gradients of Il Cappuccini, a 1.9Km climb with an average gradient of 10.8% and (again) a 19% maximum. After the climb comes a descent with a technical finale setting the riders up for the final flat 1.5Km. But after going through the finish line the riders will have to go through the little circuit again, which will surely cause major mayhem in the peloton, as it's a climb that gets up to fierce gradients but doesn't have any resting period.
Stage 5 will present the last GC challenge that isn't against the clock. This stage the mileage will be smaller for many riders' relief, but that doesn't mean it'll get any easier, actually it may get even harder. The first 90Km of the stage will be relatively flat, an unusual site in the week, but starting from there there'll be a major change in the order.
This is the circuit the riders will face for 4 laps. Chances are there will be some DNF's today after such a hard period of days, the brutal gradients found in past stages will have it's continuation, as the circuit features two walls in it. Firstly we have the Salita S.Pietro, a 3Km at 6.8% topping in a suffocating 20% ramp. Not even 2Km later there's another uncategorized climb that will weight on everyone's legs, a fast descent will then lead to the final climb of the day.
The Recanati climb's fiercest gradients will come in the form of 1.2Km at 13.9% topping 1.8Km away from the finish, needless to say that 4 rides over this climb will be an immense task no matter how the race is ran. The finish is a familiar site in the race, not in the location as it's debuting, but this kind of finish atop an old city requires some skill, it's not unusual for cobblestones and technical corner to be present, which is to be expected in the finale. The final 1.8Km are relatively constant at a 3% gradient, so it'lll be a case of a dash to the line after a maximal effort, where the strategies will surely be modified by the fact that it's the last chance to make a difference before the final day.
The final chance for the sprinter's to show what they're made of. After a couple of days in the hills a flat day once again shows. Like the previous stages the first half is quite rolling, lots of ups and downs, lots of riders who will try to get in a breakaway and a dangerous one might appear, with a vaguely downhill parcours and rolling terrain the stage can go to a breakaway member if the peloton allows a strong one to leave.
They will be glad to know that at least the technical effort required to be a part of the sprint won't be so high, other than a left turn just outside of the final kilometer there aren't more technical obstacles. There will be an intense fight as there are only two pure sprint stages so at least one of Viviani/Gaviria/Sagan will likely leave without a win.
The final day of the race, with the queen stages on the weekend on tuesday the consagration will happen. Or will it? This stage usually doesn't create massive gaps, nor does it change the lead in the final day, but then again the gaps won't be as big this year so there may be some big changes.
Let us remember the 2016 edition where due to the snow the queen stage wasn't raced, and Greg van Avermaet lost 7 second but held his final lead over Peter Sagan for a single second. Something similar could happen this year so it may also end up a vital day for the overall.
The route is only 10Km long, and it's also a very straightforward parcours, just like the one the riders initiated the race on, so it will suit the powerful men, the pure time-trialists.
With such an open route profile and with so many contenders for the overall it's hard to retain all the riders who have a realistic shot at a good result but there are some details that lead some riders into a bigger possibility of a prestigious win.
These two may just be the biggest favourites at the start. Although no real mountain is in the route, surprisingly it the climbers who look the best. But these two in specific are no ordinary climbers, both super time trialists, Dumoulin a former World champion and Roglic a former medalist, both are two of the strongest time-trialists currently in the peloton, both with super teams for the opening TTT and both can climb short hills as good as long Alpine mountains. Roglic won here last year in a hilly wall finish as we will have this here after a crashed derailed his GC ambitions, Dumoulin isn't as renouned for his hill-climbing but is a very powerful rider with the right skillset to go fast in this type of climb. Even though there might be other riders faster than them, their time-trialing ability sky-rockets them to pole-position. Plus Dumoulin counts on the support of riders like Sam Oomen, Robert Power, Soren Kragh Andersen and Nicholas Roche, which should be a big advantage when it comes to difficult racing like this.
Next on the list is recent Strade Bianche winner Julian Alaphillipe. Without a question the climbs in the route this year suit him like a glove, the only question is if he is capable of retaining his time against the clock on the final stage, because in the opener he is sure to be up there with his Deceuninck squad. He also has a great kick which should be able to give him bonifications that might be vital when adding up in the final.
Next in line is Tim Wellens. Another rider crafted for this type of ultra-steep hill finishes. He's already taken a win this season in very similar conditions in the Vuelta a Andalucia, aswell as a time-trial win which should boost his motivation even more as a top contender for this week of racing in Italy. The TTT should be the only obstacle in his path, as Lotto Soudal don't have such a strong squad backing him. But with Tiesj Benoot by his side they will surely make a fierce duo that can play with their rivals.
With the other riders lining up it will be hard for any other rider to win in this race, but there are several riders who might stand a chance. Team Sky has 3 options in Wout Poels, Geraint Thomas and Gianni Moscon. The latter two haven't shown much evidence of great form lately, but the previous has shown nothing but and can win the race. The team hosts a very strong TTT lineup and Poel's has a name in riding the short steep hills, as his LBL title proves.
Jakub Fuglsang has good odds lurking as an outsider, the GC might not be in his reach but the stages suit him very well, and his climbing endurance may give him in edge in the multiple climbs the riders must do in the queen stages. With him is Alexey Lutsenko who is having a stunning start to his season, and is a rider that finds a suiting ground in the hills, although not a very explosive rider he may suit the more constant efforts that a steep longing hill may offer.
Vincenzo Nibali also a strong name in the line but lots of questions are always asked as he seems to have a low form midway through his preparation for the Grand Tours, but his win in Milano Sanremo last year shows that he might be up for some great form if his plan is repeated. With Damiano Caruso and Rohan Dennis in the team they are definetely a threat.
Davide Formolo, Zdenek Stybar, Adam Yates are three outsiders who also have a great ability to ride the hills they must face, hence they can also be a trio of jokers in for the stage win fights, but less so for the overall contention.
Thibaut Pinot is the last name in our list, he has already won the Tour du Haut-Var this year and he has a good relationship with Tirreno-Adriatico and Italy, as he always seems to perform well on Italian roads, the kilometers against the clock may prove too many for him, but he is a proven climber that can also easily snatch a win in the right circumstances.
Of course the sprinters need a big mention as this race is usually the final tune-up ahead of Milano Sanremo, and the usual is to have the world's finest racing here. This year many chosen Paris-Nice, but there are still many riders here to fight for the fastest finishes.
This trio is the one we should focus on the most though. Alongside Gronewegen, Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria are rated as the world's fastest right now and have every right to be assumed as the main favourites for the two flat stages in line. Both have sublime and proven leadouts lining up with them and with a big goal incoming it is sure both are in peak form heading to Italy.
Both can also climb short hills well so they should face the issues of struggling in the rolling starts we'll have this week. The hilly stages, including stage 2 to Pomarance should be too much for them, but not for Peter Sagan who has finished twice on the podium on that finish. Sagan may not have the top speed of the other two but he's the one who has the better bike handling skills which can prove essential on stage 3, and for the hilly finales he might struggle in the harsh gradients but not on the opening road stage, where he is predicted as the main favourite. However he has recently reported being sick in the days leading up to the race so there may be questions surrounding his current form.
Nizzolo and Modolo lead the outsider Italian line, Nacer Bouhanni and Clement Venturini lead the French and we have Phil Bauhaus as also a man to watch for a podium finish in the flat stages.
There are also some classics men, namely Greg van Avermaet who is a stage favourite for almost all stages but may struggle to win as there always seem to be a rider stronger than him in the finales, Jasper Stuyven also a great possibility for those finales, a very powerful rouleur. Davide Ballerini is also a great name to point out as one to watch on the hilly fast stages.
With two time-trials in the week it is a must to mention the big names. Excluding Roglic and Dumoulin as they've been previously mentioned, the next name in line is obviously the world champion Rohan Dennis, two-time victor of the final stage in a row already.
But there is a tremendous competition even outside of those names, prologue specialists Victor Campanaerts and Stefan Kung to start, Jonathan Castroviejo, Jos van Emden, Tony Martin, Nelson Oliveira and Soren Kragh Andersen make for maybe the most Elite time-trial filled startlist of the year.
There's no hiding that time-trialing is an essential part of this race and every team made sure they brought the big guns.
Sunweb/Jumbo-Visma/Lotto Soudal/Sky - The main GC teams, all their focus is on getting the overall win and it is very likely that it comes from one of them.
Deceuninck/Bora/UAE - Whilst Deceuninck and Bora have very strong GC candidates these are the teams that will focus more in the sprints and have the biggest names to be able to get those stages.
Astana/Bahrain/FDJ/Mitchelton - Secondary GC hopes mainly from these teams. Strong leaders but not-so-strong TTT setups may lead them int a bigger disadvantage in relation to other leaders.
Dimension Data/EF/CCC/Cofidis - These 4 teams all have good chances of getting a stage win, although it will take a lot of work for them to do so, it wouldn't come as a surprise.
Movistar/Katusha/Trek/AG2R - The remaining World Tour teams are these 4, their teams aren't as strong coming up to these races and their win chances must come from breakaways. Otherwise good stage results must be their biggest ambition.
Bardiani/Neri/Israel/Gazprom - 4 of the Pro Continental teams, unlike Cofidis they don't have a rider that can definitely fight for a stage win so they will mostly rely on TV time, breakaways and secondary classifications.
⭐ Dennis, Benoot, Pinot, Stybar, Formolo, Thomas, Nibali, Fuglsang, A.Yates, SK.Andersen
Primoz Roglic is our call for the overall win. If it wasn't for his crash last year he would have everything to win, still he bounced back on the next day to take an amazing win in a finish similar to what we'll have, his and his team's time-trialing ability are both superb, and just like in the UAE Tour, we thoroughly believe he has what it takes to once again lead the race from top to bottom, although his lead on the first day isn't likely.
Tom Dumoulin has undoubtedly the strongest support team, which may lead to Sunweb possibly being able to put Roglic under serious pressure, but with so many top riders unless Roglic is leading the race he will find a team that can do the work for him, and face-to-face I can't see Tom beating the Slovenian in this terrain.
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