Beginning Wednesday, Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico heralds the end of the beginning of the season. From here, all eyes turn to Milan-San Remo, the cobbled classics, and building-up for the Ardennes and Giro d’Italia. That said, Tirreno’s no light task. Boasting not one but two time trials this year plus the requisite climbs over the spine of Italy’s boot, the “Race of the Two Seas” offers a course—and a start list—that should produce some of the most exciting racing we’ve seen thus far this season.
A TTT and ITT bookend the seven-day race in Stages 1 and 7, while Stages 2 and 3 offer the best opportunities for sprinters. Stages 4, 5, and 6 tackle the hills—many of which are quite steep and come near their respective finish lines. In the end, the winner will likely be a true all-rounder, someone with a talented team and an ability to handle the variety of the terrain on offer throughout the week.
Here’s a rundown of each team’s prospects:
Acqua & Sapone – Stefano Garzelli returns to Tirreno-Adriaitco in defense his razor-thin victory in last year’s edition. He’s backed by a solid team including dedicated domestiques Massimo Codol and Alessandro Donati. Garzelli’s one of the top contenders for the overall—if he can capitalize on the race’s more difficult stages as the two time trials are not to his advantage. Danilo Napolitano will try his hand in the field sprints—tough odds considering the competition.
Ag2r-La Mondiale – Rinaldo Nocentini leads his French squad in Tirreno this year, along with a talented group of opportunists such as Martin Elmiger and Matteo Montaguti. Sebastien Hinault and Lloyd Mondory are using the race to fine-tune their fitness for the classics—look for Mondory to contend in sprint finishes.
BMC Racing Team – One of the deeper teams in the race, BMC has several riders ready to shine. Cadel Evans finished third in Tirreno last year and while the Aussie is primarily focused on winning this year’s Tour de France, the difficult parcours suits his strengths. He’s also one of the race’s better time trialists—at least compared to the rest of the GC favorites. With Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, George Hincapie, Manuel Quinziato, and Greg Van Avermaet riding as well, it’s safe to say BMC will be one of the top-3 teams in Stage 1’s TTT, perhaps giving Evans an early advantage. And don’t discount Ballan—he’s been on a tear lately and would love to get his first win since the 2009 Tour of Poland in.
Euskaltel-Euskadi – For the most part, Tirreno is not the sort of race suited to Euskaltel. First, it’s in Italy, a nation in which the squad just doesn’t seem to perform well. While the climbs in Stages 4 through 6 will favor the Basque squad, the two time trials certainly will not. Riders like Egoi Martinez and Amets Tzurruka are unafraid to go on the attack or spend the day in a breakaway. In other words: stage wins might be the best they can hope for.
Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli – Farnese must really like the overall chances of Italian champ Giovanni Visconti, because the squad left talented young sprinter Andrea Guardini at home. Instead, Farnese has filled its roster with rouleurs and climbers able to set Visconti up for the win. Like Garzelli and the rest of the Italian favorites, the tougher days will suit Visconti, but the time trials will ultimately determine his fate. And watch-out for Oscar Gatto—he’s already won one race this year, and could be a surprise stage winner this week.
HTC-Highroad – HTC is one of the more intriguing teams in the race with several options for a successful week. The team’s primary goal will be to get Mark Cavendish and his lead-out ready for Milan-San Remo. That said, with a squad that’s already proven itself able to win a TTT, look out for them in Stage 1. As for the overall, Stage 7’s ITT is perfectly suited to riders like Marco Pinotti and Peter Velits, while Michael Albasini should contend in Stages 4 to 6. If all goes well, a handful stage wins and a top-3 GC performance are well within this team’s grasp.
Katusha – Katusha brings all of its stars to Tirreno with Filippo Pozzato, Danilo Di Luca, Alexandre Kolobnev, Luca Paolini, and Joaquin Rodrgiuz all using the race to build for the cobbled and Ardennes classics. We’ll see Pozzato begin to show his fitness at some point over the seven-day race, possibly shooting for a win in Stage 5 with a climb coming about 7 kilometers from the finish. I’ll also be watching Di Luca closely. Steadily building fitness, the Italian is still searching for his first win since returning from suspension—this could be the week he gets it. As for Kolobnev and Rodriguez, they’ll be major animators on hilly stages, especially Stage 4’s finish to Chieti.
Lampre-ISD – Michele Scarponi won Tirreno in 2009, but narrowly missed a repeat victory last year. This year he leads Lampre-ISD into the race, hoping to regain his title. Unfortunately, Scarponi might find three obstacles in his path to another victory: Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Petacchi, and 26 kilometers of time trials. Assuming Cunego has no intention of winning the overall title, he might prove to be a valuable asset to Scarponi in his GC bid. As for Petacchi, at least Mori, Malori, and Hondo will be charged with leading him to victory in Stages 2 and 3—hopefully they’ll have something left in the tank to support Scarponi over the rest of the event.
Liquigas – With Ivan Basso and Vincezo Nibali in town, it’s safe to say the Italian press will be camped out at the Liquigas hotels for most of the race. But with Basso targeting the Tour and Nibali the Giro, it might be a bit much to expect fireworks this early. On the other hand, Basso’s already won a race this season and Nibali’s never been afraid to go on the attack—should either choose to go for it, an overall win could be in the cards. And don’t forget Daniel Oss. The Italian underwhelmed in l’Eroica, but still has time to put the finishing touches on his fitness for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics. Look for him especially in Stages 2, 3, and 5.
Movistar – Movistar gives us a preview of what their squad for the 2011 Giro d’Italia should look like with David Arrovo and Marzio Bruseghin leading the team in Tirreno. With Vasili Kiriyenka, Ignatas Konovalovas, and Branislav Samoilau on board, this is dark horse team for the TTT. In fact, should Bruseghin ride well enough over the week to be in contention by the last day, he could ride well enough in the ITT to score a high GC result.
Omega Pharma-Lotto – The big question for Lotto will be whether Philippe Gilbert can improve his fitness while not making himself the undisputed top favorite for Milan-San Remo. It might be too late, but I feel a quiet week would suit Gilbert better than a dominant one. As for Andre Greipel, the fastest sprinters in the world will be in Tirreno—the perfect chance for him to reassert himself as one of the two or three best in the sport.
Astana – Astana’s Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinsky performed well in last tear’s Tirreno before their impressive runs at the Classics. Without a true GC leader—although Iglinsky’s capable of a high finish—look for the team to do its best to score some stage wins. Australian Allan Davis should not be overlooked either—he’ll be looking to improve his fitness for next weekend’s Milan-San Remo while testing himself against the competition he’s likely to face there.
Quick-Step – Tom Boonen leads Quick-Step at Tirreno, hoping—like many—the seven day event will be just what he needs to put the finishing touches the form he’ll need to win his first Milan-San Remo. With Francseco Chicchi and Gerald Ciolek along as well, a stage win in some way, shape, or form is a realistic expectation. And keep an eye on Niki Terpstra—the Dutch champion showed some impressive form during the Belgian opening weekend and will surely stick his nose into an important break or two this week.
Rabobank – Rabobank has one of the deepest and most well-rounded squads in the event thanks to Oscar Freire, Lars Boom, Robert Gesink, and Sebastian Langeveld. Freire’s obviously a good bet for a flatter stage win or two while he builds the form he’ll need to take MSR #4. Robert Gesink won the Tour of Oman last month—he’s a threat on Stages 4 to 6—while Omloop-winner Langeveld will use the race to time another peak for the Tour of Flanders. But Rabobank’s most important rider might just be Lars Boom. A talented time trialist, the Dutchman could be a threat for the overall victory—if he holds up in the hills. He’s mentioned most often as a classics contender, but I’m starting to sense he’s better suited for shorter stages races—especially those with short time trials.
Saxo Bank-Sunguard – Saxo Bank’s roster for Tirreno contains a little bit of everything. Baden Cooke will be charged with leading out Juan Jose Haedo in the field sprints, while Nick Nuyens will likely search for a stage win—or at least a bit more fitness for the cobbled classics. That said, the team’s best hope for a stage win might come via Gustav Larsson in Stage 7’s ITT.
Team Sky – While the bulk of the team’s grand tour riders compete in Paris-Nice, Sky brings the key components of its classics squad to Tirreno, led by Juan Antonio Flecha and overall-contender Edvald Boasson Hagen. Flecha is clearly where he feels need to be for Flanders and Roubaix—I imagine we’ll see him at the front on a few occasions just to get his legs up to speed. As for Hagen, he could use the final ITT to launch himself to victory—he’ll also be a contender on all but the hardest of the race’s road stages. And don’t rule-out Steve Cummings and Thomas Lovkvist, two riders capable of stage wins and maybe a run at the overall should EBH falter.
Team Garmin-Cervélo – Heinrich Haussler aside, Garmin-Cervelo is another squad bringing the core of its cobble squad to Italy. With both Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd taking the line as teammates for the first time this season, we’ll get our first real chance to see how these two co-captains will co-exist—their ability to do so will go a long way toward determining just how successful the team will be this season. David Millar’s an interesting GC dark horse—the final ITT is right up his alley.
Leopard Trek – Like Garmin and Sky, the other team in black and blue comes to Tirreno with the heart of its classics contingent. The two time trials make Fabian Cancellara a tantalizing pick for the overall win—he actually won the race in 2008, then went on to win Milan-San Remo a few days later. If Spartacus comes out of Stage 6 within shouting distance of the lead, there’s little reason to doubt him taking his another Trident (Tirreno’s incredible trophy). Andy Schleck’s racing as well—an interesting sub-plot will be his performance against fellow Tour-contender Ivan Basso on Stage 7. Lastly, Daniele Bennati’s targeting the field sprints, perhaps his last chance to be considered a realistic favorite for MSR.
Team Radio Shack – It’s funny to keep citing Radio Shack as a dark horse contender in most races it enters nowadays, but such is the case. Robbie McEwen and Ben Hermans will do their best on flatter days, while Sebastian Rosseler will certainly be targeting Stage 7’s race against the clock. But the rider to watch at Radio Shack is Tiago Machado. A true climber/time trialist, Machado could be a surprise overall winner—especially if his form has improved since last month’s Volta ao Algarve. One final note: Yaroslav Popovych makes his 2011 debut in Tirreno following an absence due to—well, you know.
Vacansoleil-DCM – Last, but not least, Vacansoleil took a different approach to most teams hoping for success in the spring classics, sending its big hitters—Stijn Devolder and Bjorn Leukemans—to Paris-Nice (perhaps an admittance that Milan-San Remo isn’t at the top of the list for the two Belgians). In their absence, Borut Borzic will hunt for stage wins, while Italian opportunist Marco Marcato tries his best for a high place overall or a breakaway stage victory.
Overall, Tirreno’s a tough race to predict. On one hand, there are the Italian one-week specialists Stefano Garzelli, Giovanni Visconti, and Michele Scarponi. It’s hard to bet against them on home soil, especially when two of the three are past winners, and they all appear to be riding at or near the top of their games. Then again, those two time trials are hard to ignore, giving riders such as Fabian Cancellara and Edvald Boasson Hagen an edge. But let’s not forget the Grand Tour riders using Tirreno as part of their early-season preparation. Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali, Cadel Evans, Robert Gesink, and Andy Schleck are all difficult names to ignore.
In the end, I see the win going to: a) an experienced Tirreno contender who can climb and time trial with a team not worried enough about winning field sprints in the first few days so as to arrive at the harder half of the race tired. In other words: Cadel Evans.
Tirreno-Adriatico: 1. Cadel Evans; 2. Michele Scarponi; 3. Tiago Machado; 4. Marco Pinotti; 5. Edvald Boasson Hagen
Share your comments and predictions below.