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On paper, the race seems to come down to a three-rider battle between Michal Kwiatkowski, Alberto Contador, and Richie Porte who are all genuine winner candidates, and it should be a close-fought one between that trio

Photo: OPQS / Tim de Waele


11.03.2014 @ 13:31 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Paris-Nice has signaled the arrival of sprint and the serious start of the European stage race season and it doesn't get any less intense and exciting when the second part of the traditional doubleheader of early-season WorldTour stage races kicks off in Italy. Once known as a punchy race for classics riders and the perfect preparation for the biggest one-day race, the event has changed its nature and is now a mini grand tour that has attracted the biggest stage race stars. With Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, and Cadel Evans all on the start line, several of the 2013 grand tour podium finishers are all in attendance, turning the race into the first big stage race battle of the season.


Most professional bike riders already have plenty of racing miles in their legs, making good use of the warm and sunny conditions in places like Australia, Argentina, the Middle East, Algarve, Andalusia, and the French Cote d'Azur to clock up the kilometres. While an early win is always appreciated and a welcome boost of confidence, however, it has until now been all about warm-up and preparation for the bigger races to come.


That all changed last weekend when the professional cycling calendar enters its next phase with the traditional Belgian opening weekend. While cycling fans all over the world have appreciated the globalized cycling and the many high-level early season events, there is still a feeling that the season hasn't started for real until the best classics riders have tested themselves on the Belgian cobbles for the first time.


The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicked off the race calendar of historic races on European soil. From now on, the races are no longer mere training in a laid-back atmosphere, now it is time to clock up the results. For the classics riders, things got serious last Saturday but for the stage race riders, the first real test has traditionally come with the double-header of big, historic stage races: Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. Even though Paris-Nice is not the Tour de France and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is not the Tour of Flanders, the serious racing now begins in earnest.


Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico both play a strange, dual role on the calendar. On one hand, they are the first big objectives for the greatest stage racers who hope to land their first big wins in one of the most prestigious races on the calendar. At the same time, they are a crucial part of the preparation for the classics riders who benefit immensely from one week of WorldTour racing in tough conditions and versatile terrain. It may be difficult to decide whether to head to France or Italy but one of the races forms an indispensable part of every successful classics schedule - just ask Team Sky whose classics riders made the ill-fated experiment of skipping the historic stage races in 2013.


First held in 1966, Tirreno-Adriatico lacks the deep history of Paris-Nice but it is no wonder that it has overcome this fact to quickly become a major event on the calendar. Known as the Race of the Two Seas, it follows a route between the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts and thus takes the riders through some very hilly terrain in the Italian mainland. The climbs in this area are not necessarily very long but their short, steep nature and the always undulating profiles make the race a perfect fit for any classics rider looking for form. If one adds the often pleasant weather conditions, one has the recipe for a success that has been able to battle for attention with the longer history of the Paris-Nice.

The race quickly grew into a major event and already in the 7th edition in 1972, Belgian classics legend Roger De Vlaeminck started an impressive string of successes that saw him win the race 6 years in a row. Even though the winners list remains dominated by Italians, it has always been an international affair that has attracted the interest of the best classics riders, with many of them having won the race at least once.


Tirreno-Adriatico lacks the symbolic nature of the Paris-Nice which signals the arrival of spring by travelling from the cold of Northern France to the sun at the Cote d'Azur but for a rider looking for form, there is no need to go through those cold, windy days in the North. The better weather has always been a major draw card for the Italian race in its constant battle with its French counterpart for the strongest line-up.


In fact, the two races have shared the best riders rather nicely between them. With time trials and longer climbs, Paris-Nice has often attracted the best stage race riders while the lumpy natures of the courses in central Italy and often very long stages have made the Italian race a perfect fit for the classics riders. In recent years, the race has been won by riders like Michele Bartoli, Davide Rebellin, Erik Dekker, Filippo Pozzato, Paolo Bettini, Oscar Freire, and Fabian Cancellara while the grand tour specialists have been battling on the roads of France. As a consequence, Tirreno has won the battle of being the best preparation event for Milan-Sanremo and it is no wonder that most of the recent winners have arrived in Sanremo on the back of a solid showing in Tirreno.


In recent years, however, things have changed. Instead of continuing to attract the classics stars, organizers RCS Sport have tried to make the race into more of a mini grand tour. In recent years, the race has both included team and individual time trials and major summit finishes and they have gradually attracted more and more grand tour riders to their event. With the better weather and a course now suited to their characteristics, also the stage race riders have preferred to travel to Italy instead of going to France.


This year Paris-Nice organizers ASO have made a new move in the battle between the two races that may see the roles of the two races getting swapped. With no major summit finishers and no time trials at all, they have put together a course that has been described as eight consecutive classics. As the Tirreno has decided to keep its new format as a mini grand tour, it is no wonder that many stage race specialists have changed their minds to head to Italy in favour of France. On the other hand, several classics rider have been tempted by the prospect of winning a stage or two on the way to Nice and have decided to change their usual early-season schedule.


However, there is no doubt that organizers RCS are happy with the development as few will deny that their race has had the upper hand in recent years and this year seems to be no exception. The best stage race riders will all be in Italy and the same goes for the cream of the sprinters. Some of the classics riders may be heading to France but with riders like Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, and many sprinters still in the line-up, there is a good chance that the winner of this year's Sanremo will again have prepared himself in Tirreno.


Last year the race was a hugely anticipated battle between the likes of Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, and Cadel Evans but all suspense seemed to have been taken out of the race when Froome crushed the opposition on the queen stage to Prato di Tivo. However, Nibali refused to give up and the Italian used a rainy and brutal day with several short, steep climbs to put the race leader under pressure. The attack ended up causing one of Froome's only crises of the 2013 season when Nibali rode away with Peter Sagan and Rodriguez to take the leader's jersey off Froome's shoulders. Froome took back some time in the time trial but could not prevent Nibali from defending his title ahead of the Sky captain and Alberto Contador. Contador will be back in 2014 but Nibali has been asked by his Astana team to do the Paris-Nice, with the management being keen to see him ride a lot in France ahead of his Tour campaign. Froome was originally scheduled to ride but back pain has forced him to be replaced by Richie Porte.


The course

As said, organizers RCS Sport have turned their event from a race consisting of a number of sprint stages, hilly classics stages, and often also a time trial into some kind of all-inclusive mini grand tour. The past three editions have all started with a team time trial on the Tyrrhenian coast and ended with a short individual race against the clock in San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic coast and in between there have been some classic Tirreno stages with lumpy, hilly terrain and stages for the sprinters. In 2012 and 2013, the race has been for the real grand tour specialists as there has been a major mountain stage as well and this is again the format of the 2014 edition.


This year's edition contains a team and an individual time trial, a big mountain stage, and a classical Tirreno stage with short, very steep climbs. Last year, however, organizers RCS Sport received some criticism for making the race a bit too hard, with the epic penultimate stage receiving plenty of criticism. In recent years, RCS have been keen to listen to the riders' wishes and so they have made this year's course a bit easier with the inclusion of three guaranteed sprint stages. Like in any grand tour, however, it will be the combination of time trialing and climbing that determines the overall winner of the race.


Stage 1:

For the third year in a row, the race kicks off with a team time trial between San Vincenzo and Donoratico and this year's stage is almost a reversed exact copy of the one that has been used for the past two editions. The distance has been increased from 16.9km to 18.5km, the course has been slightly modified both at the start and near the finish and it has been reversed, meaning that the riders  will travel from Donoratico to San Vincenzo.


From the start in Donoratico, the riders do a small loop in the area north of the city that was not part of the previous courses and which include a number of early turns. Having finished that small circuit, they turn left to leave the coast and head to the city of Castagneto Carducci along very slightly ascending roads.


Having reached that town, they turn around to head back to the coast along slightly descending roads and they reach the main coastal road a bit south of Donoratico after 11.3km of racing. This is the site of the intermediate check where the riders turn left and from there the final 7.2 are almost a long, straight road down the coast with very few technical challenges.


Thing get a bit more complicated when they reach the city of San Vincenzo as the riders will turn right in two roundabouts and do two sharp left-hand turns between the 2km to go mark and the flamme rouge. As soon as they pass the latter, it is all about putting down the hammer on the long straight coastal road that leads to the finish in the city centre.


The stage has very few elevation differences and plenty of long straight roads where the big TT specialists can excel and this is a course for the really powerful riders. The course may have been reversed and become a bit more technical than it has been in the past but it is very similar to the stages that have opened the past two editions of the race. Given the flat, non-technical nature of the course, it is no wonder that Orica-GreenEDGE and Omega Pharma-Quick Step who are probably the two greatest specialists in the discipline, are the winners of the past two opening stages and their powerful riders will again make them some of the favourites to come away with the win. In the past two years, however, the wind had played a role and given rather unequal circumstances for the early and later starters and the breeze from the sea could again influence the outcome of what is guaranteed to be a spectacular opening with lots of power and speed.




Stage 2:

The first road stage of Tirreno-Adriatico is usually one for the sprinters and it won't be any different in 2014. The riders will head from yesterday's finishing city of San Vincenzo over 166km to Cascina on the southern outskirts of Pisa and the stage consists of a predominantly northern run between the two cities.


From the start in San Vincenzo, the riders follow the flat coastal road back up to Donoratico where the race will have started one day earlier, but instead of following the straight road to Pisa, the peloton will make a small digression as they turn right to head into the hilly hinterlands to tackle a few climbs in the early part of the stage.


The first of those, Guardistallo (5.0km, 3.7%, max. 9%), comes after 31.1km of racing and is followed by a short descent and a flat stretch that lead to the bottom of the Montecatini Val di Cecina climb (9.5km, 3.8%, max. 10%). That ascent is followed by a long gradual downhill that brings the riders to the bottom of the final categorized climb, Lajatico (4.9km, 2.4%, max. 10%).


After the descent, the riders continue their predominantly northern journey that include two uncategorized climbs in the early part. After 108.2km, the riders have finished the descent of the final one and from there the final 57.8km are completely flat.


With 51.9km to go, the riders contest the first intermediate sprint and 10.6km further down the road, they cross the finish line for the first time. From there, they do two laps on a 20.6km rectangular finishing circuit around Cascina on the outskirts of Pisa that sends the riders in predominantly easterly and westerly directions. It is rather non-technical and completely flat. It is mainly a city circuit, composed of straight stretches and roundabouts, and which crosses the bridges over the Arno river twice. The second intermediate sprint of this stage is set upon the first passage in Uliveto Terme, 31.2km from the finish.


The final kilometres are rather non-technical. The riders go through a few turns just before the 4km to go mark and then there is only a sweeping bend and three roundabouts with the final one coming 1.75km from the finish. From there the road is straight and flat, setting the scene for a high-speed sprint.


As the wind rarely plays a role in Italy, this stage has all the characteristics of a classical sprint stage and with most of the biggest sprinters being present in Italy, there is no way that they will let this opportunity slip away.




Stage 3:

The GC riders will have to bide their time for another day before the real battle commences in the weekend while the sprinters look forward to another day in the spotlight that will precede two days of immense suffering in the mountains. However, they will not it all their own way during the long 210km stage from yesterday's finishing city of Casina to Arezzo. It is now time for the riders to leave the Tyrrhenian coast and head towards the Adriatic Sea and so the stage mainly consists of a long easterly run just south of the city of Prato.


The first part of the stage is easier than the opening kilometres of the 2nd stage as the riders head east along completely flat roads. The first challenge comes  after 60.2km when the riders climb the San Casciano Val di Presa (5.4km, 4.2%, max. 13%) which is quickly followed by the second and final climb of the day, the Poggio alla Croce (4.5km, 6.1%, max. 10%). which comes at the 86.6km mark.


The climb is followed by a short descent and an uncategorized ascent that leads to the first intermediate sprint after 104.1km of racing. From there, the riders travel along long, straight roads and they are only slightly undulating.


Having reached Indicatore with 68.4km to go, the riders do a lap on a 24.8km circuit that brings them across the finish line for the first time when 57.9km still remain. The riders turn around and head back to Indicatore for the second part of the circuit and contest the final intermediate sprint at the end of the lap, 43.6km from the finish.


The riders now take on the circuit for the second time and reach the finish line again with 33km to go. Instead of completing the lap, however, they now do three laps on an 11km finishing circuit in the southern part of Arezzo.


The final circuit rolls along city roads. A quick descent, with a series of wide bends, leads to the city stadium. The route then follows a long, flat, mostly straight road up to 3 km from the finish, where it enters the centre and winds along the city roads, with traffic islands and roundabouts. From now on, it is extremely technical as the riders go through a roundabout and two turns during the penultimate kilometre. At the flamme rouge, the riders turn right in two successive roundabouts, do a sweeping turn 750m from the line, a sharp turn 500m from the finish and then the final 90-degree left-hand turn just 200m from the line.


The final circuit may be mostly straight and flat but all the excitement is saved for the final kilometre. It is not only technical. When the riders pass the medieval gate 1km from the finish, it is uphill all the way to the finish with an average gradient of 5.0%. The steepest part comes at the bottom where it briefly reaches 11% and then flattens out a bit. The final 500m have a 5.4% average gradient.  A short, steep uphill sector leads (first on asphalted roadway, then on stone slabs) to the uphill 200-m home stretch (with a gradient around 5%) on 6-m wide, stone-paved roadway.


The stage is likely to come down to a sprint finish but this is certainly not one for the pure sprinters. Instead, the race suits technically astute riders who have a solid kick in an uphill sprint and the stage is more one for classics specialists. At the same time, the GC riders will have to stay aware as gaps are guaranteed to open up in what will be a very nervous, technical finale where crashes are almost guaranteed to occur. It will be a different scenario than it was when Arezzo last hosted a major bike race in 2003. On that occasion, Mario Cipollini won a much more straightforward sprint ahead of Robbie McEwen and Alessandro Petacchi in the Giro.




Stage 4:

After three days of racing, it is finally time for the climbers to come to the fore on the fourth stage which is the race's queen stage. The stage continues the journey towards the Adriatic Sea as the riders travel in a predominantly southeasterly direction for the entire stage. However, the riders have now left behind the flat plains of the western part of the country and have reached the hills.


The stage brings the riders over a mammoth 244km from yesterday's finish in Indicatore (Arezzo) to a finish at the top of the Cittareale Selvarotonda climb. However, the first half of the stage is very easy as it consists of a long completely flat run along the plains that ends when the riders reach the feed zone in Bevagna after 115.3km of racing.


From there, the riders get a small appetizer of the hostilities to come when they do a small uncategorized climb to the city of Montefalco before they head down the descent and travel along flat roads to Spoleto. Having contested the first intermediate sprint, the riders take on the first climb of the day, the Forca di Cerro (9.6km, 4.6%, max. 9%.). It's a rather easy and regular affair as the gradient is rather constant between 4% and 5% all the way to the top.


At the top, 92km remain and the first part of those consist of a short descent and then the Forca Capistrello climb (16.35km, 6.7%, max. 12%) which is the hardest ascent of the day. The climb is less regular than the first one and has its steepest section just after the first kilometre. It comes at the beginning of a long section with an average gradient of 8.9% and then the roads flattens before kicking up with an average gradient of 7.6%. Then there's a short descent, leading to the final 1.35km that kick up at 6.1%.


From the top, 62.2km remain. A short descent leads to a long stretch of rolling roads along which the riders contest the final intermediate sprint 41.4km from the finish. They form a nice warm-up for the final climb to the finish, the Cittareale Selvarotonda (14km, 5.3%, max 10%). The climb is not overly difficult but the gradient increases gently little by little as kilometres go by and features 7 hairpin bends. The first 5.4km have a gradient of 4.2% while the next 4km are a bit steeper at 5.6%. The final section has an average of 6.4% but stays above 7% for the final 1.5km. The steepest part comes just at the flamme rouge where it reaches 10% before staying at 7-8% until the finish. The final hairpin bend comes 2km from the finish and from there, there is only some sweeping turns.


This is certainly the queen stage of the race but the final climb is not very difficult and we should not see massive time gaps. As it comes at the end of a very long day, however, the climb may prove a little more selective than it would be at a first glance. Due to the long stretch between the final two climbs, it will all be saved for the final ascent, and regardless of the nature of the climb, this is the biggest opportunity for the climbers. We should be in for a real spectacle as they try to distance the stronger time trialists on the final slopes.




Stage 5:

The climbers have one final opportunity to gain some time in Sunday's fifth stage which has a truly spectacular finish. The stage continues the southeasterly journey as the riders head from Amatrice over 192km to the finish in Guardiagrele. That city is located very close to the coast just a few kilometres south of Chieti which has hosted an exciting finish on a brutal wall in the past few editions. In general, this part of the country is characterized by many short, brutally steep climbs - just recall the epic penultimate stage of last year's race or the rain-soaked Giro stage to Pescara - and this should be an indication for the riders about what is to come at the end of the stage.


The start is a tough one as the riders head up a tough 8km uncategorized climb  right from the beginning but from there the first part of the stage is rather easy. A long, flat stretch is followed by a short climb and then a long downhill, more flat roads, and an uncategorized climb that leads to the feed zone at the 90.5km mark.


From there the gradual downhill run continues all the way to the 141.6km mark where the roads start to climb slightly. On those ascending roads, the two intermediate sprints come in quick succession, 45.5km and 40.1km from the finish respectively.


The final one signals the start of the day's major climb, Passo Lanciano (11.3km, 8.3%, max. 13%) which is a very tough one. With the steepest section coming early on, it has a rather constant gradient around 9%, only briefly interrupted by a small plateau at the midpoint. The final 1.5km are slightly easier at 7.8% but this is probably the hardest climb of the entire race.


At the top, only 28.9km remain and they mostly consist of a long technical descent that ends just 12.5km from the finish. The riders now do a small uncategorized climb that precede the brutal finish. Its short and very technical descent ends 3km from the finish where the riders turn left and the final ascent begins. As said, this part of Italy is known for its many brutal walls - short, immensely steep climbs - and the Tirreno organizers have always liked to host stage finishes on them. This year they have found a real beast which makes its debut in a major bike race.


The first 1.6km are easy as they only have a gradient of 5.5% but they lead to the base of the Muro di Guardiagrele. It is 610m long, with an average gradient of a massive 22.2% and peaks of 30% in the first part and around 29% in the last bend. After the Muro, 800m remain. The downhill course features a short stretch of apparently flat ground along straight roads, followed by a U-turn, which leads to the home stretch (avg. gradient around 9%, with peaks of 12%). The distance from the last bend to the finish line is around 250 m on asphalted roadway. The width of the finish is 5.5 m.


This finish suits a certain type of riders and would have been a real treat for Joaquim Rodriguez who specializes in these kind of stages, if he had been in attendance. The final climb is not overly long and so the time gaps won't be massive and it will be every rider for himself when the Muro commences. As there are almost no flat roads in the final part of the stage, we could easily see the spectacle start already on the Larciano and it is very likely that only a select group of favourites will arrive at the bottom of the Muro together.




Stage 6:

Last year the organizers faced plenty of criticism for their brutal penultimate stage that featured several short, steep climbs and came at the end of two big stages that were very similar to this year's weekend stages. They have listened to their critics and instead of giving the climbers a third option to take some time, they have given the sprinters something to strive for at the end of the race.


This year's penultimate stage is 189km long and even though it again finishes in Porto Sant'Elpidio on the Adriatic coas, it could hardly have been more different from last year's. Instead of tackling the many climbs in the hilly hinterland, the riders head from the start in Bucchianico straight to the coast and the only real climbing comes in this early part. The stage has a hard start as the Chieti climb (6.8km, 3.4%, max. 13%) comes right from the beginning and it is followed by a descent and another small ascent whose descent leads to the coast.


The riders now turn left and then follow the long, straight, flat coastal road for most of the day. After 122.6km, they contest the first intermediate sprint and then they make a small digression from the straight line as they turn inland to tackle a small ascent. Then they heads back to the coast where they reach the finishing city.


They now do a small loop that sends them up the final climb of the race, Sant'Elpidio a Mare (2.7km, 5.6%, max. 9%). From the top, 41.1km remain and they lead the riders back to the city and the first passage of the finish line where the final intermediate sprint is located. The stage ends with two laps of an 13.75km finishing circuit that is almost completely flat as it is more or less up and down along the coast. At the midpoint, there is a small 2% climb as the riders briefly leave the coast but it will have no major impact.


The first part of the circuit is rather technical but the second part consists of long, straight roads. With 1,600 m to the finish, the last two bends (both right-hand bends), separated by an underpass, lead to the home stretch: 1,500 m on 7.5-m wide, asphalted roadway.


This is the perfect scene for a real power sprint between the world's fastest sprinters and there is no chance that the likes of Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, and André Greipel will miss the chance to sprint against each other along the Adriatic coast. It will be a completely different scenario than last year when Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali, and Joaquim Rodriguez arrived at the finish in Porto Sant'Elpidio together, with Sagan easily winning the sprint.




Stage 7:

In the first part of the century, the Tirreno-Adriatico always ended with a flat circuit race along the coast in San Benedetto del Tronto while any time trialing often took place on hillier courses earlier in the race. That script was ended after the 2010 edition when Edvald Boasson Hagen was the last sprinter to win in the coastal city.


The three most recent editions have all ended with a virtually identical time trial on an out-and-back course along the Adriatic Sea in San Benedetto del Tronto and this will again be the case for the 2014 edition. This year's 9.2km stage is an exact copy of last year's stage and is completely flat and very non-technical.


From the start, the riders do three quick turns and from there it is very simple all the way to the finish. The first part is a straight run down the coastal road until the turning point which comes at the 4.75km mark and where the only time check is located. The riders do a U-turn and then it is straight all the way back to the finish.


With long, flat roads, this is a course for the true specialists who can use their big power to get up to maximum speed and keep it there for their entire ride and it is no wonder that Fabian Cancellara won the two first editions before being beaten into 4th by Tony Martin, Adriano Malori, and Andrey Amador one year ago. Due to the short distance, the time gaps are usually rather small but in a race that is rarely won by minutes, it usually plays a very decisive role.


Last year Vincenzo Nibali managed to defend his overall lead despite losing some time to Chris Froome who took 6th on the stage while one year earlier, Nibali, Roman Kreuziger, and Chris Horner were involved in an exciting three-rider battle for the win. This year the time trial will again make the final adjustments of the GC while riders like Martin, Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, and Malori will battle it out in the first big fight between the time trialing giants.




The weather

As it was the case for most of the races in last year's spring, the Tirreno-Adriatico was hit by some really bad weather and the torrential rain that marred the penultimate stage played a huge role in the outcome that saw Chris Froome lose his lead to Vincenzo Nibali. This year things have been completely different and the riders in the Paris-Nice are currently enjoying summerlike conditions.


The weather has always been one of the main reasons for riders to prefer Tirreno over Paris-Nice but this year they seem to be on a more equal footing when it comes to the climatic conditions. The race will kick off with a beautiful sunny day along the coast where the temperatures will reach a maximum of 17 degrees. There will only be a light wind from an easterly direction and it may decrease a bit as the day goes on, slightly favouring the later starters in the team time trial.


The conditions will be almost identical for Thursday's first road stage, with the only change being the fact that it will be slightly warmer at 20 degrees. Friday will be another very sunny day, with maximum temperatures of around 16 degrees and there will again be only a light wind, this time from a southwesterly direction.


The riders will also have beautiful conditions for the queen stages in the weekend. Saturday will be a sunny day with a light wind from a westerly direction and 15-degree temperatures in the valleys. However, things may be different for Sunday's Muro stage as rain is currently forecasted.  The temperatures in the valley will be 14 degrees and there will only be a light wind from a northeasterly direction. Rainy conditions have often led the organizers to skip some of the major climbs due to snow and there is a risk that the Passo Larciano will be impassable. However, nothing will prevent a finish on the Muro but wet roads could make the climb much harder to tackle.


The sun should be back for Monday's flat stage where the riders can expect beautiful sunshine and temperatures that reach a massive 21 degrees. There will be slightly more wind, coming from a westerly direction. Finally, the weather forecasts predict sunshine, 17-degree temperatures and a light wind from a northeasterly direction for the final time trial, making a nice end to a race that should enjoy near-perfect conditions for the entire week.


The favourites

With a team and an individual time trial, a finish on a brutal wall, and a real summit finish - albeit not the hardest one - the Tirreno-Adriatico is again some kind of a mini grand tour that rewards the most versatile riders. Unlike Paris-Nice that is an open affair that could potentially be won by a classics rider, this race will be a battle between the grand tour contenders.


Apart from the three sprint stages, all stages should open up some time gaps but the race will be won by a matter of seconds. The individual time trial is a short one and time gaps in team time trials of around 20km are usually very small. The mountaintop finish is not very difficult and even though the Muro is a brutal climb, it is so short that the differences between the best riders will again be a matter of seconds. However, the course is a really versatile one and both time trial specialists and pure climbers will find terrain to their liking, meaning that it is a very open race.


On paper, the race seems to come down to a three-rider battle between Michal Kwiatkowski, Alberto Contador, and Richie Porte who are all genuine winner candidates, and it should be a close-fought one between the trio. All are versatile riders with strong teams and they should all come to the fore in the four key stages.


As said, the race rewards versatility and the most versatile rider in the entire peloton is probably Kwiatkowski. Originally known as a time trial specialist, he is one of the strongest riders against the clock and he has improved his climbing massively. He has finished in the top 5 in two Ardennes classics and he even excelled on the cobbles in last year's Tour of Flanders.


Kwiatkowski took a massive step up in 2013 when he suddenly climbed with the best in the Tour de San Luis and he confirmed that potential in the Tirreno where he briefly wore the leader's jersey before finishing the race in 4th. He went on to take 11th in his ever grand tour at the Tour de France but it is his exploits of the 2014 season that have elevated him into the real top of stage race specialists.


With a win in the hardest race of the Mallorca Challenge, two stage wins and the overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve, and most recently his stunning performance in the Strade Bianche, Kwiatkowski is the in-form rider at the moment. He may still have to prove that he can win a stage race at WorldTour level but in the early part of the season, he has beaten the biggest stars. To drop Peter Sagan on the climb to the Piazza del Campo is no mean feat and it proves just how strong Kwiatkowski is at the moment. Furthermore, he appeared to be at ease when he bridged across to Sagan at a time when riders like Fabian Cancellara, Roman Kreuziger, and maybe even Alejandro Valverde were all at their limit.


In addition to Porte, Kwiatkowski is the strongest time trialist of the GC riders and he proved so when he crushed the opposition on the Algarve course that didn't do him many favours. He would obviously have preferred a hillier profile for the time trial but he should gain a bit of time on that day. For the team time trial, he is part of the reigning world champions but this year Omega Pharma-Quick Step have not brought too many specialists to the race and it will be hard to repeat last year's win.


Kwiatkowski's main challenge will, however, be the climbs. Despite climbing well, he is yet to show that he can beat the best in a major summit finish. In Algarve he appeared to be in impressive form but on the Alto do Malhao, he was dropped by Alberto Contador. However, the final climb on stage four is not overly difficult and with his current condition, Kwiatkowski should be up there with the best and with his fast sprint he could even take the win.


The Muro is a very special challenge but by finishing in the top 5 in the Fleche Wallonne, Kwiatkowski has proved that he handles very steep climbs very well. On the other hand, he struggled in last year's finish in Chieti which was very similar to the one that comes in stage 5. However, that may be more indicative of another aspect that may prevent a win for Kwiatkowski. He may have performed well in past stage races but he always seems to fade a bit towards the end. This could prove costly in this race, with the Muro coming on the fifth day, and the biggest challenge for Kwiatkowski will be to prove that he can keep up his level for 7 straight days. If he manages to do so, however, it is hard to see anyone beat the in-form rider of the moment.


His biggest rival could be Alberto Contador. After his disastrous 2013 season, things indicate that the Spaniard may return to his best form. He has only competed once, in Algarve where he was firmly dropped by Kwiatkowski on the final climb in stage 2. However, he did a very good time trial to take fourth on a flat power course that didn't suit him at all. This is maybe the biggest indication that things are about to change for Contador as the time trials seem to be the area where he has suffered the most since coming back from suspension. One day later he dropped Kwiatkowski on the Alto do Malhao which was certainly no mean feat given the Pole's outstanding condition.


Contador will certainly lose time to Kwiatkowski in the time trial but his team should be up there on the opening day as it is extremely powerful. Nonetheless, Contador will need to take back some time on the climbs. He is hampered by the fact that the final ascent on stage four is not overly difficult and it may be difficult to benefit fully from it. The Muro will be his biggest chance to shine and he is well-suited to that kind of steep gradients. If he can drop Kwiatkowski on that day, Contador may return to his winning ways in the major stage races.


The final big challenger is Porte. If he had been at his very best, he would have been our favourite to win this race. He is an excellent time trialist who even excels on short courses as he proved in last year's Criterium International, and he has a very powerful team for the team time trial. In last year's Tour de France, he proved that he is one of the very best climbers in the world and even though the Muro may be a bit too explosive to his liking, he has all the characteristics to shine on this course.


However, Porte's condition wasn't impressive in the Vuelta a Andalucia where key domestique Geraint Thomas seemed to be the strongest Sky rider in the race. Having originally prepared for the Paris-Nice, his condition will of course have improved but unlike Contador and Kwiatkowski, he has the Giro as his main goal. This means that he cannot allow himself to be at a stage that is too advanced at the moment and this makes his form level a bit uncertain. Nonetheless, he would love to win this race and he has all the characteristics to do so.


Based on the performance in the Roma Maxima, Domenico Pozzovivo must be the favourite to win the Muro stage. The tiny climb excels on the steepest of gradients but he usually struggles when the climbs get a bit too long. This makes the fifth stage a perfect fit for him and he showed excellent condition last Sunday. On the very steep Annibale climb, he dropped no less of a figure than Alejandro Valverde and anyone who has been riding against the Spaniard in 2014 will confirm that this is a very hard task.


This suggests that Pozzovivo is currently in excellent condition and as the Muro stage could easily be the single most decisive, he has a shot at the overall victory. Unfortunately, he will lose probably lose too much time in the time trials and especially the opening day will prove costly. He is no bad time trialist himself as he proved when he finished an amazing 3rd in a Vuelta stage in 2013 and even though that was a hilly course, he is not too bad on flat ones either. This one, however, is a bit too much about power for him and a solid time loss is unavoidable. This will make it hard for him to win the race but Pozzovivo could easily turn out to be the climber of the race.


Usually, Nairo Quintana would be right at the top end of any list of favouries but the Colombian doesn't appear to be firing on all cylinders yet. After winning the Tour de San Luis, he admitted that he was too good too soon and that he would have to slow down a bit in the next few months. This has been evident after his return to Europe as his attacks in the Vuelta a Murcia failed and he was clearly struggling to keep up with the likes of Francesco Bongiorno, Matteo Rabottini, and Winner Anacona in last Sunday's Roma Maxima.


This means that Quintana will find it hard to win the mountain stages in this year's Tirreno and as he will also lose time in the time trial, he is unlikely to come away with the overall victory. He has a very strong team for the team time trial but that is unlikely to be enough for the Colombian. Nonetheless, his excellent climbing skills mean that he is one of the select few who - at least on paper - has a chance to win the race.


Rigoberto Uran has been riding extremely well right from the beginning of the season and in the Tour of Oman he was the only rider who briefly tried to respond to Chris Froome's attack on the Green Mountain. He paid for that effort but still took third and this suggests that he is riding really well.


As Kwiatkowski's teammate, it may be hard for him to get the chance to play his own cards but as Omega Pharma-Quick Step will not be the team to dictate the pace in the mountains, it should not be too much of a disadvantage. The steep Muro suits him really well and his team is strong for the team time trial. He will probably lose too much time in the time trial to win the race but Omega Pharma-Quick Step could easily have to riders at the top end of the leaderboard.


As soon as he returned to Europe, Vuelta champion Chris Horner proved that he had not slowed down in training despite the uncertainty over his future team but until now he has always been riding in the service of his teammates. This won't be the case in this race where he will get his first chance to shine in his new colours.


Based on his performances in Algarve, he should be up there with the very best on the climbs and this makes him an obvious top 5 candidate. Unfortunately, he will lose a lot of time in both the time trial and the team time trial and this means that an overall win is probably beyond his reach but he is likely to show that he is still going strong despite being 42 years of age.


Roman Kreuziger is in this race to support Alberto Contador and his main task will be to prepare the Spaniard's searing accelerations. He won't get the chance to play his own cards but if something takes Contador out of contention, Kreuziger will be there to strike. The Czech has been in excellent condition right from the beginning of the season and was described as one of the strongest riders in Oman despite a below-par performance on the Green Mountain. He confirmed that assessment with a great ride in the Strade Bianche and he should be one of the strongest on the climbs. His time trialing skills have deteriorated in recent years but he showed signs of improvement in last year's Tour de France. As he is also part of a strong team, he will be ready to step up should Contador fade away.


Cadel Evans has put two bad seasons behind him and is confident that he can return to his best level for the Giro d'Italia. He was riding excellently in Australia in January and took the good form back to Europe with a solid showing in Tour du Haut-Var. He had below-par performances in the French one-day races in the first week of March but had a great ride in the Strade Bianche. The steep Muro suits him really well, he is a good time trialist, and has a solid team. He is probably still a bit below the level of the best climbers but a top 5 result is certainly within his reach.


Finally, we will point to Michele Scarponi. The Italian is gradually preparing for the Giro and has always done well in the Tirreno. He showed signs of improving condition in the Vuelta a Andalucia and since then he has geared up to lead Astana on home soil. In the past few seasons, he has struggled a bit on longer climbs but excelled on the shorter ones. With the mountain stage being rather easy and the Muro coming one day later, the climbs should suit him really well. He will lose some time in both time trials but has taken a massive step up in the discipline during the past year as he most recently proved in San Luis. Those time losses make an overall win unlikely but with an in-form Tanel Kangert also on the roster, he spearheads a very strong Astana duo.


***** Michal Kwiatkowski

**** Alberto Contador, Richie Porte

*** Domenico Pozzovivo, Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran

** Chris Horner, Roman Kreuziger, Cadel Evans, Michele Scarponi

* Bauke Mollema, Robert Gesink, Diego Ulissi, Andrew Talansky, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Julian Arredondo, Alexandre Geniez, Thibaut Pinot



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