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Preview: Tirreno-Adriatico serves grand tour, classics antipasti

MILAN (VN) — It doesn’t boast the richest history, but Tirreno-Adriatico, which opens in western Italy on Wednesday, promises to be the biggest stage race on the European calendar in March. Grand tour stars Chris Froome (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) will contend for the overall, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) will fight over the sprints, and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will target everything in between.

Over the last few years, the race has changed directions, offering an individual time trial and bigger mountains, in the process becoming the March race of choice for grand tour riders. On top of the terrain and stages, compared to its French cousin Paris-Nice, which opened Sunday, “The Race of the Two Seas” enjoys better weather.

The seven-stage race, this year running March 6 to 12, is ideal for sprinters as well. Cavendish and Greipel will see their much-anticipated 2013 duel open, while Vuelta a España five-stage winner John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) will look to get in on the action as well. The last stage, a short, power rider’s time trial, drops them off only five days before Milano-Sanremo. While Simon Gerrans and Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) rode to “La Classicissima” wins through Paris-Nice in 2012 and 2011, respectively, Tirreno has produced seven Sanremo winners in the last 10 years.

The five-day break ahead of Sanremo is one more than usual, with the season’s first monument moving from Saturday to Sunday, but Tirreno is also a favorite preparation race for classics riders like Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard). “Spartacus” won the overall in 2008 en route to his Sanremo victory and will anchor RadioShack’s team time trial unit on day one. Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida), and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Luca Paolini (Katusha) will each be at the start.

“Tirreno-Adriatico is the best for me with the big classics like Sanremo coming up,” said Cancellara.

The Swiss came on strong at Strade Bianche over the weekend, finishing fourth behind Moreno Moser (Cannondale) and Sagan, who went one-two. Tirreno should serve as more antipasto to an expected match-up between the Slovak champion and Cancellara over the next month.

“On paper there are many chances to take a win,” said Sagan. “My goal for this Tirreno-Adriatico is a stage win and to improve my form before Milano-Sanremo. I feel good and confirmed that at Strade Bianche. We have a strong team and are able to be among the best. And then, there’s Moser: we’ll join forces and form a competitive duo in different stages.”

Cutting across central Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea on the country’s west coast to the Adriatic Sea on the east coast, celebrates just its 48th edition this season. It lacks the history of Paris-Nice, but makes up for it this year in quality field.

The GC riders chose Tirreno this year to get the high mountains with a stage to the Prati di Tivo ski station at 1450 meters, the tricky stages in Le Marche and Abruzzo, and the possibility of adding a prestigious title to their palmares.

Looking down the list, many of cycling’s stars have taken the overall win, from six-time winner Roger de Vlaeminck to Francesco Moser, Maurizio Fondriest to Michele Bartoli.

Let’s also not forget that the golden trident trophy is up for grabs. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) tried to pin down a few journalists with the massive, three-pronged trophy after he won the title in 2011.

When Nibali won the race on the last day in 2012, he compared its importance to his grand tour victory.

“Given the high-quality field and feelings of winning my biggest Italian stage race yet, this is up there on level with my Vuelta a España win,” he said.

Nibali will face an even higher quality field this week when he faces off against the likes of Froome, Contador, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma).

Froome, supported by American neo-pro Joe Dombrowski, will enter the race as favorito numero uno.

“It’s another race to go through the process of going in with a plan,” Froome said in Oman. “We’ll ride in a similar manner.”

Sky will enter with a plan, but the roads through the Apennine Mountains will give us the final decision on who’s hot and who’s not. The time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto on the final day will fine-tune the GC and produce the newest keeper of the trident. Or, as organizers are calling him in 2013, the “Sea Master.”

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