The 50th edition of the "Race of the Two Seas" draws big names for an early-season showdown

Perhaps it was too good to be true. The much-hyped battle between cycling’s “Fab Four” at this week’s Tirreno-Adriatico lost air even before take off.

Chris Froome (Sky) pulled out Monday citing health problems, a decision that deflates, though only slightly, the weeklong “Race of the Two Seas” (March 11-17) that sees many of the peloton’s top stars thrown into battle for the first time together in 2015. It will still be the first major battle of the year between Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Will it be a Tour de March? It’s hard to say.

The star-studded lineup will take on a route that’s light on major climbs or hurdles to really put the peloton’s top GC favorites to the test.

A dearth of major mountains will mean a tight race, but perhaps without the electricity that some are hoping for.

The Terminillo summit finish in stage 5, a 1,000-meter challenge that could test the mettle of the peloton’s best climbers, is the only major climbing finale. The rest of the week features typical Italian, spring racing conditions, with narrow roads, and punchy uphill finales, ideal for the likes of Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) or Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), but not nearly long or steep enough to see the Tour favorites really opening up the legs. Instead, it could be the time trials that decide the overall winner.

Officials also announced Monday that inclement weather has forced them to eliminate the potentially decisive team time trial Wednesday with a shorter, 5.7km individual time trial. Coupled with another closing-day short individual test, it could be TT proficiency, not the steeps, that could decide the Tirreno crown.

‘Race of the Two Seas’ draws the stars

Tirreno-Adriatico dates back to 1966, and this year will the 50th edition of the so-called “Race of the Two Seas” that traces the hilly spine of Italy’s boot, between the Tyrrhenian sea on one side, and the Adriatic on the other. Roger De Vlaeminck holds the record wins with six, but it’s the latest rash of superstars attending the RCS Sport-owned race that’s making headlines.

Time trialists and even sprinters used to win the race, with the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Óscar Freire on the palmares list within the past decade or so, but the organization has decidedly made the race more difficult over the past few editions. Over the past five years, riders such as Michele Scarponi, Cadel Evans, Nibali, and Contador have been able to secure victory, thanks to superb early-season climbing legs.

Despite the draw of the big GC stars, this year’s route isn’t as demanding as the past few versions. The race opens Wednesday with a dead-flat, now-reduced individual time trial that should see limited differences between the main contenders. The decision to eliminate the TTT undercuts ambitions from Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo, both of which brought strong time trial teams to the race.

Stages 2 and 3 are relatively straightforward sprinter stages, with a slight uphill kick into Arezzo on Friday, ideal for Sagan. Stage 4 features a roller finale, with three rated climbs in the closing 75km of racing that will prove more difficult to control than to tackle for the heavy GC faves.

The GC will undergo a major, if not decisive, transformation in the uphill finale to Terminillo in stage 5. Some early climbs will trigger a breakaway, but the GC teams will be on full-throttle to set up their men. Set deep in the Apennine massifs, the climb is often beset with nasty weather, particularly in mid-March. The climb has been featured in the Giro nine times, with Chris-Anker Sorensen (Tinkoff-Saxo) winning the stage in 2010.

Stage 6 will be another romp for the sprinters, and will steer around some of the steeper climbs that have foiled the pure sprinters in earlier editions. The 10km, out-and-back time trial on a the traditional finale along the seafront at San Benedetto del Tronto will seal the GC podium.

It’s an easier route, with one heavy climb, and two time trials. It’s not quite what fans were hoping for, but heated racing is guaranteed no matter the course. As the saying goes, it’s the riders, not the route, that make the race hard. And with these three — among many others — lining up for bragging rights, it won’t be a boring week despite a more traditional route.

Contador on top form among three of ‘Fab Four’ in attendance

Among the three of the “Fab Four” still in attendance, Contador will be firing to win. As defending champion, and with his form building for the approach of the Giro d’Italia just two months away, the Spaniard will be angling to make up for his narrow, two-second loss to Froome at Ruta del Sol in February.

“Alberto is in good shape and we, like him, believe that he can target the overall win. He’s of course using the race to build shape ahead of the Giro, but for a rider like Alberto it doesn’t mean that you can’t target Tirreno as well,” said general manager Bjarne Riis in a team release.

“It’s a versatile route, where some of the days definitely suit Sagan. We have a strong team, so I see it as a great opportunity to have Alberto and Peter in the same race.”

Nibali, a two-time Tirreno champion in 2012-13, remains an enigma. Last year, Nibali eased into the season, so much so that many pundits had written him off before the Tour started, only to see him blow everyone out of the water. The “Shark” seems to be following a similar approach so far in 2015, with discreet, under-the-radar performances at his season openers at Qatar and Oman. Nibali will want to impress on home roads, however, in what will likely be his only Italian race before the Tour this season, but it remains to be seen which Nibali will stand up. The version of 2012 and 2013? Or last year’s low flier?

There’s a big question mark above Quintana, who will be making his European debut. The defending Giro champion is steering clear of a corsa rosa defense, so, like Froome and Nibali, he will be targeting hitting top form in July. Quintana is coming off heavy crashes that took him out of the 2014 Vuelta a España (requiring shoulder surgery) as well as an ugly finish line crash at the Colombian national championships in February that knocked him out of the Ruta del Sol. Quintana is always ambitious in any race he starts, and will want to prove he’s worthy of Tour-captain status for Movistar against his illustrious rivals. The flat TTs and only one mountain finale could work against him, but he’s always one to deliver a surprise.

Dark horses aplenty

Even without Froome, there will be more than a handful of riders who could steal the thunder. Top among them will be Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), who pulled out sick at the Ruta del Sol. The Dutchman will be keen to prove his worth to his Trek teammates for signing him to lead in the Tour this summer.

Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step) is also revving up for the Giro, and with his dramatically improved time trial skills, he could topple the hierarchy with one strong ride. Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal will lead a motivated Cannondale-Garmin squad, with Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale), always-lingering close in the shadows. Rodríguez and Dani Moreno (Katusha) prove an always-dangerous duo.

More chances for sprinters

With Milano-Sanremo just around the corner, Tirreno has often been the preferred approach for the classics riders heading toward the Via Roma. With the traditional course back on tap for “La Primavera,” it’s not a surprise that RCS Sport has reverted to a more balanced course for Tirreno, giving the peloton’s fast gallopers plenty of opportunities to stretch their legs.

Though Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) has also pulled out, most teams are bringing their heavy hitters. Mark Cavendish will be part of a strong Etixx-Quick-Step squad that includes Urán and Paris-Roubaix champ Niki Terpstra. Sagan will be looking to deliver some big results for his new squad, while Tyler Farrar leads (MTN-Qhubeka) in an important WorldTour test. Cancellara is clearly on good form, but will be outgunned on the Terminillo to seriously contest for the GC. Orica-GreenEdge brings Adam Yates, Luke Durbridge, and Svein Tuft in an always-aggressive lineup.

Tirreno is about aggression, bragging rights, and checking form. With such a stellar lineup, it should be a spectacular week of racing.

50th Tirreno-Adriatico (March 11-17)

Stage 1, March 11: Lido di Camaiore, 5.4km (ITT)
Stage 2, March 12: Camaiore to Cascina, 153km
Stage 3, March 13: Cascina to Arezzo, 203km
Stage 4, March 14: Indicatore to Castelraimondo, 217km
Stage 5, March 15: Esanataglia to Terminillo, 194km
Stage 6, March 16: Rieto to Porto Sant’Elpidio, 210km
Stage 7, March 17: San Benedetto del Tronto, 10km (ITT)