Italy’s “Race of the Two Seas” should see a battle of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) vs. the world.

The Colombian climber won Tirreno-Adriatico in his last appearance at the race two years ago, beating back archrival Alberto Contador in a dumping blizzard atop Monte Terminillo. The emblematic climb is back and so is Quintana, but Contador isn’t (he’s racing Paris-Nice instead). This means Quintana is ready for any and all takers at the race that begins Wednesday.

The race is drawing some big names, including two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Geraint Thomas (Sky), and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott). Winning won’t be easy for Quintana, and the GC could come down to seconds.

The all-star cast is rounded out by two-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), last year’s winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who held on after the key mountain stage was snowed out, Strade Bianche winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors), Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal).

Not to be left out, the sprinters will be fighting for their opportunities as well. That group includes Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step), who won a stage in his breakout season in 2016, Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), who is looking for a big win on European roads, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), and Elia Viviani (Sky). With Milano-Sanremo just around the corner, watch for who is riding strong this week to get a measure of who’s ready to win La Classicissima.

Expect the time trials and Terminillo to settle the GC, with the stage-hunters and sprinters controlling things the rest of the week. Tirreno-Adriatico is always unpredictable, but you can bet on some thrilling racing. This is Italy, after all, and anything can happen.

Something for everyone

Tirreno-Adriatico is one of the most interesting, and sometimes most chaotic, races on the calendar. Foul weather, bad roads, and interminable hills make for a rough week of racing. It used to be a relatively easy warm-up ahead of Milano-Sanremo, seeing such former winners as Oscar Freire and Paolo Bettini, but organizers have ratcheted up the difficulty of the course by adding more climbs and longer time trials to liven up the GC fight.

This year’s route for the race’s 52nd edition runs from Lido di Camaiore (on the Tyrrhenian Sea) to San Benedetto del Trento (on the Adriatic), hence the name, “Corsa dei Due Mari.” The route offers something for everyone, with a team time trial to open things up Wednesday and an individual time trial to close the race, two sprint stages, two more for “finisseurs,” and the decisive climb at Terminillo packed in between.

Who can beat Nairo?

At 22km in length, the stage 1 team time trial will favor the likes of BMC Racing and Movistar, two teams who always do well against the clock as a unit. Anyone who loses more than 30 seconds will have hard a time getting it back, especially if Movistar delivers Quintana into the pole position.

Thursday features a punchy uphill finale ideal for Sagan and Co., while Friday’s run to Montalto di Castro will see the sprinters take the flowers.

Saturday’s climbing finale up the Terminillo, shrouded in snow in 2015, is a major climb at 16km with an average grade of 7.3 percent. It gets steeper toward the top, meaning a pointed attack can prove decisive. That’s where Quintana punched the accelerator in 2015 to drop Contador and secure the overall victory just as heavy snow almost made the road impassable for riders. If Quintana’s impressive attack to win the Volta a Valenciana in February is any indicator, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to stay even with Quintana. His rivals will try to limit their losses and take some time back in the final-day time trial, including Mollema and Dumoulin.

Sunday’s stage favors the “puncheurs” while Monday is another one for the sprinters. The final-day 10km time trial on the flats along the beach at San Benedetto del Tronto will tidy up the GC.

52nd Tirreno-Adriatico

Stage 1, March 8: Lido di Camaiore, 22.7km TTT
Stage 2, March 9: Camaiore to Pomarance, 228km
Stage 3, March 10: Monterotondo Maritimo to Montalto di Castro, 204km
Stage 4, March 11: Montalto di Castro to Terminillo, 171km
Stage 5, March 12: Rieto to Fermo, 209km
Stage 6, March 13: Ascoli Piceno to Citanova Marche, 168km
Stage 7, March 14: San Benedetto del Tronto, 10.5km (TT)