Analysis: What to watch for on super Saturday

Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice each feature crucial uphill finishes on Saturday. Here's what fans should be watching for.

Once in awhile, the planets align and cycling fans are treated to two big-time races on the same day — Saturday, March 11 is one of those days, so buckle your seatbelts!

Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice each feature mountaintop finishes that will likely decide the overall result in the respective weeklong races. Here are some storylines to follow in those two races. If you want to watch the action in the U.S., NBC Sports Gold will broadcast Paris-Nice starting at 10:10 Eastern. Tirreno is a little trickier. There are some pirate internet streams that will show the race, but watch those at your own (and your computer’s) risk!

Tirreno stage 4 finishes around 10:15 Eastern. Paris-Nice stage 7 wraps up later, around 11:30 Eastern.

Storylines to follow in Tirreno-Adriatico, stage 4

The finish: The 16.1km ascent of the Terminillo averages 7.3 percent, maxes out at 12 percent, and climbs 1,175 meters. Last time up this bad boy, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana won in a blizzard, going on to take the trident (and the overall) in Tirreno 2015

Current leader: Rohan Dennis (BMC) has essentially no chance of keeping the blue leader’s jersey in stage 4. He’s merely 21 seconds ahead of Quintana, who won the 2015 Terminillo stage by 41 seconds, ahead of Bauke Mollema.

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Outright threat: So, yeah, it’s pretty clear that Quintana is the most obvious threat to both win the stage and take the overall lead, although he has yet to show his cards. In the uphill finish to Pomarance in stage 2, he kept his cool, finishing ninth on same time as the rest of the GC favorites. Let’s just say I couldn’t find any good photos of Quintana from the first three stages of Tirreno — he’s been hiding in the peloton very effectively.

Underdog threat: FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot is looking good in the early season, having won a stage at Ruta del Sol, and riding to third in the overall in that February race in Spain. He was also ninth at Strade Bianche last Saturday. Best of all, his FDJ team rode a surprisingly strong team time trial to put the Frenchman within 21 seconds of the overall ahead of the Terminillo. Remember, Pinot won the Alpe d’Huez stage in the 2015 Tour. Can you guess who was second that day? Quintana, by 18 seconds.

Just happy to be here: Tom Dumoulin’s Sunweb team had a mediocre showing in the stage 1 team time trial, so he’s 49 seconds back ahead of Saturday, 16th overall. If he can battle up to top-10 overall and then perform well (as he usually does) in Tuesday’s individual time trial, the final day of the race, maybe a top-five overall result is possible.

My prediction: Quintana takes control, wins the stage and has enough time in the overall to fight off Dumoulin in the time trial.

Storylines to follow in Paris-Nice, stage 7

The finish: Coincidentally very similar to the Terminillo, Col de la Couillole climbs 1,125 meters over 15.7km, averaging 7.1 percent. It does not, however, have any particularly steep ramps, with a max gradient of 9.5 percent. The peloton doesn’t see this climb very often, as it will be a first for Paris-Nice (and also the highest climb in the race’s history). The Tour de France rode the Couillole only once, in 1975, when Belgian Lucien Van Impe was first over the top.

Current leader: Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe has proved up to the challenge after taking the yellow jersey in the stage 4 time trial. That test featured a 3km climb to the finish, so it’s a good sign that the young Frenchman was able to beat Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) by 19 seconds.

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Outright threat: Sergio Henao made his intentions clear in stage 6, when he attacked to finish second to Simon Yates (Orica-Scott). The Sky rider took 12 seconds out of Alaphilippe’s lead and is 46 seconds back ahead of the queen stage. But that’s just a short little kicker climb, right? It was, but Henao has proven himself in the high mountains, riding to fifth place on the 15.3km La Madone d’Utelle in stage 6 of Paris-Nice 2016, just a few seconds behind Contador.

Underdog threat: Can I call Contador an “underdog?” It’s probably more accurate to call the two-time Paris-Nice champ an outside threat. Andrew Hood outlined the potential for Contador to unhorse Alaphilippe this weekend. On paper, it seems the Spaniard has to do it tomorrow, because the hilly circuit around Nice on Sunday could favor Alaphilippe’s riding style, and his strong Quick-Step team will have opportunities between climbs to bring back breaks, something Sky did in 2016 for Geraint Thomas. Contador has 1:34 to make up in order to win — not insurmountable, but still a healthy gap.

Just happy to be here: Movistar’s Gorka Izagirre is not the most decorated of the two Izagirre brothers, but he’s in fourth, only 57 seconds back. The Spanish climber might have a shot at the podium if Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin has a rough time this weekend.

My prediction: Henao wins on the Couillole but doesn’t quite have enough time to take the yellow jersey from Alaphilippe. Contador stays close, and while Quick-Step frets over Henao on Sunday, the Spanish veteran launches a long-range attack to win the overall in Nice.