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Here’s why Tirreno-Adriatico could be the best race in 2021

With arguably the deepest start list of the 2021 season, this week's 'Race of the Two Seas' will deliver cycling's version of 'bella vita.'

Tirreno-Adriatico is a spring rite of passage in Italian cycling.

The seven-stage race — running Wednesday through March 16 — is the unofficial marker that spring has sprung in Italy. The sun is out, the hills are green, and the long-running “Race of the Two Seas” has evolved into Italy’s most prestigious stage race behind the Giro d’Italia.

Every spring, the race draws some of the top names, but something is different this week. The stars have converged on Tirreno-Adriatico, and the race arguably will have the best and most diverse start list of any race in 2021.

Although the WorldTour race plays out in the shadow of the heavyweight Paris-Nice, the start list in Italy is a sizzler.

It’s a veritable who’s who in the elite men’s peloton. Just look at the riders challenging for the unique winner’s trophy. Tadej Pogacar, Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana, Simon Yates, Dan Martin, Vincenzo Nibali and João Almeida more will be scrapping for bragging rights.

Also read: Simon Yates wins 2020 Tirreno-Adriatico

It’s even deeper among classics-bound stars, with Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe throwing haymakers throughout the race’s tough classics-style stages. And if that’s not enough, Filippo Ganna will be eyeing a ninth-straight TT victory in the race’s closing time trial.

Most of these names will spread out across the calendar later this season, with some heading to the Tour and the others to the Giro. It’s only this week when all the calendars connect in Italy.

Add Italy’s lovely spring backdrop, and the chaos and thrills that come with racing in Italy, what more could a cycling fan want?

Here’s what Jim Cotton and Andrew Hood are most excited about:

Jim: Tadej Pogačar vs Geraint Thomas and Ineos Grenadiers

Pogačar was on red-hot form at the UAE Tour. What will he do this week? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Image

If Paris Nice is all about Jumbo-Visma vs. Ineos Grenadiers, Tirreno-Adriatico is about the defending Tour champion Tadej Pogačar against the heft of Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal and Daniel Martínez.

Also read: Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers square off at Paris-Nice

UAE Team Emirates is taking what is arguably its climbing A-Team to Italy with Rafal Majka, David Formolo and Jan Polanc. It will make for an early preview of how Pogačar and Co. plans to take it to Thomas and Primož Roglič – who is racing in France this week – at this summer’s Tour.

Last summer, the Slovenian supremo stormed to the yellow jersey on the coattails of Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma before making his late moves. His team was injured or absent and Pogačar had to play cunning in France last summer. With a full team behind him, what can he do? Look to this week in Italy for clues.

Tirreno will provide a stern test for top Tour contenders Pogačar and Thomas in their build toward a yellow jersey challenge.

Pogačar stormed through the UAE Tour, while Thomas was slow out of the gate at his season debuts in France last month. The Welshman will be wanting to get up to race speed before it’s too late and will be looking for a top result. And if Pogačar was that good at the UAE Tour, he likely won’t be taking his foot off the gas at Tirreno-Adriatico. I’ve already booked my spot on the sofa in the hopes of seeing a straight shootout between the two of them on the tough Prati di Tivo summit finish on stage 4.

Andrew: Classics stars align for cobblestone tune-up

The stars of Strade Bianche will be back and looking for a final classics tune-up. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

I’m pulling out the popcorn to watch cycling’s “Big Three.”

And by that, of course, we mean Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel. Cycling’s holy trinity will light up the spring classics over the next few weeks, and this year’s monument battle looks to be one of the most highly contested in a very long time.

Also read: Mathieu van der Poel and his 1,000-watt attack at Strade Bianche

And Tirreno-Adriatico provides the perfect preamble to Milano-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Though “Alapanache” will be taking a hall pass on Roubaix, but he will lock horns with cycling’s dynamic duo of van der Poel and van Aert (we’re still searching for the ideal nickname for these two: “VanderWout” is close, but it seems like we can do better) across Sanremo and Flanders.

Hot off Saturday’s demonstration, van der Poel is already discounting his chances at Tirreno, especially in the GC, which means, of course, he will attack with wild abandon whenever he feels like it. Let’s hope that van Aert, who’s coming into 2021 on a slower boil, will take the bait. Any time these two square off, fireworks are guaranteed.

Tirreno’s punchy terrain, warmer weather, and overall Italian craziness always lends to dynamic racing. And with this generation racing to win every day they saddle up, Tirreno has become a series of one-day classics stitched together by Italy’s stunning backdrops and evening meals of pasta and maybe the odd glass of Montepulciano.

Tirreno-Adriatico used to be a relatively easy spring trot across Italy. Think baseball’s spring training, but instead of the Cactus League it was the Cappuccino Express. Not anymore. With this year’s field packed with classics-bound riders and eager stage-hunters, even the “easy” stages could become brutally over the top.

Jim: Savage stages

Michael Woods.
Michael Woods won a 217km, endlessly lumpy stage last year. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Let’s face it, a lot of the stages in Paris-Nice can be snoozers, but Tirreno-Adriatico always provides fireworks just about every day.

A short uphill finish on stage 2 could see anyone in contention from the classics brawlers to the GC guys, while stage 6 looks similarly unpredictable with a series of hills that only the tough-guy sprinters could handle before a flat 5km dash to the line. Stage 4 is the notoriously tough Prato di Tivo summit finish, a 15-kilometer, 7-percent climb that could see Pogačar and Ineos Grenadiers gutting it out for victory.

Also read: How Michael Woods was destined to join Israel Start-Up Nation

Stage 5 on Sunday is the one to be sure to watch. The bunch takes on a closing circuit stacked with short climbs hitting close to 20 percent gradients with little room for an energy gel in between. If ever Van der Poel, Van Aert, Alaphilippe and co. want somewhere to get a final tough ride in their legs before Sanremo and the cobblestones, this is it. But it’s also a stage that could be perfect for just about any of the GC riders too.

Like the Giro d’Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico is a race for gritty racers. Long yet explosive stages. The constant risk of bad weather. Rough Italian roads. Love it.

Andrew: Sagan returns, Ganna rolls on

Peter Sagan soloed to victory on stage 10 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia
Peter Sagan soloed to victory on stage 10 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Oh, Peter, how we’ve missed you.

Peter Sagan makes his belated 2021 season debut at Tirreno-Adriatico, and it’s going to be fun to see him going up against van der Poel and van Aert. The trio hasn’t raced together since last year’s Tirreno, and a lot has changed in the cycling landscape since then.

The media — not us, never! — is pumping a steady flow of hype about how Generation Z or the Millennial Mob (pick your favorite moniker) is taking over the peloton. Before today’s stars were barely in their teens, however, there was the “Class of 1990,” a generation of riders all coincidentally born in 1990 that include the likes of Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot,  Michal Kwiatkowski, Michael Matthews, Fabio Aru, and, saving the best for last, Peter Sagan.

Also read: Peter Sagan vows ‘I’m not done yet’

Fan-favorite Sagan was the singular rider who helped carry the sport on his shoulders across much of the past decade. With Sky/Ineos Grenadiers throttling the decade with its mathematical, snowplow-style of racing in the grand tours, Sagan was a breath of unpredictable fresh air in every race he started.

The 2020 season was not kind to Sagan. The peloton saw Sagan struggle to win in bunch sprints and he was even lacking his trademark explosive power on the uphill finales and longer classics that he used to eat like a packet of Haribo’s. Everyone is hoping Sagan is back at his best. A bout of COVID-19 in January doesn’t bode well, but insiders say Sagan is very much intent of retaking his crown of the cobbles this spring.

At the other end of the momentum chart is Filippo Ganna, who’s emerged as the most effective time trialist in a decade. Ganna has won eight-time trials in a row that he’s started, dating back to the 2020 Italian national time trial championships in August. He’ll be the hands-down favorite to win Tirreno’s final-stage test against the clock at San Benedetto del Tronto. Ganna is now so good, it will be headline news if he loses.