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With long climbs, hectic Italian racing, Tirreno-Adriatico corrals the big horses

Porte says there are horses for every course and Tirreno-Adriatico offers the most appealing route to the grand tours contenders in 2014

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BOLGHERI, Italy (VN) — It could have been the Tour de France pre-race press conference, but instead cycling’s stars sat on a hillside in Tuscany ahead of Wednesday’s opening stage at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Former Tour champions Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), 2013 best young rider Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and reigning Vuelta a España champion Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) are among the grand tour heavyweights set for a showdown at the “Race of the Two Seas.”

In its 72nd edition, Paris-Nice enjoys a longer history and a day more of racing, but lacks the big names that Tirreno attracted this year. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) started the French tour Sunday. Richie Porte, Sky’s planned leader at the Giro d’Italia in May, was supposed to be among them, but was a late scratch when a roster spot in Italy opened up.

“It’s horses for courses,” Porte said. “Maybe that’s why they get more GC guys here. The course is more suited to GC guys this year.”

Porte joined a pre-race press conference in Bolgheri with Evans, Quintana, Contador, and Rigoberto Urán and Michal Kwiatkowski (both Omega Pharma-Quick Step). A second, non-general classification group arrived later and included Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma), Diego Ulissi (Lampre), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing).

Porte spoke from experience. Last year, he won Paris-Nice. Sky called him to race in Italy at the last minute, after Chris Froome pulled out, a move which upset Paris-Nice organizer ASO. Porte will have support from 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, who, instead of attending the press conference, trained alone on the stage 1 team time trial course.

With Froome out and Nibali in France, Contador (third) and Kwiatkowski (fourth) are the highest-placed returning riders from 2013. Last year, Kwiatkowski took over the blue leader’s jersey on the Prati di Tivo mountain stage and held on for the young riders’ classification win. On Saturday, he beat Sagan to win Strade Bianche, the hilly classic that opened 2.5 weeks of racing in Italy organized by Giro owner RCS Sport.

“Winning Strade Bianche hasn’t changed my plans. I always had Tirreno-Adriatico in mind as a very important race for me,” Kwiatkowski said. “I was fourth a year ago, and it was the first time I had done so well in a stage race, riding against the best in the world. We have a good team, and I think with Rigo we can really do well.”

The race seems to have it all. Besides the team time trial, it features an individual test on the final day, one mountaintop finish at 5,000 feet elevation, a small uphill finish or a “muro,” and three stages for sprinters. Conversely, Paris-Nice cut the time trials and summit finishes this year, a move that continued a trend of the top GC riders choosing Tirreno for mid-March racing.

“Both Saturday and Sunday [the mountain stages] are important,” Contador said. “In a race like Tirreno-Adriatico, everyday is important. The small differences, including all the time bonuses, add up.”

Quintana said he would use the weeklong race across the heart of Italy to orient himself with Italian racing ahead of his assault on the Giro in May.

“Tirreno-Adriatico is a good race for me to build rhythm, gain experience of racing in Italy, and get to know the roads in view of the Giro,” he said. “But I’m not ruling out a good result: I have an good team, and, I hope to reach the climbs in a good position, and then do my best.”

The Tirreno route pleases the overall contenders aiming for the win or condition for the grand tours later in the year, but it also works for the Milano-Sanremo favorites.

“I’m only thinking about Tirreno-Adriatico now,” Cancellara said. “I’ll worry about Milano-Sanremo later. I’ll use this race to work for our leaders (Robert) Kiserlowski and (Julian) Arrendondo, who are young. Next week it’s my birthday [18 March]. I hope to take something home at the end of this week in Italy — not just wine, but perhaps something with bubbles.”

Whereas the riders likely in contention for the season’s first major classic could contend for the overall in the weeklong race as recently as five years ago, the move by organizers to add more climbing to the route has stunted the GC hopes of men like Cancellara. However, the tight, tense Italian racing — and a day approaching 250 kilometers — are enough draw

“It used to be the weather that brought riders to Tirreno even if the last years didn’t allow that,” said Cavendish, the 2009 Sanremo winner. “It’s always important also if you look to Sanremo, it gives you the Italian racing.”

“It’s hard to say why all the stars came here,” Gilbert added. “The level is also very high in Paris-Nice. Everyone makes a choice. It’s not that it’s better for Sanremo because you can see some guys come from Paris-Nice and win Sanremo. It’s always hard know what to do. I just like it here.”

As Porte explained, every horse has its course. In this case, though, Tirreno-Adriatico corralled nearly all the big horses.