The launch of a mouth-watering new rivalry
Over the last few years, no young riders have generated as much excitement as Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl).
Pogacar has of course already won two Tours de France, and with panache to boot, and despite still being eligible for best young rider competitions is already being talked about as having the potential to become one of the all-time greatest.
Evenepoel might not have made the same leap to established greatness, yet he is nevertheless a headline-making machine who attracts hype, and sometimes controversy, in every race he competes in. We’ve seen him do astonishing things in small races, and it feels like only a matter of time he starts to do so in the top events.
Remarkably, these two fledgling superstars have never faced off at a stage race of any kind in the past — until now. This year’s Tirreno-Adriatico will be the first time they go head-to-head in a GC battle, and the prospect is mouth-watering.
Pogačar will be comfortably the favourite, especially considering that he is defending champion, and is in fine form having triumphed with aplomb to defend his UAE Tour title. But Evenepoel is one of the few riders in the world who genuinely looks capable of unsettling him. The Belgian looked on song at both the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and Volta ao Algarve, finishing second in the former and winning the latter, and defeated some top riders to do so, including Pogačar’s teammate Brandon McNulty in the Algarve.
If he can mount a genuine challenge against Pogačar over the next week, this could be the beginning of a rivalry that defines cycling for years to come.
Last year's Tour de France podium reunites
While Remco Evenepoel poses a new challenge to Tadej Pogačar, the Slovenian will also come across more familiar faces in Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
These were the two who stood either side of him on the Tour de France podium in Paris last summer, and the three became familiar with one another as they regularly rode away from the rest of the field in the mountains.
Back then, neither rider was able to put Pogačar under any real pressure, save for one time when Vingegaard dropped him on Mont Ventoux.
Might the pair be able to push him closer this time? The signs aren’t good for Carapaz, who usually takes a while to get up to top speed as he builds his form gradually over a season, and has had his preparation slowed down by a Covid positive at the Tour de la Provence. But Vingegaard has, by contrast, started the season very well, with victory in just his second day of racing at the Drome Classic.
Whereas the Dane went up against Pogačar at last year’s Tour de France as an unfancied wildcard, who massively outperformed expectations after being let off the leash following the crash of his teammate and leader Primoz Roglic, he’ll now line-up as a bonafide leader with a strong Jumbo-Visma line-up including climbing super-domestique Sepp Kuss at his disposal.
How he copes with these extra expectations will be a fascinating sign as to how much of a threat he might pose to Pogačar’s supremacy in the future.
Sprinters finalise Milan-San Remo preparation
As an Italian race that finishes less than a week before Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico is always seen as a key warm-up race ahead of La Primavera, and as ever loads of sprinters with hopes of winning that race will line-up here as well.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) appears to be the man to bear in mind, even if a Covid positive did force him to improvise his carefully planned run-up to Milan-San Remo. Stage wins at the Saudi Tour and Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var have already been bagged, while second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne at the weekend seems to confirm that he’s suffering no negative side-effects from the Covid infection.
He certainly appears in better form than Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), a former Milan-San Remo winner who has this year yet to make the top three of a sprint; likewise, Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), who currently looks well off top form. Italians Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel-PremierTech) are faring a little better, but it would be a stark reversal of fortunes were they to get the better of Ewan.
Instead, the Australian’s main competition is likely to come from riders who aren’t even down to ride Milan-San Remo: Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) and Mark Cavendish (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), the latter especially having already taken a World Tour stage win this year at the UAE Tour.
It could even be the case that the parcours does not offer much by way of Milan-San Remo preparation in any case. There are three apparent sprinter stages in total (stages two, three and seven), and none of them pose the same difficulties in length or climbing that the monument is renowned for.
We’ll certainly get an idea of their sprinting speed on these stages, but stage four might be the most revealing indication of who is climbing well enough. The climb at Bellante that features in the finishing circuit is much more difficult than the Poggio, and is tackled three times rather than once, with no descent after the final ascent, so a sprinter won’t be winning this stage — but anyone who is so much as in contention will take great heart.
Look out to see if all-rounders like Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), Gianni Moscon (Astana-PremierTech), Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost) and Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) have the legs to compete for victory here, as doing so would also put them into contention as Milan-San Remo favourites in the event that the purer sprinters are dropped on the Poggio.
A new structure and a new dynamic
It’s not just the dates of Tirreno-Adriatico that have changed this year, moving a few days earlier to align closer to Paris-Nice and begin on Monday and end the following Sunday. The whole dynamic of the race looks different, meaning the race could play out differently from how we’d normally expect.
The race will begin with a 14km time trial at Lido di Camaiore, contrary to the race’s usual custom of ending with one. And, most intriguingly of all, there won’t be a big mountain top finish to shape the race for overall victory.
That’s not to say the race is reverting back to the flatter race it once was, back when it could be won by riders like Fabian Cancellara, Oscar Freire, Paolo Bettini. There is still lots of climbing, it’s just that it’s no longer quite so clear when the opportune moment is for the GC hopefuls to make their moves.
Should they put their all into the uphill finish at Bellante on stage four, which has a steep average gradient of 7 per cent but lasts less than 4km? Will the brutal test of attrition that is the ‘Tappi dei Muri’ stage on stage five be the decisive day? Or should they wait until the queen stage the following day, despite the potentially neutralising effect of a 12km downhill to the finish following the final climb?
Figuring out the best approach will be key to winning this year’s race, which could be as much a test of tactics as it is pure strength.
A stacked line-up of GC candidates
Joining Pogačar, Evenepoel, Vingegaard and Carapaz is a quality line-up of climbers that makes Tirreno-Adriatico perhaps the highest standard of racing we’ve seen at a GC race so far this year.
Among those hoping to lay down a marker on the opening time trial will be Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious), who returns to Italy after finishing a brilliant second-place at last year’s Giro, Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe), who was fourth overall in 2020, and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-EasyPost), making his first appearance of the season.
Expect climbers like Miguel Ángel Lopez (Astana-PremierTech) and Enric Mas (Movistar) to animate the climbs, both of whom will race against each other for the first time since the former’s infamous abandonment while they were riding together as Movistar teammates at the Vuelta a Espana last year.
Romain Bardet (DSM), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) are all also set to ride, while there will surely be much support for Mark Padun (EF Education-EasyPost) given the situation in his native Ukraine.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.