Froome and Thomas headline a strong British presence
Here’s some good news for any cycling fans disappointed by the lack of British riders competing at the Tour de France — many of the stars snubbed their team’s selectors can be seen racing this month after all, only over in Italy at Tirreno-Adriatico rather than in France.
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Headlining British hopes will be Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, the pair of former Tour de France winners who had both been expected to pursue another victory, but whose poor form prompted Ineos Grenadiers to select other riders instead.
Both may be eager to make a point having been snubbed, but will above all use the race as a vital stage towards building up towards their new major target of the season — for Thomas, next month’s Giro d’Italia, and for Froome, a bid to win a third career Vuelta a España.
Both are long overdue a big result, with Thomas having gone off the boil since last year’s Tour, and Froome now winless for 28 months. A race like Tirreno-Adriatico might seem like a sideshow when clashing with the Tour de France, but for riders aged 34 and 35 respectively, it’s an important opportunity to prove that they’re still capable of competing at World Tour level.
They will also be joined by their much younger British teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart, while another talented member of Britain’s next generation, James Knox, will lead Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s hopes for a high GC placing.
Riders eyeing up the Giro d’Italia
This year’s Tirreno-Adriatico might have moved several months from its long-established March slot in the calendar, but it’s still going to fulfil its usual service of providing preparation for riders with their eye on the Giro d’Italia.
With the Giro scheduled to begin less than three weeks after the end of the Tirreno-Adriatico, it will be the last WorldTour stage race in which riders can test their legs before beginning their quest for the maglia rosa.
The fight for overall victory is therefore likely to be contested by the riders who have made winning the pink jersey at the Giro their main ambition this season.
One such rider is Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). Despite Thomas and Froome’s presence, Yates is probably the Brit most likely to claim overall victory here, having shown good form post-lockdown in his podium finish at the Tour of Poland. A time trial on the final day could be a problem, but if he can take a big enough lead into it, this could be the first week-long WorldTour-ranked stage race overall victory of his career.
He will, however, face formidable opposition in the form of Jakob Fuglsang and his Astana line-up. They were the stars of the Italian classics during September, peaking with Fuglsang winning Il Lombardia, and the Dane will again have some very strong domestiques to support him — most notably, Alexander Vlasov and Alex Aranburu, two young riders who have been revelations this season.
Lastly, a rider of Vincenzo Nibali’s calibre should never be discounted. The Trek-Segafredo rider is a two-time winner here following his back-to-back victories in 2012-2013, although these days he tends to prefer to lurk in the shadows during smaller stage races before peaking for the Grand Tour.
A quality field of bunch sprinters
Before the GC race gets going and the overall contenders come to the fore, there are some chances for sprinters to claim victories with a couple of flat opening stages.
Both stage one’s route out and back from Camaiore and stage two’s trek southwards to along the west coast to Follonica barely feature a hill between them, and should therefore end in a sprint finish.
There’s much more climbing in the stages that follow, but the fastmen should get another chance on stage six, by which time the race will have reached the Adriatic coast on the other side of the country.
Top favourites will be Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), although both have been a little off their top form lately.
Gaviria has had a couple of wins post-lockdown, but nothing at WorldTour-level all season, and finished well off the pace at Milan-San Remo.
Ackermann, meanwhile, is on a frustrating run of second place finishes, and yet to show the devastating speed that saw him win two stages at the Giro d’Italia last year.
If both these sprinters remain off their very top form, Italian Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) could capitalise having shown good form recently with a number of top five finishes.
Mountainous stages in the Apennines
Although the hilly stage three and six could throw a spanner in the works, and the final stage time trial will provide one last showdown, the main GC battles are set to take place as the race heads inland towards the Apennines for stages four and five.
Stage four features what is arguably the toughest single climb of the race. The Forca di Gualdo is summited 50km from the finish, but, at over 10km with an average gradient of 7.4 per cent, including some particularly steep slopes in its first half, is difficult enough to put some riders in trouble.
The rolling terrain from there to the finish, including a frantic 11km descent to the finish, will provide an exciting climax.
Stage five looks set to be even more decisive. There’s barely a kilometre of flat throughout the 190km of undulating roads that precede the final climb to Sassotetto. At 11.8km long with an average gradient of 7.1 per cent, the climb at one point reaches a maximum of 13 per cent, meaning it will be the most important battleground of the whole race.
Practice for the World Championships
The announcement on Tuesday that the 2020 World Championships will take place in Italy this month gives this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico another novel purpose — as a preparatory race for riders with their eye on the rainbow jersey.
The new location of the Worlds, Imola, may be further north than any of the geography covered at the Tirreno, but with the men’s time trial and road race now set to take place just 11 and 13 days respectively after the end of the Tirreno, it will be ideal for riders looking to head to the Worlds in top condition.
Stages three and six in particular look like great practice for the Worlds. At 217km, stage three is the longest of the race and consists of leg-sapping undulating roads, which will help riders get ready for the epic length of the Worlds road race. And the 25km circuit at the end of stage seven, tackled three times and featuring the steep, short climb to Loreto, bears close resemblance to the structure of the Worlds road race and the difficult route awaiting them in Imola.
While many of the top favourites to win the Worlds are currently competing over in France, there are a handful of riders set for Tirreno-Adraitico who look like potential rainbow jersey winners. Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Felix) and Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) in particular will be one to watch, while victory in these stages for the likes of Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) and Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-McLaren) could elevate them from outside contenders to major favourites.
Finally, for riders hoping to win the individual time trial in Imola, the stage eight time trial will be of good use. Despite being the most socially distanced of all cycling disciplines, there hasn’t actually been a time trial in the WorldTour since the season restart, meaning that this one — despite only being 10km long — will be crucial practice ahead of the Worlds. Look out for how reigning world champion Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers) goes against potential rivals Victor Campanaerts (NTT Pro Cycling), Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Patrick Bevan (CCC) and Alex Dowsett (Israel Start-Up Nation).