Round two of Pogačar v Ineos Grenadiers
Whether or not the collective strength of Ineos Grenadiers is enough to defeat the individual brilliance of Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing dynamics of 2021.
Pogačar came out on top at opening leg of the WorldTour at the UAE last month, where he got the better of Ineos’ Adam Yates by 35 seconds to win the overall classification, but that race exposed weaknesses in his team, who left him isolated left to fend for himself early on in both the mountain top finishes.
Ineos Grenadiers were unable to capitalise on their superiority that time, but bring what looks like an even stronger line-up to Tirreno-Adriatico, featuring joint-leaders Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal — meaning all of the last three Tour de France winners will be present.
There are question marks about Thomas’ form, but Bernal looks back to his best and unbothered by the back pain that plagued him throughout last season, and was a surprise podium finisher at Strade Bianche — where Pogačar was among the riders he got the better of.
UAE Team Emirates, by contrast, will line-up with virtually the same squad, with the only change being Ivo Oliveira replacing Mikkel Bjerg. The likes of Rafał Majka and Davide Formolo will therefore have to up their games if they’re to help Pogačar fend off the threat posed by Ineos Grenadiers.
Defending champion Simon Yates leads a host of other GC challengers
Far from being a simple showdown between Pogačar and Ineos Grenadiers, this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico is teeming with talent capable of winning the overall.
Having won the overall of last year’s rearranged race (which took place in September after Covid forced it out of its usual springtime slot), Simon Yates will return to defend his title rather than make his usual appearance at Paris-Nice, and will hope to lift what has been a lacklustre start to his season for his team.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) are also former winners of this race, but will struggle to repeat that success up against younger riders like Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo) — although Quintana has been quietly riding himself back into form following the knee injury that ended his 2020 season.
Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Romain Bardet (DSM) are other riders who will be eyeing up stage four’s mountain top finish at Prati di Tivo (14.2km at 7.2 per cent), but it might be the 11km final stage time trial that ultimately decides the race — in which case Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), if he can limit his losses on that climb, will be a major contender upon his return to the nation where he enjoyed so much success at last year’s Giro.
Wout van Aert threatens to go for GC
We all know him as the man who can do everything, and now Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) might be about to try and add overall victory at a WorldTour stage race to his already incredibly diverse palmarès.
At the end of last season, the Belgian talked about his desire to try and win new kinds of races, and mentioned Tirreno-Adriatico as a stage race he could target to win overall.
He might never have ridden for GC before, but it’s easy to see what Van Aert might believe he can in fact win. Stages two and three end with gentle uphills that should be well within his range, the hilly fifth stage has the kind of punchy parcours he excels at, and the final time trial should see him gain time over pretty much everyone (aside, of course from Ineos Grenadiers’ Filippo Ganna, the time trial supremo who will be the overwhelming favourite for that stage).
The big question will be whether he can survive the two mountainous peaks on stage four. Last year’s Tour de France revealed what a capable climber he is, but he may not have yet reached the peak condition he needs to climb like that again, and the finishing mountain is difficult enough to very quickly reverse any gains he might make in the other stages. It’ll be a big challenge, but don’t write off a man of Van Aert’s talent from pulling it off.
Classics stars convene between one-day targets
Many of the riders who starred in Saturday’s thrilling Strade Bianche will again do battle during Tirreno-Adriatico, with stages two, three and five all offering opportunities for wins.
In fact, all three of the star trio Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Julian Alaphpilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) will be present, and are again likely to entertain us all by animating the race on the rolling terrain that characterises these stages.
Like Van Aert, Alaphilippe might also be able to challenge for GC, if he has the same climbing legs that helped him to second overall at the Tour de la Provence last month. As someone not renowned for his climbing on mountains, Van der Poel is not expected to ride for GC — but, then again, the Dutchman continues to do the unexpected, so perhaps we shouldn’t write him off completely.
Their main concern will, however, be finalising preparations for the upcoming monuments, starting with Milan-San Remo.
Tirreno-Adriatico will also be the first race for Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) this season. It wasn’t so long ago that the Slovak was the most-talked-about rider of virtually every race he’d line-up in, but the recent star turns of the aforementioned trio has seen him given less of a headline slot than he’s used to. He’ll be eager to remind everyone of what he can do this week in Italy.
Sprinters make final preparations for Milan-San Remo
Back in its customary early-March slot having taken place in September last year, Tirreno-Adriatico will again function as a vital warm-up race for the upcoming Milan-San Remo.
Although Milan-San Remo has not been decided by a sprint since 2016, there are still plenty of sprinters who will use this week of racing in the hope of fine-tuning both their sprinting and climbing legs to be in perfect shape for La Primavera.
Chief among them is Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), who in a matter of weeks has gone from being a little-known sprinter to one of the favourites for Milan-San Remo. The way he won a Tour de la Provence stage on a day where all the other sprinters were dropped suggests he could be a contender on the hillier days at Tirreno-Adriatico as well as the flat stages one and six.
His Italian compatriot Elia Viviani (Cofidis) at last seems to be coming into some form, and will be desperate to end his 17-month drought with a victory on home roads. Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), by contrast, still looks some way off his best form, but will be hoping to ride into it this week as he eyes up Milan-San Remo.
They all face a big challenge in getting the better of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), however. The Australian already has a WorldTour win to his name this season earned at the UAE Tour, and, in the absence of Sam Bennett (whose riding Paris-Nice), will be the man to beat.