Golden age of stars help make for an all-time great edition of Tirreno-Adriatico
Wout van Aert; Mathieu van der Poel; Julian Alaphilippe; Tadej Pogacar. Has any Tirreno-Adriatico ever in its 56-year history, had as strong and on-form a line-up as this?
Between them, these four riders accounted for all but one of the stage wins, and did so with the kind of awesome panache that prompted many pundits to herald this as a golden age of cycling.
Even the one stage not won by one of these riders was full of excitement, as Israel Start-Up Nation’s Mads Würtz Schmidt capitalised on stage six after the peloton surprisingly failed to catch the day’s break he was part of.
Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) was perhaps the most entertaining of all, unleashing an extraordinary attack 50km from the finish on stage five that blew the race to pieces on a memorably cold and brutal day, and earned him what might just be his best win on the road yet.
A couple of days earlier he had gained his first stage win by outsprinting his great rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) on an uphill finish, while the pair were both defeated on stage two’s uphill sprint by cycling’s other crowd favourite, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), a rider who is increasingly being referred to as part of an elite triumvirate with them.
Tadej Pogacar’s brilliance on the GC stages might not have made for a closely fought GC battle, but was equally thrilling to watch for its quality and aggressive panache.
With its attraction bolstered by its position in the calendar succeeding the ever-more esteemed Strade Bianche and preceding Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico s currently one of the best races on the calendar, and looks set to continue being an arena for the stars to shine in so long as it remains a local bridge between those two Italian Classics.
Van Aert proves his stage race credentials
He might have fallen short of winning the overall classification, but Wout van Aert’s ride at Tirreno-Adriatico must surely be of the great all-round performances of recent years.
The Belgian began the race by beating top sprinters like Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) in a bunch finish, and ended it beating the European (Stefan Küng) and world (Filippo Ganna) time trial champions against the clock, and in between excelled over the climbs both short and steep and long and steady to finish second overall.
He might have gone one better and won outright had he a stronger team to support him. Unlike Jumbo-Visma’s other leaders, Van Aert didn’t have the luxury of having himself as a team-mate, and was left to his own devices on stage four’s key Prati di Tivo summit finish. He still managed to do a sterling job riding tempo up that mountain while being attacked by the purer climbers, but did lose enough time to stage winner Tadej Pogačar to lose the overall classification.
While the route’s emphasis on punchy short climbs (most notably on stage five’s ‘Tappa dei Muri’ parcours) over long and high-altitude climbs suited him more than most other stage races would, this was nevertheless proof that Van Aert can ride for GC, and surely confirms him as the best all-rounder in the men’s peloton since Sean Kelly.
Pogačar continues unstoppable start to the season
One of the most exciting things about Tadej Pogačar’s overall win at the Tour de France last year was how, as such a young man, there was no telling how great he might yet become.
And based on the way he has started the 2021 season, the Slovenian is indeed getting better and better. Having comfortably won the UAE Tour in his first appearance of the season, Pogačar was even more untouchable at Tirreno-Adriatico, claiming the leader’s blue jersey by winning the mountain top finish at Prati di Tivo with an early attack, before consolidating it by dropping everyone on the brutal Tappa dei Muro stage the following day, and finishing fourth in the final time trial.
With two WorldTour stage wins already in the bag, it looks like another procession of victories leading up to a defence of his yellow jersey at the Tour de France could be on the cards, in the manner that Team Sky used to do back in their heyday.
But there is one key rival he hasn’t yet had to defeat — his Slovenian compatriot Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who looked in similarly hot form at Paris-Nice last week. The two are scheduled to go head-to-head at the upcoming Tour of the Basque Country, in what will be their first stage race together since last year’s Tour de France. Right now, he’s the only man who looks capable of stopping Pogačar.
Older generation struggles to keep up
All the bright young talent taking the peloton by storm risk rendering into irrelevance the old guard, and indeed few riders older than 30 made much of an impression this week at Tirreno-Adriatico.
In particular, there’s a generation of riders born in 1990 who not long ago were the crème de la crème, but are now struggling to keep up. For instance, both Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) and Romain Bardet (DSM) regularly found themselves dropped and only managed 12th and eighth respectively on GC, while Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) never got going at all.
Even Simon Yates (BikeExchange), who is two years younger, began to look a little creaky, suffering from cramp on stage two and being dropped on stage six, despite being the only man to come close to Pogačar at Prati di Tivo.
The one rider who did buck the trend was Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), who strung together two strong performances on both the key climbing stages to finish third overall, making him the only rider older than 26 in the top six. It’s not easy for these older riders to compete with the new generation, but Landa at least demonstrated that it’s possible.
Ineos Grenadiers’s on-road performances fail to distract from off-road controversy
Going into the race, Ineos Grenadiers looked like the team most capable of preventing another Tadej Pogačar overall victory. They were the team that came closest to defeating him at the UAE Tour with Adam Yates, and brought an even stronger line-up to Italy that included Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.
However, both of these riders fell out of overall contention as early as stage four, when they were dropped after attempting to work Pogačar over by attacking in tandem on the climb to Prati di Tivo.
Bernal bounced back very strongly the following day on the Tappa dei Muri to move up to fourth overall, a position which he managed to defend on the final stage time trial, but his form at Prati di Tivo suggests that, despite flashes of promise this season, he’s not yet at his 2019 form.
The news that the team’s former doctor Richard Freeman had been found guilty of purchasing banned doping products suggests Ineos Grenadiers have bigger problems, but performances on the road are a cause for concern too.