It’s mild in Italy and France right now and the two clashing stages races each share dreamy labels that conjur up the summer, with la course au soleil in France and now la corsa dei due mari, the race of the two seas, hence the giant Neptune trident as the trophy.
Starting today this race offers an exciting week with some wild stage finishes. As well as the immediate action it should offer some instructive moments as we see some big name riders clash. A lot of the focus is on the uphill finishes and who will win overall but the sprints will see Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and André Greipel go elbow to elbow too.
The Route: as usual from west to east, from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. We open with a team time trial, similar to the last two editions but held in the reverse direction and 2km longer. Stage 2 is for the sprinters with two finishing laps around Cascina, Stage 3 is similar with but with a finishing circuit in Arezzo that includes an uphill final kilometre with a brief 11% before rising more gently to the line, a test of pre-Sanremo form for sprinters.
Stage 4 is the classic mountain stage with the summit finish to the Selvarotonda ski station which looks pointy on the profile above but actually it’s 14km at 5%, a climb for some to shelter in a slipstream before the steeper finish. It reaches 10% with one kilometre to go, the obvious attack point after a very long 244km day.
After a classic and reasonably linear introduction to climbing, Stage 5 brings the kind of steep road that makes the race infamous. Last year RCS promised to listen to the concerns of riders who complained about insanely steep roads but instead it looks like RCS listened to the fans who asked for more and duly included “Italy’s steepest road”. The Passo Lanciano will thin the field before reaching Guardiagrele and its muro or “wall”. Known as the “terrace of the Abruzzo” region for its fine views, the riders must climb up if they want to see the finish line yet alone the wider area. As the graphics show above this is 610m at 22% with a 30% in the middle of the slope and crucially a sharp final corner where it’s 29% on the inside and 20% on the outside.
Stage 6 is a dash along the coast to Porto Sant’ Elpidio and uses a finishing circuit but to the relief of the riders if it goes by Sant’ Elpidio al mare it doesn’t climb up into the town, it’s a day for the sprinters. Stage 7 is the traditional time trial along the seafront to the port and back, a sharp test of effort after a long week of racing.
Time Bonuses: there are time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds for the first three every day.
Michał Kwiatkowski is the prime pick. The Toruń Tiger is in great form with five wins already this year. He can time trial with the best and better, he’s willing to attack anywhere. Nobody knows his limits right now but this race won’t test them, the ski station finish isn’t a proper high altitude finish and besides his performance to Prato di Tivo last year was his emergence as he tracked Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and, er, Mauro Santambrogio. But if he does come up short uphill then team mate Rigoberto Urán is waiting. They can both bank on his OPQS team for the team trial but the Pole can use final TT to his advantage.
Alberto Contador is the next pick. Is he back to winning ways? We saw the El Pistolero victory salute for the first time in a year last month and he could well shine in this race, the terrain suits his offensive riding. Interestingly Tinkoff-Saxo have options with Roman Kreuziger, fifth in the Strade Bianche.
Nairo Quintana is an unknown quantity right now. In the space of a year he’s become one of the world’s best stage racers but he’s not been tested since the Tour de San Luis in January and his form could be in a trough before he builds towards the Giro. We’ll soon see and the final time trial will be interesting because he’s recently spent time in a windtunnel and now looks the part.
Richie Porte is a late entrant after Chris Froome retired with a back injury. Sky must be concerned as this is the second time in months he’s withdrawn from a race with back problems and if the team are making reassuring noises and he’s been doing core strength exercises over the winter, you wonder if the bookmakers are right to give his odds for the Tour at less than evens. But back to the present and Porte swapped here from Paris-Nice because of a more suitable course but he might find the opposition hard going, he was a touch off the pace in the Ruta Del Sol.
After these picks comes a long list of contenders. One year ago BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans suddenly changed plans and entered the Giro, now he’s got a steadier path. He won this race in 2011 on his way to winning the Tour and he always seems to benefit from flow and positive feedback so can he build on the Tour Down Under? Past winner Michele Scarponi is a local for the latter part of the race, he should be visible uphill but will struggle in the TTs. FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot was planning to start the season with a bang but got ill for the Tour of Oman and starts racing here, he could find the distances long for someone without much racing, team mate Alex Geniez is a dark horse for Selvarotonda. Another French team to watch is Ag2r La Mondiale with Domenico Pozzovivo and J-C Péraud. Both are in form and suited to this race. Katusha’s Dani Moreno is one of the best in the bunch at steep uphill finishes but he’s had a quiet start to the season. Andrew Talansky had a great Paris-Nice last year, how will he fare here while Dan Martin is a mystery, suited to the steep climbs but this is his first race of 2014. Another American Chris Horner will be another to watch uphill, the same for Trek’s Julián Arredondo who won uphill in San Luis. A few years ago IAM Cycling’s Thomas Löfkvist would be a big pick but his form seems to have dipped. Finally Belkin pair Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema should feature. Finally there’s Jurgen van den Broeck, twice fourth in the Tour de France which means enormous talent but with only one career win to his name.
Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel are all racing. They face Peter Sagan, Arnaud Démare, Sasha Modolo, Matteo Pelucchi, Gerard Ciolek and Sam Bennett. The Stage 3 to Arezzo looks reserved for Sagan but Stages 2 and 6 should see the sprint trains clash.
Some people are saying Marcel Kittel’s now the “world’s fastest sprinter” but it seems this year Cavendish has little to prove and it’s all about taking Stage 1 of the Tour de France and the yellow jersey… but then again this was the plan last year and that’s where Kittel won and took yellow. Personal rivalry aside it should be compelling to watch the rival teams in action.
It’s not just sprinters and stage race specialists. Bradley Wiggins is always worth watching, has he got his climbing “Twiggo” legs or is he back to the rouleur days? He seems to be approaching the season with the enthusiasm of a child in toy store, pointing to upcoming events from Paris-Roubaix to the Tour of California, the Tour de France, Vuelta and Worlds with an “I want that“. By contrast Diego Ulissi has had his toys taken away with the loss of Pompeiana in Milan-Sanremo. He probably won’t go for the GC but he’s in great shape and needs an outlet for his condition. Bardiani-CSF’s Sonny Colbrelli is having a great start to the season. Ivan Basso is racing, presumably in some build-up to the Giro but he’s due or even needs a result soon. Katusha’s Luca Paolini is in obvious form but can he find a day to suit? Finally Fabian Cancellara is looking a little sluggish in his classics build-up but that’s what the race is for and it’ll be interesting to see if he wins the final stage.
It’s on RAI in Italy and different channels locally to you. Helpfully the stages are timed to finish around 4.15pm each day Euro time, about half an hour after Paris-Nice stage so both races can be enjoyed one after the other although it’ll pay to use the remote control or open two windows and work the mute button as appropriate. See Steephill.tv and cyclingfans.com for broadcast schedules and even a pirate feed.