Tirreno-Adriatico started in heavy rain but was no damp squib, providing explosive excitement aplenty. Reprising their Tour of Oman hostilities, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali emerged triumphant from a tough battle with Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez.
In a sodden opening team time trial, world champions Omega Pharma-Quick Step found the best balance between speed and safety to clock 19:24 and put Mark Cavendish into the maglia azzurra. Vuelta TTT winners Movistar had earlier set a benchmark of 19:35, which remained as the second-fastest time.
Cadel Evans‘ BMC were third, 16 seconds down, with Cannondale and Vincenzo Nibali‘s Astana rounding out the top five. 2012 winners Orica-GreenEDGE finished only sixth-best.
Stage two to Indicatore – the longest of the race at 232km – was not so much wet as torrential, resulting in a chaotic sprint in which OPQS were crowded out after they spending much of the day leading the chase. Lotto-Belisol appeared to have set up the best lead-out but Andre Greipel fell away and with Cavendish struggling to fight through the field it was Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) who came over the top of Manuel Belletti (Ag2r La Mondiale) to win.
The following day was also wet and this time it was Peter Sagan who won another disorganised sprint. Attacks in the closing 20km by Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Lars Boom (Blanco) strung out the peloton and in the ensuing dash, Cavendish overshot a tricky right-hand bend, losing valuable road position. Then a late attack by Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil) further disrupted the sprint trains. Sagan jumped Greipel and was able to hold off Cavendish, who had burned too many matches recovering ground.
Saturday’s queen stage up to the snow-lined ski station Prati di Tivo saw Sky’s formidable mountain train shred the field to leave an elite group of 11. Just past the 3km banner, Alberto Contador launched a stinging attack. Nibali and Vini Fantini’s Mauro Santambrogio were able to bridge and then continue over the top of the Vuelta champion, with Chris Froome apparently labouring some way behind. Under the flamme rouge Nibali kicked again only for Froome to appear out of nowhere and fly straight past him – classic rope-a-dope. The British rider surged over the line six seconds clear of Santambrogio, with Nibali a further five seconds back. Michal Kwiatkowski (OPQS) was fourth, taking the race lead from teammate Cavendish.
Stage five’s finish in Chieti came at the end of a 1.2km hill averaging 10.2%. If you look that up in the VeloVoices Big Book of Cycling (Junior Edition) you will find the name Joaquim Rodriguez double-underlined next to it. Sure enough, the Spaniard took off at the base of the climb and shot off into the distance. He finished eight seconds clear of a five-man group led by Bauke Mollema (Blanco) and including Contador and Froome, with Nibali a further nine seconds adrift as the Sky man moved into pole position.
However, it was the penultimate stage which ultimately blew the race apart. A lumpy 209km circuit, the parcours featured three ascents of the 3km Sant’Elpidio a Mare, the final 300 metres of which averages 20% with a maximum of 27%. To make matters worse, the cut-up road surface started damp and got wetter, making traction increasingly difficult. How tough was it? Riders abandoned by the dozen during the stage – among them Andy Schleck – with many ‘paperboying’ to and fro across the road at walking pace, and in some cases having to climb off and push to get restarted.
The major action took place on the third and final tour. Froome lost contact near the top of the climb, with about 16km remaining. Nibali crowbarred the gap wide open with a committed attack on the greasy descent, bringing Sagan and Rodriguez with him. The trio worked effectively over the last 10km, Sagan cake-walked the sprint and Nibali secured additional bonuses for second.
Behind them, a four-man group containing Contador and Santambrogio came in 44 seconds down. Meanwhile Froome had to dig deep to latch on to a second set of chasers which ultimately closed to within six seconds of the Contador group.
Nibali moved into the overall lead by 34 seconds, having gained 54 including bonuses on the day. Froome dropped to second, while Rodriguez jumped from seventh to third.
Barring mechanical mishap Nibali, a more than competent time-trialist, was never likely to be troubled on the concluding 9.2km individual time trial. A solid 12th, 26 seconds down on stage winner and world champion Tony Martin (OPQS), confirmed his receipt of a second winner’s trident. Froome was a creditable sixth but was only able to recover 11 of his 34-second deficit. Lampre’s Adriano Malori had the privilege of being best of the rest behind Martin, six seconds down, while Andrey Amador (Movistar) edged out 2012 stage winner Fabian Cancellara for third.
Rodriguez struggled against the clock as he always does, slipping to fifth overall as Contador and Kwiatkowski moved up to third and fourth respectively. The latter pair also claimed the points and young rider classifications respectively, while Lampre’s Damiano Cunego was King of the Mountains.
Analysis & opinion
Tirreno-Adriatico justified its near monopoly of cycling’s biggest stars with a varied and challenging parcours which produced some equally varied and challenging racing. Sure, the sprint stages were livened up by the rain, but a marathon stage two and a lumpy stage three combined to set a useful dress rehearsal for Milan-San Remo. We had a proper summit finish (Prati di Tivo) and a puncheur’s stage (Chieti). And all that was merely the warm-up act for the concluding one-two punch of Sant’Elpidio a Mare and the concluding race against the clock. If any race could claim to be the perfect Grand Tour-in-a-week, this was it.
Some complained the penultimate stage was too difficult. 52 riders abandoned. Fabian Cancellara said it was “nothing to do with bike racing”. And BMC’s Taylor Phinney had the most heroically futile story of all. Left alone when the other members of the gruppetto climbed off, he struggled on, finishing 37 minutes down, only to learn he had missed the time cut.
Multiple abandons on Tirreno’s penultimate stage are par for the course, but the sheer number this year and the sight of professional cyclists having to push prompted race supremo Michele Acquarone to promise to review matters. Having said that, it made for an incredible spectacle – and, in Phinney’s case, the kind of story from which cycling legends are made – and one which might not have seemed quite so sadistic had the roads stayed dry.
As for those who did finish, the star of the show was Peter Sagan. In winning two stages, the
Slovak Fastvak showcased his ability to beat the best in the world both in a bunch sprint and on the toughest of Classics-style stages. A rider of his talent and versatility comes along only once or twice in a generation, and after a stellar 2012 he looks on track to do even better in 2013. A win in one of the Monuments is surely a matter of when rather than if, and his climbing and descending prowess make him the big favourite for Milan-San Remo on Sunday.
What of Vincenzo Nibali? His second Tirreno victory was even more impressive than his first, coming against a tougher field as he defeated Froome, Contador, Rodriguez and Evans. He climbed well, descended brilliantly and in so doing became the first back-to-back Tirreno winner since Tony Rominger in 1990 and the first multiple champion since Rolf Sorensen (1987, 1992). Bradley Wiggins, whose form remains uncertain, will have his hands full – and then some – at the Giro. Bet on Nibali to win that particular battle.
Chris Froome should not be too discouraged with his narrow defeat as he targets peak form in July. Similarly, Alberto Contador will not be unhappy to have been within shouting distance despite visibly lacking a little of his usual zip.
In the sprints there was a welcome return to the winner’s circle for Matt Goss – his first victory since last year’s Giro – ahead of Milan-San Remo. Mark Cavendish can point with some justification to mitigating circumstances for his lack of success – I’ll touch on that in tomorrow’s Talking Tactics column – whereas Andre Grieipel‘s uncompetitive showing was more of a concern given his usual strong early season form.
Elsewhere, second-year pro Michal Kwiatkowski continued to underline his immense promise. Second overall in his home Tour of Poland last year, his fourth place here came off the back of his runner-up spot (behind Tony Martin) at the Volta ao Algarve. An excellent time-trialist and an improving climber, the 22-year old has all the makings of a top stage racer.
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 28:08:17
2. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:23
3. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) +0:52
4. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:53
5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:54
6. Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) +1:21
7. Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) +2:03
8. Andrey Amador (Movistar) +2:42
9. Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) +3:19
10. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) +3:35