This weekend begins the final set of preparation races before the spring classics with Saturday’s running of the Monte Paschi Strade Bianche, Sunday’s start to Paris-Nice, and Tuesday’s opening of Tirreno Adriatico.
Monte Paschi Strade Bianche (Saturday, March 3rd)
Known commonly as “L’Eroica”, Italy’s Monte Paschi Strade Bianche is one of the newest races on the European calendar, but its roots are deep. Featuring over 57 kilometers of Tuscan white gravel roads, the race has quickly become one of the most popular events of the spring. Fittingly, the first five editions of the race have produced winners including Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, the defending champion. As an added bonus, this year’s L’Eroica will be aired on live television, which means fans all around the world will have a chance to watch the action unfold.
Paris-Nice (Sunday, March 4th – Sunday, March 11th)
This year, the eight-day “Race to the Sun” has returned to its roots by including an individual time trial up Nice’s Col d’Eze for the first time since 2001. The race begins with a short, individual time trial that will start the GC sorting early, followed by several stages that will put the peloton’s echelon skills to the test. Expect sprinters and rouleurs to dominate these first few road stages.
As the race nears the Mediterranean, the mountains loom. Stage 5 finishes atop Mende’s Le Croix Neuve (the “Jalabert climb”), while Stage 6—a stage that begs for a Thomas Voeckler attack—features five categorized ascents on the road from Suze-La-Rousse to Sisteron. Stage 7 covers four more climbs, the last of which is the 1st Category Col du Vence, over 50 kilometers from the stage’s finish in Nice. Stage 8 will settle the GC; the Col d’Eze ITT leaves no margin for error. The climb is not incredibly steep, suiting more traditional time trialists best—pure climbers will need to forge their advantages earlier should they hope to emerge victorious.
Tirreno Adriatico (Wednesday, March 7th – Tuesday, March 13th)
Italy’s “Race of the Two Seas” begins Tuesday with a team time trial that will immediately place several GC riders at a disadvantage. Stages 2 and 3, while long and rolling, should both end in field sprints. Stages 4 and 5 see the mountains make their appearance, which should result in the first reshuffling of GC. Stage 6 features six laps of the circuit used for the 2010 Junior World Road Race Championship—another sprint is expected. The race concludes with a 9.3-kilometer individual time trial that will settle things once and for all.
With teams spread between two countries (or more in some cases) this is a ten-day period in which having a deep and talented roster is paramount to a team’s success. Let’s take a team approach to running down the favorites for this year’s editions:
BMC – BMC comes to Italy’s L’Eroica with defending champion Philippe Gilbert hoping to atone for a relatively poor showing in Belgium last weekend—or is he? He’s joined Saturday by George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet, Cadel Evans, and my pick for the win, Alessandro Ballan. Ballan has finished second in L’Eroica twice (2008 and 2011), and would certainly love to take his first victory since 2009 on home turf. Next week in Tirreno, BMC will be led by another returning champion: Cadel Evans. Evans was certainly unafraid that a win last year would ruin his Tour prep—look for him to use the 7-day event once again to test his form. The course certainly suits him.
In Paris-Nice, the squad turns to Thor Hushovd and Tejay Van Garderen, the former hunting for stage wins and form for the cobbled classics, the latter hoping to take another step in his development as a GC contender in major stage races. While a win might be out of his reach, a top-5 finish against some tough competition would be a step in the right direction.
By winning last year’s Criterium du Dauphiné, Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins proved that he has what it takes to win major weeklong stage races. He’ll get another chance at Paris-Nice alongside Richie Porte and Rigoberto Uran. With Christian Knees, Danny Pate, Geraint Thomas, and Kanstantsin Siutsou fetching bottles and pulling back important breakaways, anything but a podium finish (or the win?) will be a disappointment for the British team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Wiggo and Porte hit the podium.
In Italy, the squad’s classics contingent will tackle Tirreno Adriatico, building form for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics. Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Juan Antonio Flecha are the riders to watch here—expect at least a handful of stage wins and increased hype surrounding Cavendish and Boasson Hagen heading into Milan-San Remo.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – Omega hopes to shrug-off its mediocre performance during the opening weekend in Belgium with wins at Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. Defending “Race to the Sun” champ Tony Martin will co-captain the squad in France alongside Levi Leipheimer (the winner of last month’s Tour de San Luis in Argentina), and French Champion Sylvain Chavanel. That said, I wonder if Martin would have been a better choice to lead the team at Tirreno Adriatico, a race with a TTT, an ITT, and less climbing than Paris-Nice. Leipheimer and Chavanel would have been fine on their own and the squad would have increased its chances of winning both races. Instead, the team will rely on Tour of Oman champ Peter Velits to lead the squad in Italy. He should do well assuming his form has improved since Oman.
Interestingly, for the first time since 2007, Tom Boonen will use Paris-Nice as his last stage race before the spring classics. Maybe he’s hoping for a return to 2005, when he won two stages in Paris-Nice on his way to winning both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Liquigas-Cannondale – Naturally, Liquigas is sending it’s two best riders—Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan—to L’Eroica and Tirreno Adriatico. Both won stages at last month’s Tour of Qatar, with Nibali taking an impressive win atop Green Mountain, the event’s “Queen” stage. Eros Capecchi, (the winner of Sunday’s GP Lugano) will be at Tirreno as well and is certainly a candidate for stage wins and possibly a top-10 finish overall. These three as well as Moreno Moser and Daniel Oss are riders to watch in L’Eroica. For many fans, the possibility of a Moser winning on the strade bianche is too tantalizing to ignore.
In Paris-Nice, Ivan Basso and Elia Viviani will lead the way. Basso is peaking for the Giro and will likely be riding to build fitness, while Viviani—himself a winner of five events already this season—will be looking to the race’s field sprints in an attempt to prove he deserves mention alongside Cavendish and Greipel as one of the fastest men in the world.
RadioShack-Nissan – RadioShack-Nissan heads to Paris-Nice with a squad that we could very well see lining-up in Liège this coming June (remember, the Tour de France begins earlier this year due to the Olympic Games). Indeed, with Frank and Andy Schleck, Andreas Klöden, and Maxime Monfort all starting, it is quite possible that we could see at least three (I doubt we’ll see Andy Schleck do anything more than ride tempo for his teammates) of Bruyneel’s men finish inside the Paris-Nice top-10. Of the three, Klöden (last year’s runner-up) has the best shot at a victory. The German won Paris-Nice in 2000, largely thanks to his win in the Col d’Eze time trial, a stage making its return to the race this year. RadioShack’s winless thus far in 2012—look for Klöden to end that next Sunday.
As for Tirreno, RadioShack takes the approach of many teams, sending the bulk of its classics contingent to Italy. Fabio Cancellara won Tirreno in 2008 and has used the race in the past as the foundation of his classics campaign. While another GC victory might be out of his reach, Cancellara will certainly make his presence known. Daniele Bennati could also challenge for a stage win, while Chris Horner could be a surprising GC contender at such an early point in his season.
Rabobank – Rabobank has divided its resources fairly equally between Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, sending Bauke Mollema and Luis León Sánchez to France in search of high GC finishes and Carlos Barredo and Mark Renshaw hunting for stage wins. Sánchez already has four top-5 finishes in Paris-Nice, including the overall victory in 2009, but the event’s return to a more traditional parcours might hurt his chances. As for Renshaw, it is still a bit early, but I have a feeling he doesn’t have what it takes to be the team’s sprint captain—his past success looks to be more a product of HTC’s system than anything else. That said, a stage win in France would prove doubters like me wrong.
At Tirreno, Steven Kruijswijk will lead the team’s GC assault—the youngster has proven to like racing in Italy, as evidenced by his eighth-place finish in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Lars Boom is a candidate to win the final ITT (and GC?), while Matti Breschel and Michael Matthews should contend for stage victories as well. Breschel’s biggest priority will be putting the finishing touches on his form for the classics. His Omloop performance shows that he’s close, but still has room to improve.
Lampre – Lampre’s taking a two-pronged approach to the coming week, sending one squad led by Damiano Cunego to Paris-Nice and another led by Michele Scarponi to Tirreno. Scarponi won Tirreno in 2009 and narrowly missed defending his victory the following year when he lost to Stefano Garzelli by a fraction of a second. He’s looking forward to another assault on the Giro d’Italia this season (he finished behind Alberto Contador last year) and could certainly create some buzz with another strong performance next week. As for Cunego, he finished second in last Sunday’s GP Lugano, but has ridden inconsistently in recent years, making it hard to get a handle on his chances in the Ardennes. A strong Paris-Nice would certainly restore our faith in the Italian. Diego Ulissi bears watching for stage wins as well.
Movistar – Alejandro Valverde has returned from suspension to win three races already this season. He leads Movistar in France. Valverde has a Paris-Nice stage win and a (voided) second-place overall finish on his resume, but I have a feeling this year’s course—and the competition—might prove too tough for the Spaniard. He’ll be a contender, but I doubt he’ll win the race. Surprisingly for the Spanish team, Movistar’s best chances for a win this week might come in Italy, where Giovanni Visconti—the reigning Italian champion—will look to show his home fans that his emigration was not a mistake. Look for him to be at the forefront during both L’Eroica and Tirreno, where Visconti might be better served going for stage wins than a high overall finish.
Acqua e Sapone – Stefano Garzelli is justifiably disappointed to have seen his team left uninvited to the 2012 Giro d’Italia. After all, Garzelli won the Giro in 2001 and took home the mountains classification last year. Instead the Italian will have to settle for Tirreno Adriatico, a race he won in 2010—barely. Garzelli is one of those riders that you can always count on to perform well in certain races. In this case, he’s a certain contender for the overall victory by virtue of the simple fact that Tirreno’s the biggest race on his program—at this point at least. While other riders might be looking past it to more important events, Garzelli has been racing and training knowing that this might be his best (and only) chance for a major victory this season. And for a rider who’s been the subject of mid-season transfer rumors, a win next week might go a long way to making such a move come to fruition.
Katusha – Denis Menchov will lead Katusha in Paris-Nice. And while it’s anyone’s guess as to his current level of fitness, it’s certainly a race that suits the Russian’s strengths. In Italy, Joaquim Rodriguez and Oscar Freire will lead the way, both looking for stage wins. The race’s two time trials will likely be too much to make Rodriguez a candidate for the overall victory. Freire actually won Tirreno back in 2005, taking advantage of field sprints and time bonus to win one of the event’s flatter editions. This year, the Spaniard has included the race on his “farewell” tour as it gives him the best preparation for what could be his fourth victory in Milan-San Remo.
Garmin-Barracuda – I suspect Garmin-Barracuda will be seeking stage wins in both France and Italy next week, with Ryder Hesjedal a strong contender for Saturday’s L’Eroica. The former mountain biker scored three top-10 finishes on the strade bianche from 2008 through 2010, and with the pressure of contending the Tour de France off his shoulders, might find himself “riding a bit lighter” now. Johan Vansummeren and Tyler Farrar will join the Canadian in Italy as both riders continue to build for the classics. Farrar’s still winless in 2012; that could easily change in Tirreno.
In France, Omloop-winner Sep Vanmarcke will join Heinrich Haussler and Christophe Le Mével at Paris-Nice. Haussler is also winless this season and wants to prove that his fantastic 2009 season was more than just a flash in the pan—a solid Paris-Nice will a long way toward accomplishing his goal. Also worth noting: Thomas Dekker makes his World Tour return in Paris-Nice as well.
Saur-Sojasun – Jerome Coppel won this season’s Étoile de Bessèges and then finished third at the Ruta del Sol. A talented climber and time trialist, the young Frenchman hopes to continue his progression with a podium finish in Paris-Nice. If he does, look for the rider (with a 5th-place finish the 2010 Dauphiné and a 14th-place finish in last year’s Tour on his resume) to become the new darling of France’s cycling media.
Project 1T4i – 1T4i’s Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb will try for stage wins at Paris-Nice in the hopes that they can impress the ASO enough to earn a Tour de France wild card invitation. Kittel did well against some tough competition in Oman; he’ll face a more intense level of competition in France.
Astana – Astana has yet to win a race this season and hopes to soon end the streak. The squad turns to Roman Kreuziger, Maxim Iglinskiy, Borut Božič, and Enrico Gasparotto in Italy, and Janez Brajkovič
in France. Brajkovič won the Dauphiné and—on paper at least—should enjoy a Paris-Nice that looks tailor-made for him. Maxim Iglinsky won L’Eroica in 2010 while Božič should be a contender in Tirreno’s field sprints. As for Kreuziger’s chances at a high overall placing, I suspect he’ll test his form without ruining his preparation for this year’s Giro.
GreenEdge – GreenEdge is feeling the pressure that comes with being a new (and hyped) World Tour squad. In Paris-Nice, Tour Down Under winner Simon Gerrans will attempt to defend his lead in the World Tour standings while building fitness for the Ardennes classics. Meanwhile, Matthew Goss, Stuart O’Grady, and Sebastian Langeveld lead the Australian team’s Tirreno squad. Goss has been conspicuously silent so far this season—he needs to show himself soon if he wants to a chance to defend his title at Milan-San Remo.
1-Kite Dark Horses
Colnago-CSF – In 1975, Giovanni Battaglin won a stage of the Giro d’Italia that tackled the Prati di Tivo, the climb that concludes Stage 5 in Tirreno. Look for Battaglin’s nephew Enrico to do his best to honor his uncle’s legacy with a stage win of his own—or a win in L’Eroica. Sasha Modolo should also be a threat in Tirreno’s sprint finishes.
Colombia-Coldeportes – Colombia-Coldeportes makes its World Tour debut at Tirreno Adriatico with Fabio Duarte the team’s best chance for a stage win.
Team Type 1 – Sanofi – Jure Kocjan finished fourth in last year’s L’Eroica. He’s been sick as of late, but alongside Danielle Colli, he could turn some heads Saturday.
At L’Eroica, I think Alessandro Ballan will give BMC its first victory of the season over Ryder Hesjedal and Enrico Battaglin. Ballan’s in-form, motivated, and has the experience necessary to win a race on the strade bianche. In Paris-Nice, Andreas Klöden will take his second title in the “Race to the Sun” over Leipheimer and Valverde, while in Tirreno Adriatico, Nibali will defeat Evans and Garzelli.
What about your picks? Share them below.
Image: ©BMC/Tim de Waele