July in March: The yellow-jersey contenders emerge for Tirreno-Adriatico

Nibali, Quintana, Contador, Sagan, Cancellara, Cavendish. The start-list of Tirreno-Adriatico reads as if it were that of the Tour.

La Grande Boucle is the big show, the lighthouse of the season, but outside the Tour de France, the fortunes of races rise and fall from year to year. There was a time when the Vuelta a España was withering on the vine, the Giro, too. Now, il Giro is the tempestuous and beautiful darling of the press and fans (riders love and hate it at the same time); the Vuelta is a blistering preparation for the World Championships, as it has been for some time, but the shark-toothed profiles keep everyone interested in the red shirt at stake.

Paris-Nice was once the benchmark for this time of year, a date circled on calendars in red ink; the winner at the “Race to the Sun” laid a solid brick in his road toward the remainder of the season.

But in the era of increasing specialisation and selection, racers and teams are choosing the path to the Tour that best suits them. There is also a healthy/unhealthy dose of back-door dealing between organisers and teams that determines where stars line at smaller races such as Tirreno and Paris-Nice. Very little is coincidence when it comes to who pins numbers on where.

For fans, a fortunate confluence of factors has led to the 2015 edition of Tirreno-Adriatico, or the “Race of Two Seas”. Tirreno, which commences Wednesday, is a rendezvous of the sport’s top general-classification riders. Its seven stages, including a team time trial and two climbing days, make the race a proper early season gallop with an impossibly deep field, in spite of Chris Froome’s absence.

Team Sky’s Froome dropped out before the race began, citing a chest infection. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) remain and should set the race ablaze, given each man’s in-race nature. The Shark (Nibali) is revered for his dynamic and fearless racing; Contador is the best natural tactician among the GC hitters; Quintana won the Giro last year breathing through a straw and is one of the sport’s best climbers. It is hard to imagine a better finish to a race than those three attacking one another. Nibali has already won Tirreno twice and Contador once.

Froome’s absence robs the race of one of the peloton’s riders of reference, but it should free up the more impulsive racers in the bunch. The Team Sky rider taps out such steady power for so long up sustained climbs his presence on the front of the race is enough to deflate attacks before they happen. It’s likely now that Team Sky will play a more opportunistic tactic, as the bulk of race control fell to other teams the moment Froome’s name dropped off the start sheet. New signing Leopold König could be one to watch, though, in addition to names like Robert Gesink (Lotto NL), Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep).

At this point in the season, the racing is defined ambition in the immediate moment — racers want to win once the screws begin to turn — and a reference mark upon a larger, imagined arc. For most, the apex of the season is July; others, such as Contador, will attempt to come good for both the Giro and the Tour.

The winner of Tirreno isn’t awarded anything afterwards, save the ‘1s’ for the following season. The memories of bike racers, however, are long. What happens on the cross-cut route of Italy will go a long way to shaping the coming months before the Tour. No one forgets a thing.

As for the showdown of Nibali, Contador, Quintana, and Froome? That must wait for another day, perhaps in July.

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