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Nocentini's all-or-nothing attitude and attacking sprit made for an incredible hard day which proved the limits of what had looked like an invincible formation.

Photo: Sirotti

ALBERTO CONTADOR

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ANDRÉ GREIPEL

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CADEL EVANS

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CHRIS FROOME

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FABIAN CANCELLARA

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JOAQUIN SOBRINO MARTINEZ

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JURGEN ROELANDTS

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MARK CAVENDISH

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MAURO SANTAMBROGIO

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MICHAL KWIATKOWSKI

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RINALDO NOCENTINI

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TEAM SKY

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THOR HUSHOVD

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TIRRENO - ADRIATICO

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TYLER FARRAR

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VINCENZO NIBALI

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16.03.2013 @ 14:17 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The road was paved for another display of Sky dominance until a gutsy attack by Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on a memorable day in the Appennines changed the script of an unpredictable Tirreno-Adriatico. Did the race give us the first glimpses of vulnerability in the British camp? Will Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) return to his former superior self? And will anyone be able to beat an amazing Peter Sagan (Cannondale) on Sunday in Sanremo? CyclingQuotes.com offers you the answers in this post-race analysis.

 

When Chris Froome (Sky) stormed out of the group of favourites to easily catch and pass proven grand tour contenders Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador on his way to the stage victory on Prato di Tivo, all was set for another demonstration of force by the British outfit. Such was the dominance of the Sky train of Dario Cataldo, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran on the slopes of the final climb that few of their rivals had any reason to fancy their own chances.

 

Just 48 hours later an isolated Froome cracked spectacularly on an incredibly hard and wet day in the hills around Porto Sant'Elpidio. A strong 16-man escape group containing a dangerous Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r), the relentless terrain and the harsh weather had emptied the tanks of Froome's trusted domestiques, and the captain himself was clearly struggling on the 30% slopes in the final.

 

Is Sky vulnerable?

What nobody managed to do in last year's Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine or Tour de France was achieved on a seemingly innocuous day in the Italian hills. Nocentini's all-or-nothing attitude and attacking sprit made for an incredible hard day which proved the limits of what had looked like an invincible formation.

 

Without any doubt Froome's Tour rivals have taken notice. If rival teams manage to keep multiple riders in GC contention when they reach the final days in the Alps, a similar all-or-nothing approach may break Sky's armour. A long day of hard chasing actually has an effect on the Sky train.

 

More encouraging for the likes of Contador and Rodriguez is of course Froome's own vulnerability. Not only did he crack on the penultimate day, he was struggling on the climb to Chieti on the previous day. The Kenyan-born Brit is certainly not at ease on short, steep climbs where he cannot use his train to wear down the opposition on the lower slopes.

 

The benefit of this lesson may, however, be of limited value come July. The French geography offers plenty of long climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, but organizers ASO struggle to find the kind of terrain that did Froome so much harm. He will certainly be relieved that a hard day in the Appenninnes is not on the cards in July.

 

Nibali too strong in March?

The beneficiary of Froome's crack was Vincenzo Nibali who once again proved that attacking spirit which livened up last year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the 2011 edition of the Tour of Lombardy. The Italian should be immensely relieved to see that his gutsy moves and strength in technical, wet conditions may do some harm to Sky in view of his battle with Bradley Wiggins in May.

 

However, there is some reason for concern. A repeat win in Tirreno - beating the strongest list of competitors seen outside a grand tour for years - is without any doubt an important confidence booster, but it may be an indication of a mistimed attempt to reach peak form in July. While Wiggins was very discrete in his first two outings in Mallorca and Oman and while Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) used the past week in Italy to carefully build his form for the Giro - not looking for results at all - Nibali was stronger than Tour contenders approaching a first peak of form for the spring races.

 

The Giro is only 90 days away. At the same time before last year's Tour, Nibali struggled to keep up with the best in the Tour of California, and he ended up timing his peak to perfection for July. Keeping in mind that Nibali has failed in his timing before - the 2011 Vuelta being the most evident example - Nibali could have any reason to be a little worried at his own current strength.

 

A different Contador

We got the first indications in last year's Vuelta. Alberto Contador was no longer able to leave anyone else behind with his trademark attacks in the mountains. The Tour of San Luis and Tour of Oman offered more of the same, and this week's racing in Italy was just another confirmation. The suspension seems to have changed Contador.

 

One may argue that the Spaniard should of course not reach his peak condition in March. However, the current generation's most decorated grand tour rider was able to stamp his supreme authority on races like Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco in March and April before his forced break, and he seemed to be at ease winning races all year long. This is certainly no longer the case.

 

If the Vuelta champion is unable to regain his former strength, he needs to adapt his strategy to his new level. His trademark attacks with 3-4 km remaining no longer seem to be successful, and he struggles to keep up when he is again reeled in by his competitors. The victory in Tirreno was maybe out of his reach, but he may have won in Oman, had he put in his attacks much closer to the finish. His acceleration remains strong, but he no longer has the strength to keep up the tempo for several kilometres.

 

Is Evans over the hill?

Many Australians gave a sigh of relief when Cadel Evans (BMC) finished 3rd in the Tour of Oman. After an illness-plagued 2012, the tenacious Aussie seemed to be back to his best. Tirreno-Adriatico was seen as the race to provide the needed confirmation, and the BMC captain was adamant that he was in Italy to win..

 

That was not to be, and even though he bounced back from his poor showing on Sunday's stage to Chieti with a much stronger, almost stubborn performance in Monday's drama, it cannot hide the fact that he was way off the level of his fellow Tour contenders. For some riders a below-par performance in March may not be a problem, but for Evans it is different. He has always been admired for an incredible ability to perform in races all year long, and his exploits in Italy may suggest that he is still not his former self. The Australian veteran certainly has a long way to go if he is to rediscover the rider which single-handedly almost brought back the long-range attack from Andy Schleck on the Galibier in 2011.

 

On the other hand, Joaquin Rodriguez has not been slowed any down by the lingering doubts over his team's ProTeam license. He usually struggles on longer climbs in the early season - after all his ability in the mountains are not his natural strength - but he was his usual superior self in the terrain where he rules. With another confirmation of his immense improvement in the time trial, expect Rodriguez to be right in the mix in Catalunya and Pais Vasco in the coming weeks.

 

Confirmation of potential

Entering this season there were few signs that Michal Kwiatkowski was about to emerge as a future grand tour contender. Steady work on his climbing during the off-season has, however, started to pay dividends. He had a surprising stint in the leader's jersey in the Tour de San Luis, and he was second overall in the Volta ao Algarve. This week he beat some of the world's finest grand tour riders to end up fourth in Italy.

 

Even if the young Pole was second overall in last year's Tour of Poland, his sudden ability to be competitive on longer climbs should leap out at most cycling enthusiasts. With his natural time trial strength, his versatility could turn him into the grand tour contender his team boss Patrick Lefevre has desperately been looking for. What he needs to improve is certainly his recovery: in San Luis and Tirreno he was clearly fading towards the end of the week.

 

Tirreno confirmed the early-season form of Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini). The Italian showed glimpses of his talent as a classics rider in his last year with Lampre, but his development clearly stalled during a three year stint at BMC. Back in Italy in a captain's role, his performances in the early season suggest that he has taken a huge leap forward, and interestingly he seems - like Kwiatkowski - to have discovered an ability to perform on longer climbs. Vini Fantini manager Luca Scinto brought Filippo Pozzato back to his best in the Tour of Flanders last year, and he now looks to repeat that success with Santambrogio. With the likes of Garzelli, Di Luca and Rabottini the yellow-clad team should be a force to be reckoned with in the mountains during the month of May.

 

Worries for Cavendish

One man leaving Italy with every reason for concern is Mark Cavendish. Leaving Sky to again be the center of his team's attention, the question was always going to be whether Omega Pharma-Quick Step was able to shape up a lead-put train like the one he had at HTC. The days where Gert Steegmans can be described as one of the world's finest lead-out men are long gone, and in the two outings on European soil - the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen and Tirreno - the team has failed to bring Cavendish into the right position.

 

On a number of occasions - this year's Tour of Qatar being the most recent example - the Manxman has shown his ability to find his own way in the sprints. However, the past week once again proved that archrival Andre Greipel has an extremely well-drilled train at his disposal, and the failures of the quartet of Adam Hansen, Marcel Sieberg, Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Henderson are rare. The Lotto train has clearly taken over the position as the world's strongest train, and only a surprise lack of power from the German sprinter himself prevented Lotto from leaving Italy with two stage victories. When Greipel gets back to his powerful self, it will be hard for a lone Cavendish to fight the Lotto might single-handedly.

 

Can anyone beat Sagan in Sanremo?

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) entered the Tirreno-Adriatico as the favourite for this year's edition of La Classicissima, Milan-Sanremo. After one week of hard racing, the Slovakian returns to his Italian home as the sole real candidate for victory.

 

His two stage victories proved that he has the two needed attributes for success in La Primavera. His victory in stage 3 underlined that he has the speed to outsprint usually faster rivals after a long, hard race, and his amazing triumph in stage 6 revealed that not even the world's best climbers can drop him on shorter ascents. After struggling in longer races, his performances in last year's classics showed that distance is no longer a problem, and he does not seem to lack any kind of support. His team showed impressive strength on Monday with 7 riders in the front group deep into finale, and only bad luck or team tactics (like in Strade Bianche) seem to be a real threat to his first monument victory.

 

Even if Sagan is the mega favourite, other riders showed that they are ready for a top performance. The presence of Thor Hushovd (BMC) and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) in the Froome group at the end of Monday's extremely challenging stage was testament to their strong condition, and both are certainly back to their best after horrendous 2012 seasons .  They will doubtlessly be present in the finale on Sunday, but Sanremo may be too easy to make them benefit fully of their current strength. Look out for both to be real dangers in the cobbled classics in a few weeks time.

 

Roelandts may not even be able to go for a personal result in La Primavera and will most probably devote some attention to team leader Andre Greipel. The German sprinter's climbing abilities are underestimated by many, and his victory on a hard stage in the Ardennes in the 2010 Eneco Tour and his triumph in last year's Tour stage to Le Cap d'Agde prove that the Lotto-Belisol rider handles shorter climbs fairly well. He has - like American sprinter Tyler Farrar - been climbing fairly well during this week in Italy, and he was one of very few sprinters to finish Monday's stage. In previous years he has struggled in longer races, but his apparent lack of speed in the sprints may be due to an increased focus on endurance in the classics. The German powerhouse could be one of a select few to challenge Sagan in a sprint on Lungomare Italo Calvino in Sanremo.

 

Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack) won La Primavera in 2008 and came tantalisingly close to another victory last year where he was narrowly beaten by Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) in a three-man sprint. Without the Swiss powerhouse at his peak the break had probably been caught by the Sagan-led peloton, but history proves that the multiple world TT champion needs to be very close to his top level in order to make a realistic bid for success on the Poggio climb.

 

However, signs are that he has not yet returned to his best after an injury-plagued 2012 season. He was not even close to showing last year's strength in Strade Bianche, his team underperformed massively in the opening TTT in Tirreno, and he posted a slower time in the final time trial than he did in 2011 and 2012 (in ideal circumstances where his course record was broken by both Tony Martin and Adriano Malori). He will certainly try something on Sunday, but signs are that the Radioshack captain will not be a real challenger in the fight for victory.

 

It will be up to other riders to try to foil the Cannondale plans for a Sagan victory. At the moment, it is difficult to see anyone capable of just that, and one week of hard racing in Italy did certainly not provide much cause for sleepless nights in the green-clad camp.

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