Richie can go all the way at Tirreno-Adriatico

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2013 Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte will not defend his title in 2014. (Image: AFP/Jeff Pachoud)

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No matter what happens this year, January’s Tour Down Under will be right up there as one of the premier races of 2014.

Simon Gerrans’ victory over Cadel Evans with Lampre’s Diego Ulissi completing the podium and Richie Porte fourth set the year’s World Tour calendar up nicely.

But if any early season race threatens to overshadow the TDU, it is most certainly is Tirreno-Adriatico.

What. A. Start. List.

Despite the absence of Vincenzo Nibali (2013 and 2012 winner) and the injured Tour de France champion Chris Froome, ‘The race of the two seas’ is packed with guys who can snare the trident-shaped trophy after the final 9.1km individual time trial next Tuesday.

Richie Porte, Nairo Qintana, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Rigoberto Uran, Michal Kwiatkowski and Robert Gesink all have the ability to be on the top three steps.

Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Philippe Gilbert can all have a ‘day on’.

Trying to pick a winner is always a mug’s game, but I’m going to have a stab anyway and nominate a top three of Richie Porte, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans.

Cadel, who won here in 2011, is being typically understated about his chances, but did say he wants to improve on his performance at the Tour Down Under, where he finished second to Gerrans by a single second.

If you take Cadel’s words literally, then he has no chance. The climbs are “longer than when he won in 2011”, he “doesn’t know the climbs” and the “steep finish (on the Sunday) will be a test”.

Even though the Giro d’Italia remains Cadel’s major goal for the year, his form in January was so good, he can’t be discounted.

Alberto Contador on the other hand, is really targeting this race. Tirreno-Adriatico is not a practice for the Giro for ‘El Pistolero’, who said, “For me, it’s an important objective.”

Contador says he has studied the parcours and believes he is feeling “perhaps the best I’ve ever felt in my career.”

At 31, Contador admits the clock is ticking and surprisingly only thinks he has two years left at his peak. When you consider Cadel was 34 when he won the Tour de France, maybe Contador is underestimating himself, but only he knows his own mind.

That leaves Richie Porte, who hasn’t switched from defending his Paris-Nice title on a whim, although you could ask why it took him so long to decide.

‘TA’ has a route that is much to his liking, plus team and individual time trials. Throw in a mountaintop finish, something absent from Paris-Nice, and it’s a no-brainer. Tirreno-Adriatico will be an awesome race and Porte blogged excitedly about his chances.

“In general, my form is ticking along nicely at the moment. I wasn’t 100 per cent at Tour Down Under in January but I managed to win the Willunga stage, which I’m really proud of, and I showed off the team jersey as best I could.

“I’m here to win though and I think I’ve got chances with the team time trial, the individual test and then the main uphill finish.”

As you read this, the first stage – the 18.5km team time trial – will have been run, and Porte could already be in the race leader’s jersey. But even if he isn’t, he should be have enough of a lead over Nairo Qintana to ensure the Colombian can’t make a serious bid for the podium over the next week.

The Tour De San Luis winner will improve his efforts against the clock but not this week, and therefore won’t challenge Porte.

Matt Goss won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico last year, but is at Paris-Nice in 2014. Not that Goss will mind too much, as he won’t be up against Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel or Peter Sagan.

The three flat Tirreno-Adriatico stages will be a lovely appetiser for July, and even though Cavendish may not currently be on the same level as the two Germans, he reckons the time he spends living and training in Italy will serve him well.

Adding to the intrigue, there’s the Wiggo factor. Who knows what form he’s in, as he’s only had half a dozen days of racing this year, but Bradley Wiggins at his best, well, we know what he can do.

For extra interest, Vuelta a Espana champion Chris Horner will be there for his new Lampre-Merida team. It’s his third race for them but this will be his first big test.

And then there are the smokies, including Strade Bianchi winner Mikal Kwiatkowski, who was also fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico last year.

Bauke Mollema, Thiabut Pinot and Roman Kreuziger all need to keep on the right trajectory, but the one I’m most looking for is the surprise performer at the Tour Down Under, Diego Ulissi, who won stage two of and ended up five seconds behind Gerrans. Lampre have given Chris Horner the bib with the ’1′ on the back, but I see Ulissi easily out-performing the veteran American over the next week.

Along with Aussies Simon Clarke, Cam Meyer, Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Heinrich Haussler (IAM), this is a race where the talent on offer is simply irresistible.

Of course, I’ll try and catch as much Paris-Nice as I can but, for this year at least, Tirreno-Adriatico is in another league.

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