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16/03 - Rieti to Porto Sant'Elpidio - 210 km

After Sunday’s tough stage in the mountains, the fast riders will now have a last chance to put their mark on this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico. Anything but a bunch sprint will be a huge surprise.

The route
This is another stage of over 200 km, which will serve as good training for the up-coming Milano-San Remo. From the start in Rieti, the riders set sail for the Adriatic coast. The first 145 km include a handful of climbs but nothing that should prevent the expected bunch sprint in Porto Sant'Elpidio. The name may strike fear to the riders who did the race in 2013. In horrible weather conditions, the riders had to face climbs with gradients up to 30 %. Today, it’s a different story. The terrain is much more humane and the weather forecast says it should stay dry this time.

After 181.2 km on the bike, the riders cross the finishing line for the first time. From here, they take on the first of two laps on the 14.4 km long circuit around Porto Sant'Elpidio. Except for one minor change, the course is identical to the one the organizers used last year. There is a 1.5 km ascent with an average gradient of 2.9 % halfway through the circuit. After the descent, the last 4.5 km are flat. However, two sharp 90° right-hand turns await the riders on the last 2 km. It’s extremely important to be well-positioned at this point as the peloton will be stretched out significantly going through these corners. The final 1500 meters are straight-out towards the finishing line. If you want to re-watch the finish on the circuit from last year, click here.

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The favorites
Last year, Mark Cavendish had no problems winning this stage. His teammates took the lead at the right time and Petacchi and Renshaw delivered him perfectly while managing to finish 2nd and 9th themselves. This year, Petacchi has been replaced by Sabatini. Renshaw is still here and if Etixx can time their leadout as well as they did last year, it will be extremely difficult to beat Mark Cavendish today. Especially since his biggest rival to the win, Elia Viviani, is no longer in the race. With Mark Renshaw as the final leadout, don’t be surprised if Etixx makes 1st and 2nd on stage again this year.

So far, nothing has really worked out for Tinkoff-Saxo this year. Except for Contador’s stage win in Ruta del Sol, there hasn’t been much to cheer for. Olev Tinkov can’t be happy with his big investments and, naturally, the riders aren’t content either. Peter Sagan was clearly the fastest on stage 3 but due to bad positioning, he missed out on yet another win this season. Last year, the Slovakian finish 3rd on this stage. Peter Sagan can’t match the top speed of riders like Mark Cavendish but it seems like he’s sprinting very well this season. He almost beat Alessandro Kristoff in Qatar and if Cavendish isn’t on his best day, Sagan may have a chance to give his team a much needed victory.

Sam Bennett came very fast on the final meters of stage 2. With a better starting position, he might have been able to win the stage. Without Viviani and Pelucchi, the field of sprinters just a level below Mark Cavendish is very equal. Bennett has already proven his abilities against the top sprinters when he won the final stage of Tour of Qatar last month. If Zak Dempster can put him in good position for the final, I wouldn’t put it past the Irishman to give Bora their first win on the World Tour.

Usually, Sacha Modolo would be one of the top favorites in this field. However, the Italian crashed hard on stage 2 and hurt his right wrist. Luckily, Modolo didn’t suffer any fractures but a painful wrist could easily hold him back while sprinting out of the saddle. Last year, Modolo crashed in the final corner losing his chance to fight for the win. Naturally, he’ll be very eager to take revenge today. It won’t be easy but if he can ride through the pain in his wrist, he might end this race on a good note after all.

The outsiders
Giant-Alpecin has two strong cards to play in Luka Mezgec and Nikias Arndt. Unfortunately, both crashed on stage 2. On paper, Mezgec and Arndt have what it takes to make podium today. It all depends on how well they have recovered from their crashes. Giant-Alpecin doesn’t have a strong candidate for the final time trial. Therefore, today is their last chance of success in this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico.

After his impressive win in Cascina, Jens Debusschere deserves a mention too. The Belgian champion took a chance and started his sprint early, which proved to be the right decision. It’s true that things might have looked different had Cavendish not dropped his chain. However, it would have been very difficult, even for Cavendish, to catch Debusschere before the line that day. Lotto Soudal’s race is already saved with the win on stage 2, anything else is just a bonus. Obviously, Debusschere’s moral is sky high knowing that he has the power to hold off his rivals. He may try to open the sprint early again today, hopinh to repeat Thursday’s performance.

MTN-Qhubeka did everything right on stage 2. Edvald Boasson Hagen performed an outstanding leadout but when Tyler Farrar started to sprint, the American veteran went backwards. With so many strong sprinters on the team, I think they will give one of the others a chance to fight for glory in Porto Sant'Elpidio this time. Kristian Sbaragli has had an impressive start to the season. Personally, I would like to see him getting a chance today. If so, the young Italian needs to pay close attention in the two last corners. It only takes one wrong move to drop 10 positions and lose your chance to win. If MTN-Qhubeka can take the front of the peloton on the last 2 km, with Sbaragli in a good position, they might be able to pull off a big result today. Except for Boasson Hagen, Farrar and Sbaragli, the African team also has fast riders like Gerald Ciolek, Matt Goss and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg in the race.

For other strong sprinters with a solid chance of making a good result in the expected bunch sprint, look to Alexander Porsev, Edwin Avila and Danish youngster Magnus Cort who finished 6th in his first WT sprint on stage 2.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv