A roster of stars assembled in Italy to take part in the 58th edition of Tirreno-Adriatico, particularly in terms of rouleurs in Classics specialists, as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal - Quick-Step) faced off for the first time this season. In terms of sprints, Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal - Quick-Step), Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco-Alula) were all present to fight it out, while home favourite Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) was targeting the time trial.
The GC looked set to be wide open, with a host of quality names taking part, but none of the top rate prolific stage race winners — that is, until Primož Roglič surprisingly announced his participation just days before the race, having previously planned not to race on the road until Volta a Catalunya later in March. His presence changed the dynamic of the race, but, having not raced since dramatically crashing out of the Vuelta a España last year, there were still serious doubts about his form.
Roglič reigns supreme
It turns out we needn't have been concerned about Roglič’s form. It’s saying a lot for a rider who has won so much and so prolifically throughout his career, but in some ways this was the Slovenian’s most dominant stage race victory to date. While he has won two stages in a row multiple times in his career, never before had he won three on the trot, which is what he achieved here in the three key GC stages between Thursday and Saturday.
All that, despite starting the race seemingly a little under par 12th place in the opening time trial might have been enough to put time into most of his GC rivals, but was underwhelming from a man we’re used to seeing compete for victories in stages against the clock. Perhaps he was just a little rusty on what was his first outing on the road in six months, as three days later he claimed a stage victory in quintessential Roglič fashion, winning a punchy uphill sprint ahead of Julian Alaphilippe.
The following day was less convincing, as he was dropped for a time on the final climb and did not follow attacks from his rivals, but he still had the legs to outkick Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) to win the sprint when the race all came back together before the summit. And as if answering any doubts raised by that performance, he had no problem staying right at the front of the group of favourites for the entirety of the brutal Tappa dei Muri stage the following day, and once again had the quickest sprint at the finish to take his third victory.
As he has done so many times in the past, Roglič has proven his doubters wrong with another brilliant comeback, and has shown that, even at the age of 33 against an increasingly youthful peloton, he remains as competitive as ever. This was about as intimidating a warning shot as he could have fired towards Remco Evenepoel (Soudal - Quick-Step) ahead of their hyped duel at the Giro d’Italia in May.
A strange GC race
This was a strange Tirreno-Adriatico. All three of the big GC road stages ended in large sprints between the favourites, and barely anything separated the riders at the top of the general classification, with seven riders finishing within one minute of Roglič.
The bad weather was much to blame for these unusual circumstances. It forced the key mountain finish to be shortened by a few kilometres, and what was left of the climb became yet less selective when a strong headwind helped prevent gaps between the top favourites, with 17 riders making it to the top together.
Having so many riders in GC contention meant that many teams had multiple cards to play, and this shaped the racing when the riders arrived at the climactic GC stage on Saturday. First Bahrain-Victorious fired Santiago Buitrago up the road while Mikel Landa and Damiano Caruso lurked in the bunch; then, after he was brought back, Aleksandr Vlasov attached for Bora-Hansgrohe, for whom Lennard Kämna lay second on GC and Jai Hindley seventh.
Vlasov was the race’s virtual leader for a while, but was scuppered when UAE (who had João Almeida, Brandon McNulty and Adam Yates all in contention) and Ineos Grenadiers (for Tao Geoghegan Hart, after Thymen Arensman and Tom Pidcock had lost time) opted to join Jumbo-Visma in chasing them down - making Jumbo-Visma’s task much more simple than it might have been.
UAE and Ineos were banking on Almeida and Hart respectively defeating Roglič on the uphill finish, but once again the Slovenian was indomitable, meaning they had to settle for second and third on GC instead. They were still very impressive results (particular for Geoghegan Hart, for whom this was a highest WorldTour stage race since his Giro d’Italia triumph three years ago), and got the better of other, pretty evenly-matched top names on GC like Enric Mas (who finished sixth), Mikel Landa (seventh), Vlasov (ninth), Thibaut Pinot (10th), Adam Yates (11th) and Jai Hindley (15th). But they needed to be more ambitious to stand a chance of winning.
Star Classics specialists still lacking form
Despite being a battle of the elite puncheurs ahead of the major Classics, neither Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, nor Julian Alaphilippe managed to win a stage between them. Each showed flashes of form: Alaphilippe packed a real punch to sprint for second behind Roglič on the uphill finish on stage four; Van der Poel produced a couple of monstrous accelerations to lead team-mate Jasper Philipsen for a sprint wins on stage three and seven; and Van Aert did sterling work in service of Roglič, controlling the race over many of the steep uphills during stage six. But with Milan-San Remo just a week away, they may all be concerned.
Philipsen dominates the sprints
Those lead-outs from Van der Poel proved invaluable for Philipsen, who was undisputed champion of the sprints. This was the Belgian’s first stage race of the season, and whereas the previous bunch sprints this season have been open affairs, Philipsen was consistently dominant in a way no sprinter has been so far in 2023, winning both the last two bunch sprints of the race on stages three and seven.
His only defeat came at the hands of Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal - Quick-Step), and even that was a narrow photo finish at the end of stage two. Although Jakobsen now has two wins this season, he has also struggled for consistency, and was unable to get into the mix for the next two bunch sprints. With a well-oiled lead-out train that is making maximum use of Van der Poel’s power, right now Alpecin-Deceuninck and Jasper Philipsen are the ones to beat in bunch sprints.