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Blazin' Saddles: 5 talking points from Tirreno-Adriatico
Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski took the blue jersey and golden trident for Team Sky in the Race of the Two Seas on Tuesday after seven eventful days of action in Italy. We round up the thrills and spills and main talking points from Tirreno-Adriatico.
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Rumours of Sky's demise are greatly exaggerated
One day after Paris-Nice favourite Wout Poels lay slumped beside the road with a broken collarbone in France on Friday, across the border his Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas was left cursing his bad luck after an untimely mechanical saw the Welshman concede the leader's blue jersey in Stage 5 of Tirreno-Adriatico.
It was left to the beleaguered asthmatic domestique de luxe Chris Froome to see how the other half live and help pace his team-mate back into contention on the final climb of Sassotetto.
To make matters worse, it was former Sky rider Mikel Landa – now of Movistar – who went on to take the spoils in the race's queen stage as a frustrated Thomas cursed his luck in conceding the race lead to Damiano Caruso of BMC.
Although not quite as physically painful as his fall at the foot of Blockhaus last summer, Thomas's plight was reminiscent of his bad luck in last year's Giro d'Italia where that crash ended his chances of challenging for the maglia rosa.
Still, it didn't mark the moment Sky imploded. Far from it. Thomas may have dropped five places on the GC, but team-mate Kwiatkowski was up into second place just one second off Caruso's lead. And 24 hours later, four bonus seconds for third place behind Adam Yates and Peter Sagan in Filottrano saw the Pole snatch green.
The standings were unchanged after Stage 6 before Sky – with all the nonchalance of Gewiss in a cobbled classic – went and placed three riders (Jonathan Castroviejo, Gianni Moscon and Vasil Kiryienka) in the top 10 of the deciding time trial, with a block of Froome, Kwiatkowski and Thomas all lingering on the doorstep to make it six in 13.
The upshot of this was Kwiatkowski held on to win his first ever stage race while the disappointed Thomas rose on to the third spot on the podium. With the team off the bike struggling thanks to the recent British parliamentary report into anti-doping, Sky's riposte was far from being one from a team seemingly on the ropes and staring down the barrel of a gun.
As for Froome, well, his 34th place some 13-odd minutes behind Kwiatkowski was clearly a trifle skewered – and there was no doubt a lot of PR sense in not making any kind of splash in Italy.
But with everything that's going on in the background, plus his seemingly indifferent form, it's hard seeing him being a major factor in the fight for pink when he next returns to racing in Italy – should he ever take to the Giro start in Israel.
Not that this would worry Sky too much. Paris-Nice and now Tirreno-Adriatico have shown that the British team has ample replacements and a host of race animators waiting not only in the wings but already taking centre stage.
Sagan keeps us entertained even when finishing second
In a few days all eyes will be on the via Roma and the first Monument of the season, Milan-Sanremo, where old rivals Michal Kwiatkowski and Peter Sagan may once again go head to head for glory.
Runner up (behind Kwiatkowski and ahead of Julian Alaphilippe) in that scintillating three-way finish last year, Sagan was ever-present in Tirreno-Adriatico and yet finished second on three occasions – meaning he is yet to win a race since his Stage 4 scalp in the Tour Down Under back in January.
Wins aside, Sagan still remains one of the peloton's great entertainers – as exemplified by his extraordinary array of skills at the end of Stage 6 to Fano on Monday.
First up, Sagan somehow avoided hitting the deck after Fernando Gaviria crashed and caused a small pile-up inside the final 10km of the stage.
Then, following a bike change, he had the strength to fight back on – and the balls to bunny-hop over a kerb surrounding a round-about.
All this put Sagan in a position to compete for a stage which he had no right to compete for. And what did he go and do? He only went and came within a shade of out-sprinting the in-form Marcel Kittel.
Speaking after the conclusion of the race on Tuesday, Sagan explained how he preferred to "make a show for people" over winning bike races. Ahead of Saturday's Milan-Sanremo, he also made a dig against the way "Kwiatko won last year," claiming: "If I win like that, I wouldn't be happy with my performance."
With the ball in his court, Kwiatkowski, during the winner's press conference, retaliated with a zinger of his own. "Sometimes you don't win the races by being strongest, but you need to be the smartest," he said before an Obama-esque dropping of the microphone.
The war of words is hotting up from these two great entertainers. Let's hope they can now deliver the goods on Saturday in La Classicissima.
Kittel enters the Sanremo fray as falls weaken the field
Talking of Milan-Sanremo – and one rider has put himself right in the shop window. After a stuttering start to his Katusha-Alpecin career, two sprint victories in Tirreno-Adriatico sees Germany's Marcel Kittel approach top form ahead of the first major classic of the season.
Kittel's two victories in Tirreno both came at the expense of Sagan, the world champion who has a point to prove after missing out last year to Kwiatkowski at the 11th Hour. The 29-year-old German is now in line to make his Sanremo debut – and will do so with a strong Katusha team in support.
It remains to be seen how a fair-weather flat-track bully like Kittel will perform in a high-pressure race that not only plays out over the best part of 300km but also includes those testing climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio near the finish.
While Kittel has admitted that he's going there "to learn" it's not unprecedented for a debutant to win on the Italian Riviera: the last rider to do so was indeed Britain's Mark Cavendish, who defied expectations by surviving the climbs before overhauling Heinrich Haussler in a tight photo finish in 2009.
Cavendish, however, is one of a cluster of big-name riders who will be absent from the 109th edition of the race following the Manxman's nasty fall during the opening team time trial in Tirreno – just weeks after the 32-year-old was forced out of the Abu Dhabi Tour, also on the opening day, thanks to concussion.
If Cav was forced out with facial injuries and a fractured rib, things didn't get better for his Dimension Date team, who also lost Bernie Eisel to a broken wrist in Stage 5.
Quick-Step Floors' plans have been dealt a blow after Fernando Gaviria broke a bone in his hand following the pile-up in Stage 6 – opening the door, perhaps, to Philippe Gilbert in his quest to win all five Monuments (he still needs victories in Sanremo and Roubaix). Although team-mate Elia Viviani may have other plans…
Elsewhere, an ill Nacer Bouhanni is a doubt after withdrawing from Paris-Nice last week, 2015 winner John Degenkolb is out with bronchitis, while Caleb Ewan's preparations hit a snag when he finished outside the time limit in Stage 5.
This leaves everything to play for on Saturday. Perhaps Kittel could cap a remarkable turnaround by taking the spoils – while Messrs Sagan and Kwiatkowski trade verbal blows on the Poggio.
Fitting farewell at Filottrano for Scarponi
Astana's Dario Cataldo spent all day in the break in a fitting tribute to his former team-mate.
There was even a poignant sighting of Frankie the macaw – Scarponi's unofficial training partner – before Britain's Adam Yates soloed to glory in the hilltop town ahead of dedicating his win to the much-loved Italian.
An expectant Frankie was there once again at the finish…
… as Yates met Scarponi's widow, Anna, and their two sons, Tommaso and Giacomo, on the podium at the end of what was an emotional but fitting day of remembrance and celebration for one of the peloton's good guys.
"It was an emotional day for lots of guys in the peloton," Yates said. "It's a terrible shame he's not here." Meanwhile, on Italian TV Anna Scarponi thanked Astana for making them "feel part of a big family".
"They helped us to enjoy special days, helping the boys have fun as if their father was still here. I'm moved by all the affection that everyone in Filottrano has shown us with their banners and shop window decorations. Michele was proud to be from Filottrano."
Ominous omens for Giro d'Italia contenders
If Tirreno-Adriatico is usually used as a vital form-finder and training platform for riders ahead of the Giro, then things didn't exactly go to plan for many of those eyeing glory in May.
Giro champion Tom Dumoulin was forced out of the race after crash on a rough descent in Stage 4. Already struggling with illness, the Dutchman had lost time in the opening three stages. His crash puts his participation in Milan-Sanremo in doubt and comes as another setback in the Sunweb rider's preparation for defending his Giro crown.
Will he even race again before heading to Israel for the grande partenza? "We don't know yet. I don't know and the team doesn't know. We have to see and I'll take a few days off. I feel s---, and I feel tired. I have to recover, and after a few days, we'll know more. I still have time before May."
Italy's Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) also failed to make a huge impression in Tirreno. Fourth place in Sassotetto showed his uphill ability, but the Italian came a lowly 70th in the ITT and suffered a bit of a spat with his team mechanics in Stage 6.
If Aru finished two minutes adrift of Kwiatkowski, then Colombia's Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana was further off the pace, finishing three-and-a-half minutes down on GC. And yet, that was still 10 minutes better than Chris Froome – the man they're all vying to beat in May…
On a more positive note, there were top 10 finishes for both Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), while in Paris-Nice Simon Yates came four seconds off taking the yellow jersey. So don't throw away your hopes of a competitive Giro d'Italia just yet.