Milan - Spain's Alberto Contador will ramp up his preparations for a tilt at a rare Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double when he defends his Tirreno-Adriatico title in the absence of rival Chris Froome on Wednesday.
Two-time Tour de France champion Contador is aiming this year to become the first cyclist since deceased Italian Marco Pantani to win the Italian and French three-week Grand Tours in the same calendar year.
Tirreno-Adriatico, which runs from March 11-17, may be used by many one-day riders as ideal preparation for the first one-day classic 'monument' of the season, Milan-SanRemo, which is held on March 22.
But the 'Race of the Two Seas', as Tirreno-Adriatico is affectionately known, is jam-packed with stage-racing quality this year.
Even in the absence of Froome, who for the second consecutive year pulled out at the 11th hour citing illness, Contador will face stiff competition from the likes of former two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana.
Italian Nibali is the reigning Tour de France champion and Colombian climbing specialist Quintana won last year's Giro d'Italia.
After Contador's last race, the Ruta del Sol in Spain where he finished only two seconds behind a triumphant Froome on February 22, he said: "I didn't expect to be in such good condition in relation to the rest of the field.
"I also managed a victory (on stage 3) which wasn't in our plans. I am happy, the preparation towards the Giro is going perfectly."
Over seven days of racing between the west and east coasts of the Italian peninsula, the 32-year-old Spaniard will get the chance to gauge his condition further.
The race begins on Wednesday with a 5.7km prologue, after race organisers decided to replace the iniital team time trial around the Lido di Camaiore due to expected weather conditions.
A flat first stage from Camaiore to Cascina has been pencilled in by the sprinters, while stage two - over 203 km - finishes on an uphill drag following six laps of a circuit in Arezzo.
The next big rendezvous for Contador, Nibali and Quintana will be on stage three, which features three climbs in the final 80 km including the Crispiero, whose summit is just 6km from the finish line.
However the real decider for the overall title is set for stage four, a 194km trek beginning in Esanatoglia and culminating with a 16km hike to the summit of Monte Terminillo.
The sprinters get another shot at victory on the flat stage five before the 50th edition of the race ends with a 10km individual time trial over the Adriatico coast road into San Benedetto del Tronto.