Cycling: Stars come out for Tirreno-Adriatico

Italy's Vincenzo Nibali will on Wednesday begin the defence of his Tirreno-Adriatico title, looking to hold off competition from 2011 winner Cadel Evans and Tour de France contenders Alberto Contador and Chris Froome.

The early season stage race, seen as a warm-up for the Milan-Sanremo on March 17, starts with a 16.9km team time-trial from San Vincenzo to Donoratico in the west before a six-stage race to San Benedetto del Tronto on the eastern Adriatic coast.

Astana rider Nibali finished third in last year's Tour de France but Contador is out this season to add another first place in cycling's most celebrated race after winning in 2007 and 2009 before serving a suspension for a doping violation.

Contador will also have to sweep aside his Spanish compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, who finished top of the UCI World Tour rankings last year and was also second in the Tour of Italy and third in the Tour of Spain.

Britain's Froome will also provide a challenge on the back of his second-place behind Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France. Team Sky rider Froome already has a psychological advantage having beaten Contador into second in the Tour of Oman.

The Spanish rider will also have to be wary of outsiders such as Moreno Moser, who won the Strade Bianche on Sunday in Siena ahead of Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, of Slovakia, who also line up for the Tirreno-Adriatico.

Injury-hit Andy Schleck -- awarded the 2010 Tour de France victory after Contador was stripped of the title -- will also be on the start line after finishing his first race since April 2012, the GP Camaiore, in February.

Wednesday's team-trial is followed by a number of stages tailor-made for sprinters such as Britain's former world champion Mark Cavendish, US rider Tyler Farrar, Germany's Andre Greipel and Matthew Goss, of Australia.

Tirreno-Adriatico stages:

March 6 prologue: San Vincenzo-Donoratico (16.9km team time-trial)

March 7 stage 1: San Vincenzo-Indicatore (232km)

March 8 stage 2: Indicatore-Narni Scalo (190km)

March 9 stage 3: Narni-Prati di Tivo (173km)

March 10 stage 4: Ortona-Chieti (230km)

March 11 stage 5: Passo San Elpidio-Passo San Elpidio (209km)

March 12 stage 6: San Benedetto del Tronto (9.2km individual time-trial)