An in-form Sep Vanmarcke, third in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend, will lead the EF Education First-Drapac team into Saturday's Italian Classic Strade Bianche, where teammate Taylor Phinney will make his season debut after illness forced him from the Abu Dhabi Tour.
“It’s a special race because it’s heroic,” Vanmarcke said. “It’s very hard to race on gravel roads. Like with a cobbled classic, you need to be in good position, stay focused from start to finish and have some luck.”
The 12th edition of the 184km race includes 11 gravel sections totalling 63km. In the finale, riders will battle up a cobbled climb to the finish in the scenic and historic Piazza del Campo.
An added challenge could come in the form of snow, which has covered northern Europe over theist few days, although forecasts currently call for milder temperatures and rain on Saturday.
“The snow can upset this race, making it very hard,” said team director Fabrizio Guidi. “We’re not worried about this. The weather conditions support us and our goals.”
One rider looking forward to the potential weather-induced carnage is Alex Howes, who grew up in the harsh conditions of Colorado's Rocky Mountain winters.
"Most of my favorite routes [at home] incorporate wild dirt roads where conditions are often times unpredictable and inhospitable,” Howes said. “To have a spring classic on dirt with the potential for snow is a dream come true for me.”
Joining Vanmarkce, Phinney and Howes in Strade Bianche will be Simon Clarke, Kim Magnusson, Dani Moreno and Tom Van Asbroeck.
“We have a strong team and start with important ambitions,” Guidi said. “It’s difficult to predict how the race will unfold in light of the weather forecast. We have a plan for every situation. We are prepared. We start to win, as always, and strategy and team spirit will make a difference.”
EF Education First-Drapac for Strade Bianche: Simon Clarke, Alex Howes, Kim Magnusson, Dani Moreno, Taylor Phinney, Tom Van Asbroeck, Sep Vanmarcke