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White dirt roads provide a spectacle like no other
The strade bianche provides a glimpse of cycling's past.
The roads of Belgium and Northern France have become legendary in cycling thanks to the cobbles and the classics, and after just three years, the white roads of the Chianti hills have made the Montepaschi Strade Bianche race synonymous with a unique race the Tuscan hills near Siena.
If the roads are dry, the riders create huge plumes of white dust as they race. If it is wet, the roads turn to a white mud and glue the riders' tyres to the roads.
It amazing to watch and is like going back in time. The rider look like the pioneers of cycling at the turn of the nineteenth century. Some of them hate the conditions but most love being able to ride what has already become like no other race on the calendar.
190km of racing, eight sections of strade bianche
This year the race again falls on the Saturday before Tirreno-Adriatico's Wednesday start four days later and so has attracted an impressive field. With a key stage of this year's Giro d'Italia also including some of the strade bianche dirt roads, many teams will stay in the area to study the roads and test equipment before and after the race.
The 190km race again starts in the village of Gaiole in Chianti, that hosts the popular Eroica sportif ride in October. The race finishes in the spectacular Piazza del Campo in the heart of Siena, which hosts the Palio horse race every summer. The race is now sponsored by the Siena-based Monte dei Paschi bank, hence the change in name to Montepaschi Strade Bianche.
The testing route includes eight section of dirt road. Some sections are over 10km and include some nasty climbs and off camber descents in the picture postcard hills south of Siena.
The race is often decided on Monte Santa Maria fifth section. It is 11.5km long and includes two challenging climbs on the dirt. This is where the first major selection is likely to be made with teams working hard to make any splits stick before their team leaders go for victory on the final three smaller sections of dirt road near Siena.
Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan attacked hard on the seventh Colle Pinzulo section in 2007 and the front group that fought for victory last year was also formed here.
The final eighth section in Le Tolfe could also be a launch pad for attacks and the twisting roads and short climbs to the centre of Siena are also good moments to attack. 2009 winner Thomas Lofkvist attacked as the front group entered the historic centre of Siena. It was a late move but he won alone by a few seconds ahead of Fabian Wegmann and Martin Elmiger.
Classics rider pack the start list
Lofkvist will ride again, but this year the classy Swedish rider will be in the black and blue of Team Sky rather than the yellow and white of HTC-Columbia. Also in the Team Sky line-up is recent Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Juan Antonio Flecha, Canada's Michael Barry, Ian Stannard, CJ Sutton and Matthew Hayman.
Tyler Farrar leads a strong Garmin-Transitions team that also includes Martijn Maaskant, Julian Dean, Ryder Hesjedal and Johan Van Summeren. The Cervelo TestTest includes Roger Hammond, Andreas Klier and Jeremy Hunt, while Andy Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Baden Cooke, Stuart O'Grady give extra strength to the Team Saxo Bank line-up.
Mark Cavendish is expected to ride as part of the HTC-Columbia squad as he continues to work on his form after some troubling dental problems. But look for Lars Bak, Marco Pinotti or even promising young American Tejay Van Garderen in the hilly finale.
Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) will be looking for a result after a quiet start to the season, while it will be fascinating to see what former mountain biker but now world road race champion Cadel Evans thinks of the strade bianche. He will ride with new BMC teammate Alessandro Ballan, Mauro Santambrogio and American's Jeff Louder and Brent Bookwalter.