With Tirreno-Adriatico starting next Wednesday, Milan-San Remo now just two weeks away and cobbled Classics looming large on the horizon, Saturday’s Monte Paschi Strade Bianche race on the dirt roads of Tuscany, will be a key indicator of riders' form.
The hilly race through the hills south of Siena has rapidly become a special race on the calendar. Major professional races often inspire Gran Fondo sportive rides but it was the Eroica sportive, where riders have to use bikes made before 1987, which inspired RCS Sport to create the Strade Bianche professional race in 2007.
That first race was captured by Alexandr Kolobnev, and when Fabian Cancellara out sprinted Alessandro Ballan to take the second edition the following spring, a new classic was born.
The 190km race is now a permanent fixture the weekend before Tirreno-Adriatico, and continues to grow in prestige with each passing year. The combination of stirring scenery and combative racing has made it a firm favourite with fans and riders alike, and perhaps the ultimate proof of its appeal has come with the recent trend of inserting Strade Bianche-style stages into the route of the Giro d’Italia on its passage through Tuscany.
The rocky road to Siena
The peloton faces a unique test during the 190km between Gaiole in Chianti and Siena’s Piazza del Campo: the rolling Chianti hills and the eight sectors of white dust roads, the famous strade bianche, which account for 60km of the total race distance.
As with the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, the dirt roads already require a high degree of technical acumen in dry conditions. In the rain, the roads turn to mud and the race takes on an even more epic dimension, as was the case during last year’s Giro stage to Montalcino.
The first and longest dust sector arrives early in the race, after just 35km. The 13.5km section is by no means the most difficult but it is undulating and offers the peloton a sharp taste of what is to come. By the time they reach the second, 5.5km sector a little later, the bunch should already have broken up.
The climb of Montalcino is the next obstacle on the road, although at this early point in the race, its 5% slopes shouldn’t have too much of an effect. Soon afterwards come the twin sections of 11.9km and 8km of dust road, which are significantly more testing than what comes before.
With 60km to go, the hardship of the race really begins to take hold, with the peloton tackling the toughest sector of strade bianche: the 11.5km near Monte Sante Marie, which is characterised by a stinging series of short but very sharp climbs and descents.
After a short, largely downhill section, which shouldn’t cause too many problems provided conditions stay dry, the riders face the dirt climb of the Colle Pinzuto. Just 20km from home and with slopes of 15%, the ascent is an ideal springboard for the strongmen to make their mark.
The final dirt section comes with 14km to go, and with one short, sharp kick of 18% towards the end, it offers a last chance to slip clear on the strade bianche, although there is still a testing run-in to Siena to negotiate.
The town’s narrow cobbled streets could well see the lead group splinter as it did last year, allowing Maxim Iglinsky to ride to victory in the Piazza del Campo, better-known as the scene of Siena’s biannual Palio horse race.
The runners and riders
The Monte Paschi Strade Bianche has again attracted most of the big-name classics riders, some Tirreno-Adriatico contenders and other riders who are fascinated by the race.
After suffering a rare time trial defeat at the Tour of Oman, Fabian Cancellara will be looking to lay down a marker lest his aura of invincibility begin to wane with the cobbles on the horizon and he will head up a strong Leopard Trek outfit.
Another man smarting from a sub-par showing is Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto). He was a marked man at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad but he might find more freedom on Italian roads, where he has enjoyed such success in recent years.
BMC will be led by former world champion Alessandro Ballan and George Hincapie, as they seek to put their Classics credentials to the test. Cadel Evans will also line up, and even though he is taking a more measured approach to spring racing this year, he was a fine winner of the Montalcino stage of last year’s Giro over the same kind of terrain.
Mark Cavendish is set to ride for HTC-Highroad and while the race is not suited to his sprinting characteristics, the 190km over tricky terrain perfectly fits in well with his Milan-San Remo preparation.
The Garmin-Cervélo squad have been hugely impressive thus far, particularly at the Tour of Qatar, where their black jerseys swarmed to the front end of the peloton whenever the crosswinds struck. Last year former mountain biker Ryder Hesjedal was in the mix at the Strade Bianche and the team will be hoping to improve on that showing this year.
Peter Sagan and Liquigas-Cannondale were the dominant force at the recent Giro di Sardegna, and they might well transfer that form to the mainland this weekend. Another danger man could be Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), who lifted a weight off his shoulders in Sardinia with his first win since 2009.
Filippo Pozzato will lead a strong Katusha line-up, in which he could be complemented by former winner Alexandr Kolobnev and the Danilo Di Luca.
Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri) was very prominent at the Tour of Oman and is not lacking in motivation as his squad heads into the Classics.
Any of these riders could be the first into Siena’s Piazza del Campo and so add their name to the Monte Paschi Strade Bianche roll of honour.