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Gilbert, Cancellara and Sagan face off in Tuscany
Philippe Gilbert celebrates his 2011 Strade Bianche win.
In an era when the UCI conjures up fresh events in cycling’s new world and old races slowly fade away in its traditional heartlands, Strade Bianche stands out as something of an incongruity. A recent addition to the calendar, the Tuscan race’s very premise is that it is an evocation of a far bygone era, of cycling's “heroic” age
Inspired by the Eroica gran fondo, in which amateur riders tackle dirt roads in the hills around Siena bedecked in retro garb and on bikes made before 1987, the race first saw the light of day in October 2007. Organisers RCS soon moved the race to its current March date, a move that has paid rich dividends.
Now kicking off a two-week spell of quality Italian racing that incorporates Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche is a prominent marker on the road map to classics success and is steadily building a certain cachet of its own. The combination of narrow, dusty roads and short, sharp climbs offers a novel challenge, and two of the finest classics riders of the current era, Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, already feature prominently on its roll of honour. As such, the retro-themed race appears to have a far more secure future than a number of other events on the Italian and European calendars.
Gilbert's victory in the race last year was a precursor to his domination later in the spring, and though the Belgian has seemed short of that form to date in 2012, his new BMC team would dearly like to get off the mark sooner rather than later. As reigning champion, he will be a marked man on Saturday, but as he showed twelve months ago, he has the nous to master the technical finale in Siena.
Should Gilbert falter, BMC can turn to Greg Van Avermaet, who was an effervescent performer in last year's race, or to Alessandro Ballan. Cadel Evans also features in a star-studded BMC line-up, as the team still searches for it maiden win of 2012.
Another man looking to get off the mark this season is Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan). The Swiss rider showed some early flashes of his form at the Tours of Qatar and Oman in February, and was a past winner of Strade Bianche in 2008. He is supported by local rider Daniele Bennati and the in-form Tony Gallopin, and he can be expected to test his rivals' mettle over some of the more demanding dirt sections.
Peter Sagan and Vincenzo Nibali already have wins to their name this season, and the pair are part of a solid Liquigas-Cannondale selection. Indeed, Sagan's debut in a race that seems tailored to his myriad qualities is one of the most intriguing subplots of this year's Strade Bianche. The combative uphill finale in the narrow streets of Siena seems particularly well-suited to his more robust qualities, while Daniel Oss will also be on hand to offer his support.
Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) looks set to continue his very active recovery from a broken collarbone by taking the start, but as was the case in Belgium last weekend, his objective will simply be to get some more racing kilometres in his legs before the classics. It may instead fall on Oscar Gatto to step up to the mark for Luca Scinto's team, and the Italian was in the mix last year.
Paris-Roubaix champion Johan Vansummeren heads up the Garmin-Barracuda challenge, which also boasts Ryder Hesjedal in its line-up, while Italian champion Giovanni Visconti leads Movistar. Resident in Tuscany since his amateur days, the Sicilian has been a consistent performer at Strade Bianche in recent years.
The test of time is the ultimate arbiter as to what constitutes a classic, and Strade Bianche has some years to go before attaining that lofty status, but the organisers certainly have a head start when it comes to the setting. Just as Paris-Roubaix is defined by its pavé, the Tour of Lombardy by its falling leaves and the Tour of Flanders by its jarring chain of hellingen, the dirt roads of Tuscany give Strade Bianche a unique feel.
Fifty-seven of the race’s 190km take place on the white roads themselves, and unlike Paris-Roubaix, where the cobbles arrive in short staccato bursts, there are just eight dirt sections, but half of them are 8km and above in length.
The first and longest section arrives 35km after the peloton leaves the start at Gaiole in Chianti. At 13.5km in length over some rolling rather than rugged terrain, the section over the Colle Malamerenda gives the riders an early taste of what is to come. A shorter 5.5km stretch follows shortly afterwards, before the bunch tackles the smooth climb to Montalcino, scene of a dramatic stage at the 2010 Giro d’Italia.
The midpoint of the race comes between twin dirt sectors of 11.9km and 8km, and these should force the first principal selection of the race. The denouement begins in earnest on the toughest sector of strade bianche with 60km to go. The 11.5km near Monte Sante Marie are punctuated by a succession of steep climbs and descents, and those dropped will struggle to regain contact on this technical part of the course.
The dirt climb of the Colle Pinzuto (2.4km at 15%) is another crucial juncture with 20km to go, while the final section of strade bianche at Le Tolfe rears up to 18 percent at one point. The final 14km into Siena present additional difficulties, as the run-in features a sharp climb into the city itself, before a grandstand finish in Piazza del Campo.
Better known as the scene of the biannual Palio horse race, positioning ahead of the final righthand bend has proved to be all-important. Last year, Gilbert gave a fine exhibition of his innate racecraft by swooping in ahead of Alessandro Ballan on that final bend to take a win that set the tone for the remainder of his spring.