It is one of the newest races on the international calendar, yet the Strade Bianche on the twisting, hilly dirt roads of southern Tuscany, has quickly become a modern classic, a race big name riders such as Fabian Cancellara and Cadel Evans want to win and one most riders look forward to riding.
This year's race will be part of a spectacular weekend of racing in Italy, with RCS Sport organising Strade Bianche on Saturday March 2, with the Roma Maxima –including a taste of Roman cobbled roads and the finish at the Coliseum, the day after on Sunday March 3.
This year's Strade Bianche race again follows the established 190km route from Gaiole in Chianti to the spectacular Piazza il Campo in the heart of Siena.
In between the riders cover eight sections of dirt roads for a total of 57.2km, almost a third of the total race distance. Many sections include some steep climbs and even steeper descents through the Chianti and Brunello vineyards, creating a finally balanced race between the pure classics riders and the more agile climbers.
The races heads south from Gaiole in Chianti to Siena and then deep into the stunning rolling hills around Montalcino, San Giovanni and San Giorgio.
A first real selection will be made before the feed zone just after Buonconvento, with only the strongest and fittest going on to race for victory. Others will climb into team vehicles to ease the pain on their tired bodies, or be force to ride to Siena.
The fifth section of dirt roads often reveals the real contenders for victory. The Monte Sante Marie section is 11.5km and includes several nasty climbs on the dirt roads. A select group is likely to emerge here and go on to fight for victory.
The final 25km include three short sections of dirt roads and these often inspire attacks and aggressive racing. Section seven climbs for almost four kilometres on the slopes of Colle Pinzuto, including some early parts at 15 per cent. The final section is just two kilometres long but dips and then climbs with some corners at 18 per cent. It tops out just 12.5km of the race, meaning that anyone who is left behind has little chance of victory.
However the run-in to the centre of Siena is also a vital moment in the race. The route covers a loop north of the ancient city centre and then climbs to the final kilometre in Via Santa Caterina. The paved narrow streets force the riders out of the saddle, with a section at 16 per cent. Position is vital as a left, right and then a final left turn in the final 500 metres make it hard to move up. The last corner leads into a descent into the Piazza il Campo and whoever is first in the corner, will likely be first to the line.
Cancellara wears number one
Fabian Cancellara wears number one and leads the RadioShack-Leopard team. He won alone in Siena last year and in 2008. RCS Sport have announced they will name a section of dirt road after any rider who wins Strade Bianche three times. It is extra motivation for the big man from Berne, who is looking to bounce back after an injury hit 2012.
The hilly course perhaps means that Strade Bianche is too selective for Taylor Phinney, even if the American is motivated to race close to his European base in Quarrata. Greg Van Avermaert is likely to lead the BMC Racing team, along with Steve Cummings. Both have the climbing and bike handling skills, as well as the form to get a result, while Cadel Evans cannot be ruled out. He won the legendary rain-soaked Giro d'Italia stage to Montalcino in 2010 and his past as a mountain biker will help him greatly on the dirt roads.
Team Cannondale have two excellent if inexperienced cards to play in Peter Sagan and Moreno Moser. Sagan has reportedly recovered from the bronchitis that forced him to quit the Tour of Oman and his natural aggression, his junior world mountain bike title and his power on the climbs and in the sprints, means he could be the one to defeat even Cancellara. Moser is also a huge talent but Strade Bianche is just his second race of the season. We can expect him to shine in the Ardennes classics.
Other riders expected to fight for victory include Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), Luca Paolini (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Outsiders to watch for are Marco Bandiera (IAM Cycling) and Tom Slagter and Lars Boom of Team Blanco.