The Italian racing season gets into full swing this weekend with the Strade Bianche race on the dirt roads of Tuscany attracting some of the best Classics riders and climbers in the world and offering the first showdown between Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
2014 marks just the eighth version of the Strade Bianche race but the spectacular dirt roads, the rolling climbs through the Chianti vineyards and the finish in Piazza il Campo that hosts the annual Palio horse race, have made Strade Bianche a modern Classic that riders love to ride.
Moreno Moser (Cannondale) won alone in 2013 with a powerful attack and the 10 sections of dirt roads -54.4km of the 197km race route, inspires a hard and selective race. Cancellara has twice won alone with attacks on the steep climb to the centre of Siena.
Mastering the Strade Bianche requires a mix of Classics bike handling skills, climbing ability and good fitness.
The 10 dirt road sections are spread throughout the route and are both short and long, covering climbs, descents and flat roads, making positioning and bike handling skills vital. Fortunately the weather forecast for the weekend predicts dry conditions, with light winds from the north-east and temperatures of 15C. We can expect more stunning images of trails of dust rising from the peloton and covering the riders' faces.
The secrets of the dirt roads
San Gimignano hosts the start for the first time but the remains largely unchanged, with the first section of dirt roads coming after 32km. Four other short section follow in the opening half of the race, with the climb to Montalcino after 96km marking a natural half way point.
The key selections amongst the real contenders will no doubt begin on the two long sections of dirt road: section 6: 9.5km long between Lucignano d'Asso and Asciano after 120km, and then section 7: 11.5km long from Ponte del Garbo to Torre a Castello after 147km. Both include testing climbs and descents.
Any one not in the front group after these two sections will have little chance of fighting for victory on the final three shorter sections in the last 25km of the race. Sections 9 and 10 both include steep climbs and are both ideal for launching attacks and dropping weaker rivals.
However the final 10km and the approach to Siena are also hilly and make it hard for a solo attack to stay clear. If a small group reaches the medieval walls of Siena together, then the 15% climb in Via Santa Caterina will reveal who is the strongest and possibly allow them to be first into the corner before the descent to the finish in Piazza il Campo.
Sagan is the logical favourite for victory
Sagan seems to have the characteristics of a perfect Strade Bianche rider and is the logical favourite for victory. He has the bike skills for the ruts and dust of the dirt roads, can handle the climbing and has the speed to win the dash to the final corner.
Cancellara knows he has to drop Sagan and his other rivals if he secure a third victory, while few riders can afford to wait for the final climb in Siena. That can only lead to an aggressive finale to the race, which will be shown live on television.
Also on the provisional start list and definite contenders are Cadel Evans (BMC), who won the stage on the dirt roads in the rain during the 2010 Giro d'Italia, Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), local hero Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo), Diego Ulissi and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida).
Outsiders include the on form Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Thomas Lövkvist (IAM Cycling) and Mauro Finetto (Neri Sottoli-Yellow Fluo). The big-name start list also includes Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprinting trio of Mark Cavendish, Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi.
Only one of them will climb on the top step of the podium in Siena. Everyone else will be left to cough up the dirt and lactic acid after 197km of intense but unique racing.
Image ©: RCS Sport