Strade Bianche Preview: Cancellara faces Sagan, Nibali, Stybar and Valverde

Swiss rider looking for third title

The spring Classics season kicked off with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend, and many of the same riders who competed in Belgium will head to Tuscany for Saturday’s Strade Bianche, which race organiser RCS Sport has dubbed “the northern Classic at the most southern point in Europe”

Officially now called Strade Bianche Eroica Pro, after the creation of an accompanying sportif and a women’s version of the race, Strade Bianche is a unique race on the packed European calendar.

The 200km race route includes over 50km of dirt roads, with the ‘strade bianche’ farm tracks and country lanes twisting through the Tuscan hills and vineyards. It is like combining a race on the pave of Northern France or Flanders with a hilly Ardennes Classic. The dirt road sections include steep climbs and testing descents, with the gravel surface often smooth but also dotted with stones, pot holes and hidden dangers. Success depends on a rider’s climbing ability, bike handling skills, form, equipment and team support. The riders reach the finish in Siena exhausted and covered in dust but genuinely seem to love Strade Bianche.

The list of winners confirms Strade Bianche’s prestige, despite its young age and only nine previous editions. Recent winners include Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Moreno Moser (Cannondale-Garmin) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC). Cancellara won in 2008 and 2012 and is hoping for a third victory this year.

“This is one of my favourite races and I’ve already won it twice,” Cancellara said when the official entry list was released by RCS Sport. “This is one of my favourite races and I’ve already won it twice. I’m in good shape and, with no doubts, I will try to win for a third time thanks to the help of my teammates, which I’m sure will support me. I will be ready for the challenge on Saturday."

The secrets of the race route

The difficulty of the 200km race route create a natural selection, with punctures and crashes an added filter of who makes it to the finale, and the steep climb to the finish in Siena. Some of the 10 dirt sections are flat, others dip and roll. Positioning and route knowledge is vital. Indeed several Italian riders have trained on the race route in recent weeks to be ready to race.

The racing starts in the shadows of the many medieval towers in the hilltop town of San Gimigniano and finishes in the spectacular Il Campo square, in the heart of Siena, which hosts the annual bare back Palio horse race. There are remarkable similarities between the two events.

The opening 33km of the route are on normal roads before the opening sector of ‘strade bianche’ gives a taste of what is to come. Four other sectors follow before the feed zone just after Montalcino, but they usually cause little selection.

Things turn serious on sectors six and seven near Lucignano d’Asso and Asciano. These sectors are 9.5km and 11.km long respectively. The descent to San Giovanni di Asso is a real test of nerve, while the short, sharp climbs on sector seven are perfect places to attacks. Monte Sante Maria is a key point, with a steep climb coming with just 50km left to race. A decisive group often forms here and usually goes on to fight out for victory. Many other riders often climb off and jump in a team car for a ride to Siena, or sit up and enjoy the stunning countryside as they ride to the showers.

The three remaining sectors are short but packed in between kilometres 167 and 183 of the race route. They are spectacular and complex as many of the great red wines of the area. Each includes a steep climb, with the middle sector to Colle Pinzuto usually sparking a serious attack as the gradient touches 15%. There are only 12km of asphalt roads left to Siena after the last sector. Whoever is in the front group, will go on to fight for victory.

However, Strade Bianche is never decided in a true sprint. The steep road to the centre of Siena is on narrow streets with a rough paved surface. The Via Esterna de Fontebranda kicks up at 9% with a kilometre to go and reaches 16% at 500m to go. Kwiatkowski went away from Sagan here in 2014. Other riders have waited for the final metres and then fought to be first into the final right turn that leads into the descent to the finish in Piazza il Campo. It is virtually impossible to come past a rival in sight of the line.

The riders to watch

Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) is the only rider targeting a third victory at Strade Bianche but the Swiss veteran faces some serious competition from the other 19 teams of eight riders on the entry list. It includes some on-form Classics contenders and many of the riders who can handle the sharks tooth race profile.

Kwiatkowski will be in action for Etixx-QuickStep at Paris-Nice, while Tom Boonen enjoys his only weekend off during the spring and Mark Cavendish is in South Africa for the Cape Town Cycle Tour event. Rigoberto Uran leads the Belgian super team along with Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar. The explosive former cyclo-cross world champion seems perfect for Strade Bianche.

Vincenzo Nibali leads the troubled Astana team with Lars Boom and Dario Cataldo as alternatives. Nibali grew up riding a mountain bike and may want to test his legs, and prove a point for the team after its licence problems. Alejandro Valverde leads the Movistar team, while Greg Van Avermaet is captain for BMC and Filippo Pozzato will be hoping to finally break his lean streak for Lampre-Merida. All have some early season form. Sep Vanmarke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Ian Stannard (Team Sky) are perhaps too big for the amount of climbing in the race but also line up and could have the legs and power to punch their way up the dirt roads.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) would love Strade Bianche to be his first win with his new team. He was second in 2013 and 2014 and has the bike skills, ability and speed to win if he rides a smart race. The Slovakian will have precious support from local rider Daniele Bennati. Moser also desperately needs a win to revive his career. He was thought to be Italy’s next great Classics rider after his 2013 win but has not won a race since. The Cannondale-Garmin team also includes Ryder Hesjedal and Nathan Haas.

Orica-GreenEdge has yet to win a race in 2015 but Simon Gerrans could break their duck on Saturday. He has not raced since breaking his collarbone during the winter but is perfectly suited to the Strade Bianche route and especially the steep final climb. Adam Yates will be the Australian teams alternative leader.

Possible outsiders include the on-form Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky) who raced in Tuscany and on the dirt roads at the Under 23 Giro Bio, Tuscan resident Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Simone Ponzi (Southeast) or even Damiano Cunego (Nippo Vini Fantini).

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