With Classics season more or less officially underway after Belgium's 'opening weekend,' a sizable chunk of the peloton's top stars are headed to Italy for Saturday's Strade Bianche.
The scenic trek through Tuscany has managed to ascend into the realm of the sport's most popular one-day events with amazing speed. Going into just its 12th year, the race received a WorldTour upgrade for 2017, giving the heavy hitters in the peloton even more reason to attend.
Strade Bianche combines rolling hills and sections of dusty white gravel to provide a unique racing experience, one that makes for an unpredictable contest that has proven to be thrilling all the way into the final moments in recent years. The profile provides opportunities for both the Flemish Classics heavyweights and the climbers to get involved.
Strade Bianche is relatively short for a top-tier one-day race at 175km in length in 2017. The bunch will set out from Siena on Saturday and head into the Chianti countryside, wasting little time before hitting the first of 11 gravel sections at 11 kilometres. The first real climb, on gravel roads, comes shortly thereafter.
After two more gravel sections comes the day's biggest single climb to Montalcino (4km at 5%), though with over 100 kilometres left to race, it's hard to imagine anything particularly decisive happening there. Two more long gravel sections await before the midway point of the race, after which things become consistently bumpy all the way to the line, with five gravel sections and countless small climbs lining the remainder of the route.
The 10th (and penultimate) gravel stretch up Colle Pinzuto is especially difficult, with double digit gradients along the way. Attacks are likely at this point, with less than 20 kilometres remaining from the top of the ascent to the finish. The last gravel sector will test riders' handling skills and climbing ability alike, opening with a tricky descent that leads into a punchy climb, with things smoothing out just 12 kilometres from the finish.
The road from there to the line is not a forgiving one, with a few steep stretches entering Siena and then a sustained climb – with several twists and turns – to the Piazza del Campo. The first half of the final kilometre ticks up over 10 per cent, with a brief section at 16 per cent, before things ease off for the last 500 metres. Inside the Piazza del Campo the road briefly angles sharply downward before flattening out at the finish line.
The Riders to Watch
Retired three-time winner Fabian Cancellara won't be around to defend his 2016 title this year, leaving Strade Bianche open for the taking, and the list of potential successors is long given the varied parcours and impressive start list in attendance.
Quick-Step Floors should definitely be in the mix. Zdenek Stybar won Strade Bianche in 2015 and earned runner-up honors last year behind Cancellara, while teammates Gianluca Brambilla and Petr Vakoc came home third and fifth, respectively. The race is particularly well-suited to Stybar's skillset. The former cyclo-cross world champ is an excellent bike handler with good climbing legs to boot, making him dangerous at multiple sections along the race route.
Speaking of versatility, Bora-Hansgrohe's Peter Sagan has twice finished second and Strade Bianche and will ride into the weekend already having proven his form with a great 'opening weekend' in Belgium. His uphill sprint capabilities could shape the race itself, as few will want to risk going head-to-head with him in Siena.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Greg Van Avermaet has finished in the top 10 in his last five appearances at Strade Bianche, including a runner-up performance in 2015, and he too combines skillset with form to make for an ideal contender. Whether or not he'll be targeting this race 100 per cent is a bit of question mark, however, as Van Avermaet may have his sights set on finding elusive wins at home in Belgium this Classics season.
Sky bring a strong squad with 2014 winner Michal Kwiatkowski, prospective Giro leader Geraint Thomas and promising youngster Gianni Moscon. Kwiatkowski's ability to win on both Flemish- and Ardennes-style terrain is perfect for Strade Bianche. He has an underrated finishing kick as well.
Vincenzo Nibali will lead the charge for Bahrain-Merida. He's never won at Strade Bianche but he thrives when the road goes up and when it goes down, and he's not shy about going on the attack in one-day races.
Cannondale-Drapac can be optimistic about their chances between Rigoberto Urán and Sep Vanmarcke. The former has said he's focusing more on one-day races this year, and he has a surprising amount of punch on this sort of finishing climb, while the latter is no stranger to tough Classics profiles.
Lotto Soudal's Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot, UAE Team Emirates' Rui Costa, Dimension Data's Edvald Boasson Hagen, Trek-Segafredo's Jasper Stuyven and Fabio Felline, Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman, FDJ's Thibaut Pinot, Astana's Fabio Aru and Orica-Scott's Roman Kreuziger are just a few of the other riders worth watching in Italy this weekend.
Cyclingnews will be on the ground in Siena this weekend for both the men's and women's editions of Strade Bianche. Stay tuned for live coverage, a full race report, photo galleries and news from the race.