The spring Classics season began with last Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the spectacular racing continues this weekend with Strade Bianche on the dirt farm tracks and the rolling hills of southern Tuscany.
This 13th edition is again part of the UCI WorldTour, with many of the cobbled Classics contenders and the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and world cyclo-cross champion Wout van Aert (Veranda's Willems Credit) set for a rare clash. The dirt roads and steep climbs through the Chianti and Brunello vineyards make for an equal fight, with only the strongest able to fight for victory in Renaissance Siena.
Organiser RCS Sport have dubbed Strade Bianche "the northern Classic at the most southern point in Europe". With the women's race again opening the Women's WorldTour and a 5,000-rider sportif ride organised on the Sunday, the Strade Bianche weekend has quickly overshadowed the start of Paris-Nice as the place to be at the start of March. Most riders in action at Strade Bianche will stay on in Tuscany to ride Tirreno-Adriatico, which begins on Wednesday, March 7.
Recent winners include Zdenek Stybar, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Michel Kwiatkowski. Cancellara won in 2008, 2012 and 2016 and so a sector of Strade Bianche was named in his honour before last year's race. Kwiatkowski beat Greg van Avermaet and Tim Wellens to take his second win last year.
Success depends on a rider's climbing ability, bike handling skills, equipment, team support and good luck. The riders reach the finish in Siena exhausted and covered in dust but genuinely seem to love riding Strade Bianche.
63km of dirt roads
The 184km race route includes 63km of dirt roads. That is 34 per cent of the total route, with the farm tracks twisting through the Tuscan hills in a figure of eight loop south of Siena.
The race profile looks like a combination of the hills of an Ardennes Classic, divided by long sections of dirt roads that include steep climbs, testing descents and off-camber curves. It is unforgiving.
The gravel surface is largely compact and smooth but is also dotted with stones, potholes and hidden dangers. It snowed in Southern Tuscany earlier this week, with freezing temperatures. However, the weather is expected to be mild with some rain showers come Saturday. The white roads will turn to creamy coloured mud and so will add an extra difficulty to the race.
The secrets of the race route
Strade Bianche starts in Siena and finishes in the spectacular Piazza del Campo square which hosts the annual Palio horse race.
The short opening sector of the race comes after 18km and gives a taste of what is to come. The first break will probably have formed here but the big-name favourites will wait for the tough finale.
The climb up to the stunning Montalcino after 66km marks phase two of the race and is followed by the fifth and sixth sectors (11.9km and 8km, respectively) that begin just past Torrenieri. There is only one kilometre on paved roads between them and so these sectors will quickly expose who has the form to be a contender later.
Sectors seven and eight are the toughest of the race and shake out the peloton. Sector seven begins at San Martino in Grani and is 9.6km long. It climbs and descends through the spectacular Crete Senesi hills, with riders often exposed to the winds and forced to fight for position in echelons and take risks on the descents.
Sector eight is the hardest of the whole race. It is 11.5km long and is a constant mix of climbing and descending. The selection of the race will happen here, with only the strongest left upfront. Anyone else faces a long ride back to Siena.
The three remaining sectors in the final 25km are shorter but are spectacular and complex. Each includes a steep climb, with the middle sector at Colle Pinzuto usually sparking a serious attack when the gradient touches 15 per cent. There are only 12km of asphalt roads left to Siena after the last sector in Le Tolfe and so whoever is in the front group, will go on to fight for victory.
Strade Bianche is never decided in a true sprint because 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 nine per cent with a kilometre to go and reaches 16 per cent at 500 metres to go, with the crowds cheering on the riders as they try to fight the gradient and reach the top first. Kwiatkowski went away from Sagan here in 2014 and produced a similar move in 2017.
Positioning is the key on the final roads in the centre of Renaissance Siena. It is vital to be first into the final right turn that leads into the descent to the finish in Piazza del Campo because it is virtually impossible to come past a rival in sight of the line. The riders drop down to the finish line with the everyone in the bowl-shaped square able to see them hit the line.
The riders to watch
RCS Sport has invited 21 teams of seven riders to the 2018 edition of Strade Bianche, adding van Aert's Veranda's WiIlems team to the start list two weeks ago to give the cyclo-cross world champion a chance to show what he can do on the dirt roads against the big-name Classics contenders. Van Aert impressed at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last Saturday but will face more serious competition this weekend.
Team Sky and Kwiatkowski head the Strade Bianche start list as 2017 winners. The Polish rider will be joined by Gianni Moscon to create a strong duo, while Michal Golas, Owain Doull, Leonardo Basso, Lukasz Wisniowski and Salvatore Puccio offer strong back up.
World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) makes his European season debut after riding the Tour Down Under and then heading to altitude in Spain's Sierra Nevada. Surprisingly Sagan has not won Strade Bianche, with the testing finale often revealing his lack of racing. Sagan is a superb bike handler and so the dirt roads offer little problem. The expected rain and back-up from new signing Daniel Oss could help him control the attacks and so go on to fight for victory on the climb to Siena.
Greg Van Avermaet leads a strong BMC Classics squad and the numerous Classics riders in Tuscany on Saturday. Others to watch include 2013 winner Moreno Moser and Astana teammate Alexey Lutsenko, Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott), local resident Daniele Bennati (Movistar), Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education Frist- Drapac), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Stijn Devolder (Vérandas Willems-Crelan).
They are all on form and all could be a threat but the rolling hills will hurt some of them and see them head to the showers early rather than contest the finale into Siena.
The climbing in the hills accumulates in the rider's legs and the dirt roads makes each gradient feel harder. This combination is what makes Strade Bianche special and also gives stage racers and Ardennes Classics rider a chance of victory.
It will be fascinating to see what Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale), Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) and even Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) can do.
Cyclingnews will be in Siena on Saturday for both the men's and women's editions of Strade Bianche with a full race report, photo galleries and news from the race.