This year's Strade Bianche is only the 14th edition of the men's race, but the spectacular racing, the stunning route and the obvious pleasure the riders get from racing on the dirt tracks across the hills of Tuscany have lead to suggestions that Strade Bianche is already the sixth Monument of the season. Race organiser RCS Sport have dubbed Strade Bianche 'Europe's southernmost northern Classic'.
Few riders will forget the 2018 race, when mid-week snow turned the strade bianche into a weekend mud-fest, with only 53 riders finishing the race, a similar number was ruled outside the time limit and many others failing to make it to the finish in Siena.
Lotto Soudal's Tiesj Benoot won alone at the Piazza il Campo in Siena last year after distancing Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Veranda's Willems Crelan's Wout van Aert on the final steep dirt section. The Belgian, the Tour de France contender and the then world cyclo-cross champion have very different racing pedigrees, but all three clearly share a love for dirt-road racing, and animated the race despite the apocalyptic conditions.
Forecasts for this year's race are for far more clement weather, with sun and dusty dirt roads expected for Saturday. After a dry winter, the gravel surface of the strade bianche is largely compacted, but is still covered with stones of every size, and with potholes and ruts caused by the tractors and cars that use the dirt roads to travel between the villages, vineyards and fields.
Riders' dirty faces will be covered in white dust rather than whitey-brown mud, and Deceuninck-QuickStep will no doubt try to continue their run of success with team leaders Julian Alaphilippe and Zdenek Stybar, while everyone else tries to derail the blue train and steal their thunder.
Strade Bianche may seem suited to spring Classics contenders rather than Tour de France climbers like Bardet, but the shark's tooth profile produces a selective, roller coaster race, with the short, steep climbs and with little respite. The race has a similar amount of climbing altitude as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, ending with the narrow, 16 per cent final climb up to central Siena and the finish in Piazza il Campo.
You could say that Strade Bianche is a little like combining Paris-Roubaix, Liège and Flèche Wallonne. No wonder Bora-Hansgrohe's Peter Sagan has opted to miss this year's event as he returns to racing after a training camp and hopes to stay competitive until the Ardennes. He suffered massively in the cold and rain last year, finishing in eighth place, more than two minutes down on Benoot, and hurting his form for the Classics in the process.
63km of dirt roads in the Crete Senesi hills
For 2019, the 184km route remains the same as for recent editions, with Siena-born race director Mauro Vegni convinced he has found the perfect mix of twisting Tuscan country roads and 63km of dirt strade bianche divided across 11 sectors.
The men roll out of the Fortezza Medicea late morning, facing five hard hours in the saddle. The finish is expected in the spectacular Piazza il Campo square – which hosts the annual Palio horse race – at around 3:30pm CET.
The 2.6km opening sector of dirt road comes after 17.6km, and will give the riders a taste of what's to come. The first break will probably form here, but there are still 60km of dirt roads to cover. Going in the break will be heroic, but will give those riders virtually no chance of victory.
The climb up to the Montalcino after 66km marks the second phase of the race, and is followed by the fifth and sixth sectors near that are 11.9km and 8km long, with only one kilometre on paved roads between them. They come in the stunning Crete Senesi hills, which are often exposed to the wind, leaving nowhere to hide in the peloton.
These two sectors will quickly expose who has the form to be a contender later, or who will climb off at the feed zone after 100km and perhaps ride back to Siena for an early shower.
The rest of peloton will turn right in Monteroni d'Arbia to start sector seven (9.6km long) with 70km to race. It climbs virtually all the way as it goes deep into the fields, woods and vineyards that make the race photographs so stunning. The descent to sector eight (11.5km) is on paved roads, but the dirt roads begin to climb immediately after the cemetery on the left.
The first important attacks of the race will happen on these two sectors, with only the strongest left up front after the 21km of climbing and descending. There is no way back here for anyone dropped or chasing after a crash, puncture or mechanical problem.
After a tactical pause on normal roads, the three remaining sectors of dirt roads come in the final 25km of the race, and usually inspire the end-game attacks.
The final three sectors are shorter, but are spectacular and complex. Each includes a steep climb, with the middle point of sector 10 at Colle Pinzuto touching 15 per cent. There are only 12km of asphalt roads left to Siena after the last dirt sector in Le Tolfe, and so whoever makes it over the 18 per cent section in the front group here 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 Santa Cristina kicks up at nine per cent with a kilometre to go, and reaches 16 per cent at 500 metres to go.
The packed crowds cheer on the riders as they try to fight the gradient. Michal Kwiatkowski – then riding for Omega Pharma-QuickStep – went away from Sagan here in 2014, and produced a similar move as a Team Sky rider in 2017, while last year third-placed Van Aert cracked, dismounted, and struggled to get back on his bike after making a huge effort there. It has become one of the best spots to savour the magic of Strade Bianche.
The first rider to the top of the Via Santa Cristina often wins Strade Bianche because positioning is key on the final road through 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 il Campo, as it's virtually impossible to come past a rival on the way down to the line.
The first rider into Piazza di Campo is greeted by the roar of the crowd and can celebrate as they hit the finish line at the lowest point of the stunning square outside the ancient town hall building and tower.
Zdenek Stybar wins the 2015 Strade Bianche in Siena's Piazza di Campo
Can anyone stop Deceuninck-QuickStep's winning streak?
RCS Sport have again invited 21 teams of seven riders to Strade Bianche with Vital Concept, Neri Sottoli and Nippo Vini Fantini the wildcard teams joining the 18 WorldTour squads on the start list.
Lotto Soudal have confirmed that Tiesj Benoot has recovered from his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad crash and will chase a second consecutive victory, with Tim Wellens giving the Belgian team two options and two possible winners.
Van Aert is also racing again after stepping up to WorldTour level with Jumbo-Visma for 2019, having finished his cyclo-cross season, but Bardet is absent after opting to ride Paris-Nice. A clash with the French stage race again divides the WorldTour peloton, but, on the whole, Paris-Nice appears to have lost out to its younger, one-day rival.
The week-long 'Race to the Sun' has still attracted former Strade Bianche winner Kwiatkowski, but not his Sky teammate and reigning Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, who will line-up in Siena for Strade Bianche alongside expected team leader Gianni Moscon, with support from Salvatore Puccio, Diego Rosa and Eddie Dunbar.
Vincenzo Nibali leads Bahrain-Merida, and Greg Van Avermaet can count on a solid CCC Team, while Alexey Lutsenko will be a danger in a strong Astana squad that also includes the in-form Davide Ballerini and Jakob Fuglsang.
Rafal Majka replaces Sagan as Bora-Hansgrohe's leader and the Polish rider will arguably have more chance of victory considering the hilly route. Bauke Mollema leads Trek-Segafredo, while Nicolas Roche and Sam Oomen lead Team Sunweb in a similar team strategy that favours the climbers over the muscle men of the cobbled Classics.
Fernando Gaviria will make his European season debut with UAE Team Emirates at Strade Bianche, even though teammate Rui Costa is more likely to be a contender, while Tadej Pogacar should definitely not be ignored after his Volta ao Algarve victory.
Luke Durbridge and Denmark's Chris Juul-Jensen lead Mitchelton-Scott, with Juul-Jensen's compatriot Michael Valgren leading Dimension Data as he looks to find some early-spring form. An outsider? How about Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Toms Skujiņš (Trek-Segafredo) or Hugh Carthy (EF Education First)?
Of course, everyone will be watching Deceuninck-QuickStep to see how they race and who will emerge as their team leader. Alaphilippe makes his Strade Bianche debut and has trained at altitude after the Tour Colombia 2.1 race specifically to be on form between Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo. Stybar, meanwhile, won Strade Bianche in 2015, and will wear number 61 as the team's leader after his impressive solo victory at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend.
Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert is another option for Deceuninck-QuickStep, but we can expect Alaphilippe and Stybar to race each other to be first into the decisive break in the final 40km as much as they will race against their rivals. They are arguably strong enough to finish first and second.
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.