For the first time the professional women’s peloton will get a chance to duke it out on the famed white roads of Tuscany. Women’s cycling is enjoying a huge period of growth at the moment and the addition of the Strade Bianche to the calendar is an exciting and extremely positive move. It’s the first of RCS’ races to be opened up to women and, if the first edition goes off well, could expand to the rest of their portfolio in the coming years.
The combination of gravel roads and short, punchy climbs make Strade Bianche a wholly different challenge to any of the other races on the women’s calendar. With the depth of the women’s peloton as strong as it has ever been we should be set for a dramatic and hard-fought race. The route begins and ends in the same place as the men’s race, with the peloton departing San Gimignano at 9am and finishing in Piazza del Campo in Siena.
Some five sectors, totalling 17 kilometres, of dirt roads stand in front of the riders over the 103-kilometre course. The peloton can enjoy nearly 33 kilometres of tarmacked roads before they have to tackle the first 2.2-kilometre stretch of strade bianche. This is the point at which the women’s course deviates from the men’s. Where the men continue south, the women begin to move west towards their second, and longest, sector of dirt road. The 9.5-kilometre San Martino in Grania section will provide the main selection of the day. There are several undulations along the section, culminating in a climb before they hit the tarmac once again.
The women’s and men’s courses join up once again 20 kilometres from the finish, just after Vico d’Arbia. Two sections of strade bianche still remain with the penultimate 2.4-kilometre stretch starting on the climb to Colle Pinzuto. Peaking at 15 per cent, the climb should see the group cut down again to the elite few. The last and steepest section to Le Tolfe hits gradients of 18 per cent over its 1.1-kilometre length. 12km of challenging undulating road remain from there, where each ascent provides an opportunity to distance rivals before the evocative finish in the heart of Siena.
The first running of the women’s Strade Bianche on Saturday 7 March brings together an all-star line-up. Italy will have some keen interest with Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-Honda), her teammate Giorgia Bronzini, Valentina Scandolara (Orica-AIS) and Rosella Ratto (Inpa Sottoli Guisfredi) all riding. Scandolara has had a great start to the year with overall victory at the inaugural women’s Tour Down Under. The 24-year-old had a tricky Classics campaign in 2014 but looks set to put that right.
Longo Borghini moved to Wiggle-Honda over the winter to boost their Classics squad and is the home nation’s strongest contender for victory. The steep climbs are likely to remove her teammate Bronzini out of the final selection but if she can make the cut then she will be hard to beat. Wiggle-Honda can also boast the double Giro Rosa champion Mara Abbott – another new addition to the British-registered team.
However, Boels Dolmans will be the team to beat at the race, with last year’s World Cup winner Lizzie Armitstead leading the line. The Dutch outfit have been on fire so far this season with seven victories on the road including three stages and the overall at the Tour of Qatar, and Chantal Blaak's triumph at Le Samyn des Dames this week. With Marianne Vos still recovering from a hamstring injury that has plagued her since the Dutch national cyclo-cross championships, the onus is on Anna van der Breggen for Rabo Liv Women. The 24-year-old comes into the race in good form after victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and second place behind Blaak at Le Samyn des Dames.
Other potential contenders include Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS), Annemiek van Vleuten (Bigla Pro Cycling), and Tiffany Cromwell and Lisa Brennauer (both Velocio-SRAM).