For the second year, Strade Bianche will raise the curtain on the Women's WorldTour, and it brings with it a line-up and route that is befitting of the status. This season's edition will be the third in its history, after being inaugurated in 2015. It will be the longest yet and has one more section of eponymous 'white roads' than last year's offering.
Strade Bianche was a very welcome addition to the women's calendar when it was brought in two years ago. The gravel roads and Tuscany countryside that enticed the organisers to create the men's professional race several years prior delivered the same intense and challenging battle for the women's peloton. Its early success meant that it was included on the first Women's WorldTour for just its second outing.
As each year progresses, the organisers of the Strade Bianche Donne – RCS – push the envelope a little further in an effort to test the mettle of the riders. This year is no different and the course stretches out to 127km, 6km longer, for 2017. The extended route also contains one extra strada bianca, a punchy 4.7km uphill sector, with gradients above 10 per cent, that lies before the riders after 17 kilometres of racing.
The route will begin in Siena – where the winner will be crowned a few hours later – and then travel out to San Rocco a Pilli, where the riders will tackle their first gravel road soon after. Sector number two is the short but punchy rise towards Ville di Corsano, which is followed by a short descent and another, undulating, white road. Sector number four is on a slight decent and reveals itself after 38 kilometres of action. From thereon, the gravel roads become sparser, but they will also be more decisive.
The longest gravel section of the day is the fifth, which is a whopping 9.5km and passes through San Martino in Grania. "It's a long sector with continuous up and downs in the first part, ending up with a twisting climb before meeting the tarmac again," says the official race documentation. After such a relentless start to the race, there will be plenty of sore legs by this stage, and the peloton should already be whittling down to all but the cream of the crop. It was here that the race-winning move began to take shape in 2016.
From this point, the route is fairly similar to last year's, aside from a few small changes. A series of three uphill gravel sectors will bring the riders into Siena with just 12 kilometres remaining. The final of these sectors has a brutal 18 per cent gradient towards the finish and will be a chance for the strong to really put their rivals to the sword.
In its first year, Guarnier was a level above the rest as she sailed into Siena’s Piazza del Campo with 37 seconds on the following riders. Last year, it was a game of chess between the strongest with Deignan jumping clear on the final climb to win in the rainbow stripes.
Deignan and Guarnier will be back again, hoping to lead Boels Dolmans to their third straight victory at the race. They will also have Olympic Champion Anna van der Breggen, who finished fifth last year and is making her season debut, as another card to play. Boels Dolmans is undoubtedly the strongest team travelling to Siena and will be tough to beat, but there is plenty of strength elsewhere.
WM3 Pro Cycling has an equally as potent line-up, with Marianne Vos and last year’s runner-up Katarzyna Niewiadoma. Vos has never raced at Strade Bianche, after an injury kept her out of most of 2015 and delayed her start to last year, but her skillset will be well suited to the race. Niewiadoma was one of the few riders that could stay with Deignan in 2016, and if she and Vos can work together, they could certainly do some damage.
Wiggle-High5 will be without their third place finisher from last year, Emma Johansson, after she retired over the winter. They do, however, have Elisa Longo Borghini in their arsenal, who has already shown signs of form and reached the podium two years ago. Claudia Lichtenberg will also ride in Wiggle-High5 colours for only the second time this season. She featured in the top 10 last time out and can run interference for her Italian teammate.
Canyon-SRAM also has its big hitters out with Pauline Ferrand-Prevot making her debut in the team’s colours. It’s hard to know how she will go with so long out following a tumultuous 2016 season. Backing her up are Italian champion Elena Cecchini, Alena Amialiusk, Tiffany Cromwell, Alexis Ryan and Trixi Worrack.
Annemiek van Vleuten has already got one win under her belt, and a podium finish at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The Dutchwoman will head up a strong Orica-Scott line-up that included Amanda Spratt and Gracie Elvin. Dani King had a quiet but solid ride last year and she returns to the race for Cylance this season with Le Samyn des Dames winner Sheyla Gutierrez.
Other names to note are Lauren Kitchen, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Roxanne Knetemann.