The Women's WorldTour is set to begin at Strade Bianche on Saturday in Siena, Italy for what is both an opportunity to secure the first victory of the 23-event series and the early leader's jersey. Defending champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) will toe the line, wearing her new world champion's jersey, in an attempt at a second consecutive win.
The women will once again race along the white gravel roads and over the sharp hills in Tuscany, and while it is breathtakingly scenic to watch, it is also one of the most unpredictable races of the season – a spectacle for both racers and fans.
This year's race is expected to be dry with cool near-spring temperatures, which could make it a dusty affair for the peloton. The women start in Siena and contest 136km, which includes 30km of gravel road, before finishing back in Siena at the Piazza del Campo.
There are eight sectors of gravel in varying lengths and difficulty: Vidritta (2.1km), Bagnaia (5.8km), Radi (4.4km), La Piana (5.5km), S.Martino in Grania (9.5km), Monteaperti (0.8km), Colle Pinzuto (2.4km) and Le Tolfe (1.1km).
The route us undulating, to put it mildly, because there are significantly steep climbs along the route. The first major test of climbing will happen just after the second gravel sector with pitches as steep as 10 per cent before heading into Radi (32km). The peloton will face another steep climb at the end of the sixth gravel sector in Monteaperti (107.7km), with gradients in the double digits before hitting the tarmac again in Vico d'Arbia (111.3km). There is also a climb toward Colle Pinzuto (115km) that is 15 per cent and the climb to Tolfe (120km) is 18 per cent.
It's the final kilometres of the race that could prove the most decisive, mainly if there is a small group. As the riders approach the centre of Siena, they will face the final 16 per cent climb to the finish line. It begins with a nine per cent gradient with 900 metres to go, and then it only gets steeper. With 500 metres to go the pitches reach 10 per cent and then up to 16 per cent along Via Santa Caterina. The slopes ease up in the final 300 metres, and then there is a descent followed by a flat run-in to the Piazza del Campo.
Strade Bianche is as unpredictable a one-day race as it gets on the Women's WorldTour. Its short history has shown that the route's gravel sectors and double-digit climbs, along with the unruly spring weather, could mean that it either finishes in a small group sprint or a solo victory. But, setting these variables aside, it's will ultimately be the riders who decide the outcome of the race.
There is no disputing that last year's race was one of the most demanding in recent years with Van der Breggen going on a long-range solo attack in unimaginable weather conditions; cold, rain and covered with what resembled wet chalk from head to toe. It won't be soon forgotten.
Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) finished second, and Elisa Longo Borghini (then Wiggle High5) finished third. More than half of the peloton finished either out of the time limit or not at all, largely, due to the conditions.
The preliminary start list for this year's Strade Bianche alone should give everyone something to talk about as Van der Breggen, who has once again decided to mix mountain biking into her early-season schedule, will attempt to defend her title – and weather permitting, we will be able to see her racing in her new world champion's jersey. But her team come equipped with several contenders in Chantal Blaak, who recently won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Jip van den Bos winner of Le Samyn des Dames, and mountain bike specialist Annika Langvad.
Niewiadoma is an exciting rider to watch because she has been second in the last three editions of this race, and will no doubt want to secure that elusive victory.
"To be honest it doesn't bother me," she said in a team press release. "I really love this race. It gives me good feelings even though I suffer so much on every 'little' hill. I have learned a lot each year but yes, I've never won this epic battle. I have another chance in just few days and I'm so excited to give it another try."
Unfortunately, Italy's Longo Borghini, who won the 2017 edition, was forced to pull out of the race due to flu symptoms. She was replaced by Lauretta Hanson on the Trek-Segafredo start list, which also boasts Ellen van Dijk, a sure favourite.
Marianne Vos will transfer her success during the cyclo-cross season back onto the road with CCC-Liv this weekend. She and new teammate Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio will make a competitive pair in the one-day race.
Time trial world champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), who won the Women's WorldTour series last year, announced she would start Strade Bianche. It is one of her first races back after recovering from a severe knee injury sustained in a crash at the World Championships last year. She showed good form at Omloop Het Nieuwsbald last weekend where she finished fourth. They field a strong team with Amanda Spratt, Georgia Williams, Grace Brown and Lucy Kennedy.
Movistar are racing into their second season, after debuting as a team on the Women's WorldTour last year. They line up with wildcards such as Polish champion Malgorzata Jasinska, who brought the team much success during the classics and stage races in 2019, and French champion Aude Biannic who was seventh at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Like Vos, Lucinda Brand will begin her road season at Strade Bianche after a successful cyclo-cross season. She will be joined by Sunweb teammates Leah Kirchmann, third at Omloop van het Hageland, along with Janneke Ensing and Coryn Rivera.
Italian Marta Bastianelli is listed to compete in her home race, having just won Omloop van het Hageland for her new team Virtu Cycling. The European champion and former world champion is a multi-dimensional rider who can sprint and do well on punchy terrain.
Read our preview of the Women's WorldTour that highlights the overall contenders, sprinters, rouleurs and young riders to watch during the 2019 season.