WorldTour racing is back at Strade Bianche on Saturday, with many of the sport's best Classics riders and puncheurs hungry to fight for victory on the roads of southern Tuscany and the steep climbs through the vineyards and olive trees.
Strade Bianche is just 13 years old but it has become a modern Classic thanks to the dirt-road racing and the dramatic late climb in central Siena, with the finish at the Piazza del Campo that also hosts the famous Palio horse race.
This year's race has been rescheduled from March 7 to August 1 because of the coronavirus pandemic, with the scorching Tuscan sun and dusty roads replacing the cool air and fine mud of the spring.
The 184km route includes 11 sectors of dirt for a total of 63km of racing on white gravel roads. The late sectors on the ride back towards Siena are usually decisive and spark the key selection, with fatigue and raw power making the difference.
Strade Bianche is considered a race for the Classics riders, but the 3,500m of climbing opens it up to a wider field and makes for a finely balanced race. The final climb on the Via Santa Catarina has a section at 16 per cent, and whoever is first to the top usually has the strength to continue to the Piazza del Campo and win.
We've picked out eight riders who are particularly worth keeping an eye on.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
The Frenchman began his remarkable 2019 season of success by winning Strade Bianche and then Milan-San Remo. This time, his form is unknown after the long pause in racing and the recent death of his father, but Strade Bianche highlights aggressive, panache-filled racing and so will surely inspire Alaphilippe.
He showed his intentions by arriving in Tuscany at the weekend directly from a Deceuninck-QuickStep training camp. He's been training on the dirt roads, and joined up with teammates and fellow contenders Kasper Asgreen, Bob Jungels and Zdeněk Štybar on Thursday.
Deceuninck-QuickStep are the team to beat, and it will be fascinating to see if Alaphilippe can finish it off and continue the team's recent success after Remco Evenepoel's impressive victory on stage 3 of the Vuelta a Burgos on Thursday.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Sagan has often struggled to land a result when Strade Bianche is held in early March, when his form is still uncertain after a big block of altitude training and his weight is not that of the summer when he has to fight for points each day at the Tour de France.
Sagan has Milan-San Remo in his sights before focusing on the Giro d'Italia, and so has planned a gradual return to competition, so he will be fit but probably not at his best. His palmarès allows him to shrug off any pressure, so we shouldn't be surprised if he doesn't even make it to Siena. Prove us wrong, Peter!
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
The rescheduled race calendar has given Van der Poel time to relax between his different disciplines and find time for a longer road campaign. Alpecin-Fenix did not secure a wild card place in the Tour de France, and so Van der Poel has opted for an Italian programme in August and September, kicking off with Strade Bianche.
Some question Van der Poel's climbing ability, but at a recent training camp in the Alps, he set a new Strava record for the 23km long Col de Petit St Bernard. Mix that threshold ability with his cyclo-cross power surges and it adds up to a surefire Strade Bianche contender.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
The former cyclo-cross world champion fell in love with Strade Bianche while riding for Veranda's Willems in 2018. He famously fell over and struggled to get back on his bike at the top of the Via Santa Caterina, but vowed to come back one day to win.
He was third again last year, later suffering serious injuries in a crash during the Tour de France time trial, but claims he is stronger than ever after training outdoors through the COVID-19 lockdown.
Greg van Avermaet (CCC Team)
'Golden Greg' is still Olympic road race champion and determined to show he is still a major Classics contender and worthy of a major contract, despite turning 35 in May.
He has recently been linked to AG2R La Mondiale due to CCC Team's sponsorship woes, and a win at Strade Bianche would boost any final contract negotiations or even help CCC close a deal with the Manuela Fundación or another backer.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)
Alaphilippe beat the Dane last year, but Fuglsang's early-career mountain bike racing, his climbing ability and love of racing make him an ideal candidate for Strade Bianche.
He has opted to target the Giro d'Italia in the rescheduled season, and so may not be at his best two months out, but he can never be discounted, as his 2019 win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège proved.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos)
The multi-talented Polish rider has pivoted more towards a Grand Tour and stage-race role in recent years, but his huge talents and natural aggression helped him win Strade Bianche in 2014 and 2017. There is no reason why he cannot do it again.
He has recently completed a Team Ineos Tour de France altitude camp at Mount Teide, on Tenerife, and so could either be fatigued or super strong. Either way, he will lead Team Ineos, with Gianni Moscon, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift for support.
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)
21-year-old Pogačar is not a Classics expert but his immense talents and racing instinct surely make him a contender for this year's summer Strade Bianche.
He finished 30th on his debut last year, but is one of the few riders to have already won since the COVID-19 lockdown, finishing second in the Slovenian road race championship behind Primož Roglič and then beating him to win the time trial title.
The Strade Bianche start list includes 192 riders from 24 different teams. All will be motivated and determined to do well on their return to WorldTour racing. As well as the eight riders listed above, there are at least a dozen other contenders who could be a threat or even emerge to win.
They include 2019 Tour of Flanders winner and Tuscan-born Alberto Bettiol and his EF Pro Cycling teammate Michael Woods, who won one of the recent virtual Tour de France races after recovering from his leg fracture at Paris-Nice.
Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) maybe an old hand, but he is still keen to race, especially at a special event like Strade Bianche. Tiesj Benoot moved to Team Sunweb from Lotto Soudal to make room for Gilbert, but has a better record in the Italian Classic, winning in 2018 and finishing fifth last year.
The likes of Alexander Lutsenko (Astana), Dylan Teuns (Bahrain McLaren), Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocattoli), Maximilian Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Michael Valgren (NTT Pro Cycling) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) cannot be ruled out, either.
A real outsider? How about Diego Rosa (Arkéa-Samsic) or Ivan Cortina (Bahrain McLaren)?
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