As one of Italy's top one-day racers, naturally, the pressure is on for Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) to perform at the Women's WorldTour opener at Strade Bianche - on home soil in Siena - a result that would yield the prestigious series' first leader's jersey.
"Last year, I could see that I can be that kind of Classics-style cyclists," Cecchini told Cyclingnews. "One-day races are what I love the most because of their dynamics. The courses are challenging but not super hard, and that fits me better for the kind of cyclist that I am. The spring Classics are the kind of races that I like the most. They are a mental game, not only a physical game."
Cecchini has been fighting for a Women's WorldTour victory since the series' inaugural season in 2015, and she's been close. Her best showing was last year: 10th at Strade Bianche, second at Ronde van Drenthe, fifth at Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio, ninth at Gent-Wevelgem and sixth at Tour of Flanders. After Ronde van Drenthe, she was a mere two points away from leading the Women's WorldTour, something she aims to accomplish this year.
"I would like to start strong this year, that is my main goal," Cecchini said. "I would really like to lead the Women's WorldTour after being so close last year."
Cecchini believes that an extended winter of training that began last November, combined with a new focus on one-day racing, might improve her performances this spring in the Classics.
"I'm not the kind of woman who likes to chase my form into the season," Cecchini said. "I prefer to start in good shape, and if I feel like I need to take some rest during the season that's fine, but I like to maintain a good standard throughout the whole season."
She started the season at Omloop Het Neiuwsblad last weekend, where she placed 29th after helping teammate Alexis Ryan sprint to second place behind Christina Siggaard (Team Virtu Cycling). She will next line up in Siena to race Strade Bianche on Saturday. The 136km race includes eight gravel sectors before finishing in Siena's Piazza del Campo.
Canyon-SRAM will also field some other potential winners: Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Kasia Niewiadoma (twice runner-up), Setmana Ciclista Valenciana winner Hannah Barnes, Tiffany Cromwell and Alena Amialiusik.
If that elusive Women's WorldTour victory doesn't happen in Siena, there will be other opportunities at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold. This year, Cecchini plans on skipping La Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so that she can rest ahead of the always-important Giro Rosa in July, where she aims for a stage victory.
"I found that last year, doing all the Ardennes Classics was quite hard," she said. "I put my body into a difficult situation, so I will take a proper break after Amstel, before the second part of the season."
Italy's tri-coloured champion's jersey
In Siena, Cecchini will face a peloton of big-name riders, one of which is her compatriot and defending champion Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5).
As two of the top one-day racers in Italy and similar in ability, Cecchini and Longo Borghini frequently compete against each other throughout the season. Last year, Longo Borghini took double victories in the road race and the time trial at the National Championships. Cecchini previously held the road race titles between 2014-2016 and she hopes to win back the jersey this year.
"I was Italian champion for three years in a row," she said. "Last year, when I missed it, it was really strange to me because I was the Italian champion for more than 1,000 days.
"On the other hand, it provided me with a new and challenging. You really understand how important something is to you when you lose it.
"There are never too many victories, but it was important to lose the title for one year because now I am more motivated to have it back."