Mud and heavy rain turned last year’s Strade Bianche in to arduous race, with riders suffering perhaps more than any time during the rest of the 2018 season. Fortunately the recent Tuscan winter has been much easier on the dirt roads south of Siena and forecasts are for spring-like temperatures of 16°C in the afternoon with the sun breaking through partial cloud cover and only a slight westerly breeze blowing across the exposed Crete Senesi hills.
Riders breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived in Tuscany on Thursday afternoon and enjoyed riding on dry but dusty on Friday during a final reconnaissance ride. Last year riders started Strade Bianche wrapped up like mummies to fight the cold and rain and finished the race covered in thick mud. This year they will race in shorts and perhaps just arm warmers, finishing in Siena looking like coal miners, with fine white dust sticking to every drop of sweat and tear duct.
The riders loved being part of a historic edition of Strade Bianche in 2018 but are happy that condition are dry this year. They expect a faster, more tactical race.
"The race will be less hard but it’s a course that doesn’t need bad conditions to demanding because there are a lot of climbs," last year's winner Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) suggested, alongside 2018 women's winner Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) in a the pre-race press conference on Friday afternoon.
"In 2016, when I did it for the first time, it was also dry and the bunch still exploded. There's less wind than last year and this is maybe the most important factor on the dirt sections."
Van der Breggen said, "The gravel sections feel so different than last year. It will change the racing at 100 per cent."
Most teams completed a final reconnaissance ride on Friday, with the men covering the final 60km of their 184km race route, the women only a little less. However, everyone made their way to central Siena to ride the steep Via Santa Caterina climb that leads up to the Renaissance city. The first rider to the top of the narrow street often goes on to win Strade Bianche in Piazza il Campo – the square that also hosts the traditional bare-back horse race.
Via Santa Caterina is only 500 metres long but comes after 3,000m of climbing and 63km of dirt roads during the 184km race. The women race for 136km, including 31.5km of dirt roads, with more than 2,000m of climbing. Via Santa Caterina has an average gradient of 12.4 per cent with a point near the top at 16 per cent.
Wout van Aert went so deep during last year's Strade Bianche that he lost control of his bike and struggled to get back in the saddle at the top of Via Santa Caterina. The three-time cyclo-cross world champion is back this year riding for Jumbo-Visma and had a flashback to last year's race.
"I thought the street was way steeper. I feel a little shameful that I crashed on such a section," he said after his ride on Friday.
"Right now it was not that hard but tomorrow (Saturday) it definitely will be hard again. It will get my heart going again."
Van Aert will wear bib no. 141 on Saturday, with the USA's Neilson Powless also in Jumbo-Visma seven rider line-up. Benoot and van der Breggen will wear bib no.1 as 2018 winners.
Cyclingnews will have full live coverage from Strade Bianche, with news, photo galleries and interviews after the race.