The spring Classics season kicked off with last Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and continues this Saturday with the Strade Bianche race in southern Tuscany as many of the Classics contenders head to Italy for a final block of racing before Milan-San Remo and the cobbled Classics of Belgium and France.
Race organiser RCS Sport has dubbed Strade Bianche "the northern Classic at the most southern point in Europe" and the race on the dirt road track that twist and roll between the Chianti vineyards and farmers' fields has rapidly become a Classic, especially in the hearts and minds of the riders, who enjoy the tough but spectacular racing.
With the women's Strade Bianche opening the new Women's WorldTour and a sportif ride added on the Sunday, the Strade Bianche weekend has quickly overshadowed the start of Paris-Nice as the talk of the weekend.
The dirt road sections include steep climbs and testing descents, with the gravel surface usually smooth but also dotted with stones, potholes and hidden dangers. Success depends on a rider's climbing ability, bike handling skills, form, equipment, team support and sheer good luck. The riders reach the finish in Siena exhausted and covered in dust but genuinely seem to love riding Strade Bianche, and live television coverage shows the world the true beauty of the race.
The list of winners confirms Strade Bianche's growing prestige, despite its young age and only 10 previous editions. Recent winners include Zdenek Stybar, Michal Kwiatkowski, Fabian Cancellara, Moreno Moser and Philippe Gilbert. Cancellara won in 2008 and 2012 and is hoping for a third victory this year which would apparently see a sector of strade bianche named in his honour.
The secrets of the race route
Strade Bianche starts in Siena and finishes in the spectacular Il Campo square which hosts the annual bareback Palio horse race. There are remarkable similarities between the two events.
The opening 8km of the 176km route are on normal roads before the short opening sector of 'strade bianche' gives a taste of what is to come. Another sector comes before the feed zone just after Montalcino and then the race gets serious with two long sectors near Lucignano d'Asso and Asciano.
These sectors are 9.5km and 11.km long, respectively, and the descent to San Giovanni di Asso is a real test of nerve, while the short, sharp climbs on sector seven are perfect places to attack. The three remaining sectors are shorter but are spectacular and complex as many of the great red wines of the area. Each includes a steep climb, with the middle sector to Colle Pinzuto usually sparking a serious attack as the gradient touches 15 per cent. There are only 12km of asphalt roads left to Siena after the last sector in Le Tolle and so whoever is in the front group, will go on to fight for victory.
Strade Bianche is never decided in a true sprint because the steep road to the centre of Siena is on narrow streets with a rough paved surface. The Via Esterna de Fontebranda kicks up at 9 per cent with a kilometre to go and reaches 16 per cent at 500m to go. Kwiatkowski went away from Sagan here in 2014 and Stybar and Van Avermaet dropped Alessandro Valverde.
Positioning is the key in the final metres and it is vital to be first into the final right turn that leads into the descent to the finish in Piazza il Campo. It is virtually impossible to come past a rival in sight of the line.
Major contenders in the 2015 Strade Bianche cruise over the dry dirt roads.
The riders to watch
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) is the only rider targeting a third victory at Strade Bianche but the Swiss veteran faces some serious competition from the other 17 teams of eight riders on the entry list. It includes some on-form Classics contenders and many of the riders who can handle the sharks tooth race profile.
Kwiatkowski will be back leading Team Sky, while Zdenek Stybar will have the support of Tony Martin, Bob Jungels and Matteo Trentin. Vincenzo Nibali leads the Astana team and showed his form with victory at the recent Tour of Oman. Nibali grew up riding a mountain bike and should not be overlooked. Valverde leads the Movistar team, while Greg Van Avermaet is captain for BMC with support from Daniel Oss, Taylor Phinney and Brent Bookwalter.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) would love Strade Bianche to be his first win in the rainbow jersey. He was second in 2013 and 2014 and has the bike skills, ability and speed to win if he rides a smart race. The Slovakian will have precious support from local rider Daniele Bennati, Roman Kreuziger and Oscar Gatto.
Jasper Stuyven will back Cancellara but also be an alternative to Cancellara. It will be fascinating to see how they ride together and who is the strongest in the tough finale of Strade Bianche.
Possible outsiders include Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky), who raced in Tuscany and on the dirt roads at the Under 23 Giro Bio, and Tuscan resident Giovanni Visconti (Movistar).
Most editions of Strade Bianche have been raced in the dry but heavy rain showers is forecast for Saturday's race, with the strade bianche already wet from recent rain. A strong wind from the southeast will blow the riders back to Siena but will make the race even more selective on the exposed hilltops of the Tuscany countryside.