Strade Bianche showdown to crown new gravel king
The Strade Bianche is a rare beast in that the professional WorldTour event grew out of an amateur event – which still runs – called L'Eroica, at which enthusiasts of the good old days of cycling suit up in woollen kit and on vintage bikes to pound the gravel roads around Tuscany in Italy.
Add a bit of that WorldTour speed on the most modern of machines, however, and Strade Bianche is a far cry from the goings-on at L'Eroica – although the terrain remains the same. Dusty and difficult in the dry, or muddy and difficult in the wet, whoever wins the Strade Bianche – like its older, albeit cobbled, brother Paris-Roubaix, which is still a good few weeks away – will have deserved it.
Despite the proliferation of amateur gravel events today, it would be wrong to call this a gravel race, as the 11 sections of strade bianche – white roads – only make up 63km of the total 184km distance, but it's on such gravel roads that this race is won and lost, and it's those same sectors that are the most photographed and eagerly watched.
It was another terrific edition in 2018, held under wet conditions, with Lotto Soudal's Tiesj Benoot bridging to race leaders Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and young cyclo-cross star Wout van Aert (Veranda's Willems Crelan), and then leaving them for dead on an uphill section of dirt road with 12km to go.
A mud-caked Benoot won alone in the beautiful town of Siena by 39 seconds from Bardet, with Van Aert trailing in another 19 seconds down.
And Benoot will start as one of the favourites again – having recovered in time from injury to be on the start line in Siena. The Belgian was unfortunate enough to crash and badly injure his knee at this year's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the weekend before the start of Strade Bianche, and had been locked into a race against time to see whether he would have recovered sufficiently to try to defend his title.
Bardet clearly enjoyed his muddy ride to second place last year, calling it "pure cycling" at the finish, but will forego this year's race in favour of Paris-Nice, which starts on Sunday.
Van Aert, meanwhile – now a year older and wiser, and with the full backing of WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma, who the Belgian team joined at the start of March after the conclusion of the cyclo-cross season – will be a big favourite.
And another former cyclo-cross star, Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep), was seventh at last year's event, but was a winner back in 2015. The Czech rider demonstrated a return to form by winning the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the weekend before Strade Bianche, which puts him up among the favourites, too.
Finally, discount CCC Team's Greg Van Avermaet – arguably the most consistent Classics rider currently racing – at your peril. The Olympic road race champion struggled in the wet and muddy conditions last year, but would dearly love to add the race to his palmarès, and will no doubt be a real threat if the course remains dry.