The Spring Classics jump from the early taste of the Flemish cobbles at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to the gravel roads of Strade Bianche in just a week, with the highly anticipated Saturday's men's and women's races expected to create another day of great racing.
The race was only created in 2007, imitating the Eroica vintage bike ride, with the women's Strade Bianche added in 2015, but it has already become a modern Classic. It is raced on ancient Tuscan farm tracks that wind through Chianti vineyards and olive trees, with the exposed rolling hills and the steep climb to the finish in Siena making for one of the hardest days of racing on the calendar.
Strade Bianche means 'white roads' in Italian and the dust thrown up from the wheels leaves a white veil of fatigue but happiness on the riders' faces. Strade Bianche is such a unique race, the racing on the gravel roads so thrilling and so spectacular, that every rider, whatever their result, is happy to reach the finish in the Piazza del Campo.
Last year Mathieu van der Poel attacked on the final sector of dirt roads and then again on the steep climb to the finish to distance Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal. Wout van Aert won in 2020 and, true to his nature as a cyclo-cross rider, has always loved gravel racing.
For different reasons, both Classics riders will be absent, with Van der Poel still recovering from his back injury while Van Aert is opting for a lighter race programme and Paris-Nice in 2022. That's a pity for the race, but it creates an opportunity for everyone who does travel to Tuscany this week.
The expected presence of Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is a bonus and makes up for the absences. The Tour de France winner is a real favourite as he mixes his UAE Tour winning form with his bike skills and love for an aggressive race.
The strongest and most fortunate of the favourites are likely to emerge mid-race in the 184km event. The long, rolling dirt sections cause a natural selection, and then join the decisive attack on the later, steeper sectors of Colle Pinzuto and Le Tolfe. Whoever is up front has to show their superiority on the roughly surfaced Via Santa Cristina climb to central Siena, then be first into the last corner that propels the riders down into the same square that hosts the Palio bareback horse races.
In the absence of Bernal, Van Aert and Van der Poel, there appear to be four five-star favourites and a long list of other contenders.
Tadej Pogačar has always ridden Strade Bianche since joining UAE Team Emirates in 2019 and finished a decent seventh in 2021. He won the UAE Tour again last Saturday and despite recently returning from COVID-19 the Slovenian seems on form and more determined to race the Classics than ever before. He has added Milan-San Remo, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders to his spring calendar, all before riding the Ardennes.
It is easy to imagine Pogačar attacking on Colle Pinzuto or Le Tolfe and riding to the finish alone, or forcing a selection and then dropping everyone on the Via Santa Cristina.
However even Pogačar will have to race smart and watch out for the likes of a steadily improving Julian Alaphilippe. The world champion loves a bare-knuckle race and knows how to win Strade Bianche. He was first in Siena in 2019 and he took second behind a rampant Van der Poel a year ago.
In Belgium, they have tipped Tiesj Benoot for success after his impressive weekend, where his Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne attack blew the race to pieces. In the absence of Van Aert, the Ghent native will surely be the leader at Jumbo-Visma and he won Strade Bianche in 2018.
The list of outsiders, dark horses and riders to watch behind those favourites is long and ranges from the USA's Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), veteran and former mountain bike race Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech) and even on-form climber Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Watch out for Mauri Vansevenant to save QuickStep-AlphaVinyl's pride if Alaphilippe falters, while Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) is a threat.
It will be fascinating to see if Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) can compete in such a hilly classic, while Alessandro Covi could be Pogačar's understudy and the venerable Alejandro Valverde cannot be forgotten.
The route: 63km of dirt roads in the Senesi hills
The 2022 men's Strade Bianche route is the same as for recent editions, with 63 kilometres of white gravel dirt roads spread across the 11 sectors of the 184-kilometre race.
As the race profile confirms, a third of Strade Bianche is raced on the dirt roads but it is also packed with a myriad of short, steep hills through the fields and vineyards to create one of the hardest days of racing of the year. It is like combining the climbing of Liège-Bastogne-Liège with the dust and dirt of the Paris-Roubaix, all wrapped up in Tuscan history and breathtaking beauty.
The men roll out of Siena's Fortezza Medicea facing five hard hours in the saddle, with the finish in the Piazza del Campo at around 4:30 pm CET.
The 184-kilometre route heads south descending fast towards Montalcino and then back up to Siena following a roughly figure-of-eight route, with Buonconvento as the axis.
The early sectors of dirt roads allow the day's first breakaways to enjoy some glory and for the peloton to get a taste of the dirt road conditions of the first four sectors of gravel.
The climb up to Montalcino is on normal roads and the capital of the superb Brunello wine region signals the start of the second phase of the race. After 75km of racing, the riders hit the 11.9km-long Lucignano d'Asso and the 8km-long Pieve a Salti sections, separated by just one kilometre on paved roads. They are the breathtaking, postcard Crete Senesi hills. They are often exposed to the cold winds from the east or rain showers blowing in from the Mediterranean in the west. They include several nerve-testing descents that can be as selective as the climbs. Bike handling skills make a significant difference here.
The 20km of strade bianche will quickly expose who has the form to be a contender later in the race, or who will climb off at the feed zone after 100 kilometres or ride back to Siena in disappointment.
The valley road towards Siena offers a moment of respite and recovery, occasionally dulling the race but it explodes spectacularly again when the route turns right to start sector seven (9.6km) to San Martino in Grania with 70km to race. The dirt road climbs to the hilltops via the fields awaiting the summer grains, deep woods and vineyards that make the race photographs so stunning.
The subsequent descent to the 11.5-km Monte Sante Marie sector is on paved roads but the dirt roads begin to climb immediately after the cemetery on the left. This eighth sector signals the final 50km of Strade Bianche and only the strongest are left up front after the 21km of descending and especially of climbing. There is no way back here for anyone dropped or chasing after a crash, puncture or mechanical problem.
Normal roads for 20km offer a tactical pause and chance for a strategy rethink even if the dirt roads mean the team cars are distanced and even out of radio contact. This forces riders to act on their initiative and possibly make errors of judgement. It is still too early to attack alone and too early to take risks.
The finale of Strade Bianche starts with sector nine at historic Montaperti. It is only 800 metres long and kicks things off before Colle Pinzuto, which comes three kilometres later and includes a climb at 15% with some steep zig-zag sectors up the hillside.
The last dirt sector is at Le Tolfe, with only 12km left to Siena. Whoever makes it over the 18% gradient in the 1.1km-long section in the front group will surely go on to fight for victory in the Renaissance city. Van der Poel made his massive attack here in 2021, sparking the final selection.
Strade Bianche is never decided in a shoulder to shoulder or group sprint because the steep road to the centre of Siena is on narrow streets with a rough surface of historic stone slabs. The riders approach the city from the south on fast roads, the spectacular architecture a brief distraction from the racing.
The Via Santa Cristina is reached via a narrow lane that gradually rises into the city walls. It rears up ahead of the riders, either inspiring them to attack or breaking their spirit.
The road climbs straight up between the old houses at 9% with a kilometre to go and reaches a 16% just as the race route turns right into central Siena with 500 metres to go. This was where Van der Poel dispatched Alaphilippe last year with an overwhleming show of force.
The first rider to the top of the climb usually wins Strade Bianche because positioning is key on the final descending road through the central streets of Siena. There is a final chance to move up to the front but it takes guts and good brakes to avoid going wide and crashing on the final right turn.
Whoever makes it first into Piazza del Campo can kick on the pedals one last time and then celebrate as they descend to the finish line outside the ancient town hall building and tower.
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