The Strade Bianche this Saturday (March 5) kicks off RCS Sports’ series of races, which concludes with the Tour of Lombardy in October. It stands apart from the rest of RCS Sports’ races, and indeed, any races in the world thanks to its course.

Montepaschi-Strade Bianche takes in the twisting, rolling, white gravel roads around Siena that the Eroica sportive made famous over the years. The Giro d’Italia covered these same roads last year. Rain turned the white gravel to brown mud that day and made the world champion stripes on the jersey of stage winner Cadel Evans barely visible.

Adding to the Strade Bianche’s magic, RCS Sport concludes the race in Siena’s Piazza del Campo. The Campo is famous for the twice-yearly ‘Il Palio’ horse races, dating back to the 1600s. Since the Strade Bianche’s start, in 2007, some of cycling’s strongest men have raised their arms in victory in the piazza: 2007 Alexandr Kolobnev, 2008 Fabian Cancellara and 2009 Thomas Löfkvist.

Maxim Iglinsky of team Astana won last year. He broke free of an escape group with Michael Rogers and Löfkvist on the final 16 per cent climb to the piazza.

Iglinsky and Löfkvist will not be riding this year as neither Astana nor Team Sky are on the start list.

“All the ingredients are here for a great show,” said race director Angelo Zomegnan. “The course is selective and fascinating, with a beautiful countryside as a backdrop.”

The course fits in eight gravel sectors, around 60 kilometres, in 190 kilometres from Gaiole in Chianti. The most difficult one is the fifth, at kilometre 132.4, which undulates as much as it twists.

Strade Bianche 2011: Gravel sectors
1. km 35.0 to 48.5, length: 13.5km Difficulty: Cycling Weekly rating two out of five
The first and the longest, starting in Colle Malamerenda. This sector should allow an escape ride free.
2. km 53.9 to 59.4, length: 5.5km Cycling Weekly rating one out of five
The second sector comes immediately after the first, but is perhaps the easiest of the day. A good chance to look at the surrounding olive trees.
3. km 82.3 to 94.2, length: 11.9km Cycling Weekly rating three out of five
4. km 95.2 to 103.2, length. 8.0km Cycling Weekly rating four out of five
The course passes the climb up to Montalcino, 4km at 5% gradient, where Cadel Evans won the Giro d’Italia stage last year. Sectors three and four start immediately afterwards. With Montalcino and the difficulty of sector four, an elite group of riders should emerge for the final 90 kilometres.
5. km 132.4 to 143.9, length: 11.5km Cycling Weekly rating five out of five
Sector five undulates, but mostly rises over the 11.5 kilometres. Last year, on this sector in Monte Sante Marie, the race split into two groups, with Rogers and Vincenzo Nibali in the first.
6. km 163.7 to 167.0, length: 3.3km Cycling Weekly rating two out of five
Bike handling is necessary here, the sector is mostly downhill.
7. km 170.4 to 172.8, length: 2.4km Cycling Weekly rating four out of five
Near the race’s end and a climb of 15 per cent, makes this sector one of the decisive ones.
8. km 176.7 to 177.8, length: 1.1km Cycling Weekly rating three out of five
A couple of descents and one 18 per cent surge to Tolfe. This sector leaves only 12 kilometres to the Campo.

Strade Bianche 2011: Top picks
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo)
The Canadian nearly succeeded in an escape three years ago, only to have Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan blow by. Last year, he followed the moves only to lose contact on the climb to the finish.

Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek)
The 2008 winner is well rested after skipping the opening classics weekend in Belgium. He may give Leopard something to cheer about.

Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing)
It has been a long time since Ballan won the Tour of Flanders; still, he has won it.

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)
He loved the race last year and used the experience to win the Giro’s Strade Bianche stage.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
This type of classic is made for one of his attacks, though he has never raced the white gravel roads.

Strade Bianche 2011: Teams
Acqua e Sapone
BMC Racing Team
Colnago-CSF Inox
De Rosa-Ceramica Flamina
Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli
Geox-TMC
HTC-Highroad
Lampre-ISD
Liquigas-Cannondale
Omega Pharma-Lotto
Garmin-Cervelo
Leopard-Trek
Team Type 1

Strade Bianche 2011: Last year’s top ten (2010)

1. Maxim Iglinsky (Kaz) Astana in 4-59-48
2. Thomas Lofkvist (Swe) Team Sky at 1 sec
3. Michael Rogers (Aus) HTC-Columbia at same time
4. Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Katusha at 18 secs
5. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 19 secs
6. Francesco Ginanni (Ita) Androni Giocattoli at 24 secs
7. Leonardo Bertagnolli (Ita) Androni Giocattoli at 43 secs
8. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Team Sky at same time
9. Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Astana at 49 secs
10. Daniele Righi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini at same time

Strade Bianche: Previous winners
2010: Maxim Iglinsky (Kaz)
2009: Thomas Lofkvist (Swe)
2008: Fabian Cancellara (Swi)
2007: Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus)

Related links

Team Sky left out of 2011 Montepaschi Strade Bianche

Strade Bianche 2010: Iglinsky tops Strade Bianche battle ahead of Lofkvist, Rogers

Strade Bianche 2009: Lofkvist wins