The sixth Monument?
Increasingly referred to as cycling’s ‘sixth Monument’, with each passing year Strade Bianche grows in terms of reputation and prestige.
Perhaps it’s too early to place the race on the same pedestal as Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia - it is, after all, only twelve years old, and still clocks in at under 200km whereas those races exceed 250km.
But it’s true to say the race has become an instant favourite, beloved by fans and flocked to by high-profile riders who recognise the prestige of adding a win here to their palmarès.
The reason for its success is primarily its use of sections of untarmacked gravel roads adorning the beautiful Tuscan countryside, and that give the race its name (‘Strade Bianche’ translates as ‘White Roads’).
These difficult, highly selective sections (of which there will be eleven this year, amounting to 63km in total) give the race a distinctive flavour, and make it the cycling equivalent of a cross-genre entertainment as riders from all backgrounds - from hilly and cobbled Classics to Grand Tour and cyclocross - compete against each other.
Although early forecasts suggest that this year’s edition won’t be the rainy, mud-soaked spectacle that made last year’s such a thrill, Strade Bianche is a reliably exciting race that has become an unmissable watch for any cycling fan.
Women’s WorldTour opener
Strade Bianche will once again be the opening race of the Women’s WorldTour, promising an illustrious field and the most competitive racing of the season to date.
As is the case with most spring classics of recent years, this is a race that tends to be dominated by Boels-Dolmans - the team has won three of the four editions hosted since its inauguration in 2015, with Anna van der Breggen triumphing last year with a devastating 18km solo attack in torrid conditions.
Lizzie Deignana climbs behind the leading riders at Strade Bianche (Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
She’s expected to return to defend her title, and will form part of yet another deadly Boels-Dolmans lineup that will also include last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Chantal Blaak.
They’ll be difficult to beat, but resistance will likely come from the likes of Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) - who is on a remarkable run of having finished second in each of the past three editions - Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) and Lucinda Brand (Sunweb).
Local favourite Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), however - who won the race in 2017 and finished in the top four in each of her other three appearances - misses out having caught the flu.
Geraint Thomas poised to make debut
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) may have moved away from the Classics to become a full-blown Grand Tour rider, culminating of course in his victory at the Tour de France last year, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t open to new experiences.
The Welshman is expected to make his 2019 bow with an appearance at Strade Bianche, in what would be his first ever attempt at the unique Classic.
His climbing and powerful rouleur engine, plus his aptitude on adverse surfaces, potentially make him an ideal candidate for this race, so it will be fascinating to see how he gets on.
He’ll form part of a strong Sky squad that also includes Gianni Moscon, another rider with the all-round capacity to flourish, while two-time winner Michal Kwiatkowski will not be present.
Deceuninck - Quick-Step strive for yet another win
Victories at Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Le Samyn made for a hat-trick of spring successes already for Deceuninck - Quick-Step, and it’d take a brave punter to not back them to add Strade Bianche to that string of successes.
It may not be a Belgian race, and it may not contain any cobblestones, but this Classic still plays totally to their strengths, and they’ve a great history here, having won three of the past eight editions.
Zdenek Stybar was responsible for the team’s last win here in 2015, and will lead the charge once more, arguably as the race favourite. He’s on great form having won Het Nieuwsblad at the weekend, while his background in cyclocross is a significant advantage on the gravel roads.
Backing him up with be Julian Alaphilippe, whose explosive attacks will be a serious weapon for the team to play, and Yves Lampaert, who came out of Opening Weekend with two excellent top-ten finishes.
A diverse range of contenders
One of the joys of Strade Bianche is watching riders who generally have very different timetables throughout the season face-off against each other.
This year is set to be no exception, with climbers like Thomas, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) poised to compete against cyclocross superstar Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who produced a revelatory performance last year on debut to finish third.
Other riders to look out for include Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), for whom Strade Bianche is one of the very few classics he hasn’t won (although he’s twice been second), and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), who’s on sensational form and should suit the parcours.
And defending champion Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) will have a decent chance of defending his title, provided he recovers from injuries sustained in his crash at Het Nieuwsblad; in either case, teammate Tim Wellens could also go very well.
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