For a race little more than a decade old to rival some of cycling’s oldest and most prestigious Classics, there must be something special about it.
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In the case of Strade Bianche, the key ingredient that has seen it rise from a quirky new race to a World Tour-ranked men’s and women’s event considered one of the milestones of the spring calendar are its gravel roads.
So integral to the race are these gravel roads that the race’s name (which translates as ‘white roads’) refers to them rather than, like most races, the start and finish.
Whether dry and dusty or (as some forecasts hint may be the case this weekend) wet and muddy, the roads make for quite a spectacle, snaking their way through the glorious backdrop of the Tuscan countryside.
And, most importantly of all, they make for great racing. Each section (eleven in the men’s race and eight in the women’s) strings the riders out in a single file line, and prompting the strong to attack and the weak to be dropped in a frantic flurry of activity.
One of cycling’s most picturesque finishes
From the serene beauty of the Madonna del Ghisallo in Il Lombardia to the coastal majesty of the Italian Riviera in Milan-San Remo, Italian bike races tend to be associated with their aesthetic qualities.
The finish of Strade Bianche in Siena is up there with the most picturesque. A climb up a narrow, partially cobbled road surrounded by gorgeous Italian architecture bring the riders to the Piazza del Campo, the breathtaking medieval square where the finish is located.
Although the preceding gravel roads tend to form deceive selections, if a small group does make it to the finish together, the steep slopes of this climb ensures a thrilling final slow motion sprint to the line.
It’s played host to some cracking climaxes over the years. Highlights include Michal Kwiatkowski catching Peter Sagan off guard to win in 2014, and Elisa Longo Borghini catching Lucinda Brand just metres from the summit and coming out on top in a rain-afflicted slug fest last year.
The start of the Women’s World Tour
For the third successive season, Strade Bianche will be the first leg of the Women’s World Tour.
That will be many of the world’s biggest and best names will be in attendance, but, if the pattern of previous editions is followed, it will be a select number of specific riders who will contest for the win – specifically, Elisa Longo Borghini, Kasia Niewiadoma and Lizzie Deignan.
As explosive riders who can handle the challenge of the dirt roads and are very quick on punchy climbs, this trio of riders are perfectly suited to Strade Bianche, and have all been in the thick of the action in each of the previous three editions of the race.
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Last year, Borghini won a three-woman sprint ahead of the other two; in 2016, Deignan and Niewiadoma made the key selection alongside Emma Johansson, with Deignan winning the sprint; and in 2015 Deignan softened the field to allow team-mate Megan Guarnier to break clear and win, herself finishing second with Borghini in third.
All three are expected to start on Saturday, and will enter the race as favourites. But it’s also worth keeping an eye on Sunweb, who animated last weekend’s Het Hageland and set up Ellen Van Dijk for the win.
Sky’s deadly Classics duo
Last year Moscon achieved the rare feat of finishing in the top five of both the season’s flattest Monument, Paris-Roubaix, and the hilliest, Il Lombardia, while even starring in the mountains of some Vuelta stages.
Kwiatkowski meanwhile has already made the most of his versatile talents to win the race twice, using his rapid uphill acceleration to out-sprint Peter Sagan in 2014, and using his powerful rouleur’s engine to attack from 12km from the finish to win last year’s race.
Paired together, they’ll be a formidable force both capable of winning on Saturday.
Peter Sagan’s return
Having missed last weekend’s Classics in Belgium, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) gets his European season underway at Strade Bianche.
Despite being well-suited to the race, Sagan has never actually managed to win Strade Bianche in six attempts, twice finishing second, and having to pull out of last year’s race when illness struck.
The dirt roads also benefit riders with a background in cyclocross, which is why Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) – who won in 2015 and finished in the top four in both editions since – has such a good record here, and why cross world champion Wout van Aert is one to watch having ridden so impressive at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Grand Tour riders making a rare Classics appearance
Another of Strade Bianche’s major appeals is the chance to see Grand Tour riders who wouldn’t usually be caught anywhere near a northern-style classic.
This trend doesn’t so much apply to the women’s peloton, where riders tend to be a lot less specialised and are used to riding in all sorts of different races, but the men’s race regularly features plenty of unlikely names.
This year Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) return to the race, the latter having impressed last year with a fifth-place finish, while Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) make their debuts.
You wouldn’t expect any of those riders – aside perhaps from Dumoulin – to contest for the win, but that doesn’t apply to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who has twice made the podium here and has made a sensational start to the season.