Since its inception in 2007, the Strade Bianche classic has developed in prestige at a remarkable rate. This is largely due to its wildly unpredictable nature: it’s pretty lengthy, at 176km; it courses across flamboyantly undulating Tuscan hills, with much of the course on the ‘white streets’ or narrow gravel paths which lend their name to the race; and, finally, the last climb of the day is a fierce, plus-16% grind up to the cathedral in Siena, along narrow and cobbled roads, and through gale-force winds that whip in across the bare fields. It’s a great inclusion on the early-season calendar, and, because of its difficult and unpredictable nature, it draws out some of the best of the best in the world of cycling.
The course itself is a big loop through the beautiful landscapes of Tuscany, starting and ending in Siena and taking in the beautiful hills and fields of the region. But the nature of the unmade roads, which throw up great billowing clouds of white dust, and which shift constantly under the riders’ wheels, mean that no one in the peloton will be sightseeing on Saturday. And, though it’s a significantly milder climate than February in Belgium, there still tends to be a stiff breeze in the Italian hills, meaning the race tends to string itself out into long, uncontrollable lines. The course favours powerful individuals over team efforts, and, by the time the race hits the climb up to Siena, it’s often the case that only two or three riders are within contention.
Last year we saw just such a small bunch reach Siena. Wind had been such a factor that riders had been quite literally blown over or off the road altogether, and the hard riding forced enormous splits to form from relatively early on. Throughout the day, the action was being orchestrated by riders like Peter Sagan, Daniel Oss, Greg Van Avermaet, Alejandro Valverde, Fabian Cancellara, Sep Vanmarcke, and Zdeněk Štybar — classics men through and through. In the final, though, Zdeněk Štybar came up trumps, leaving Van Avermaet and Valverde to take second and third. Vanmarcke came in a further 30 seconds down, picking up a bitter fourth place.
The first thing to note about this year’s Strade Bianche startlist is that many of the key movers and shakers from last year’s race are present. In fact, the only major absentee is Sep Vanmarcke, who is instead trying his luck at Paris-Nice, which starts on Sunday. This is a shame, of course, as Vanmarcke’s dogged attacks and efforts to bridge to the GVA-Valverde-Štybar group really animated the closing movements of last year’s race. But the inclusion of other big-name G.C. and classics riders will more than make up for it.
Amongst the returning favourites is Greg Van Avermaet, who will be looking to go one better than last year. He brings with him once more the hardworking Daniel Oss — exactly the sort of powerful and diligent lieutenant you’d want for a stage like this. BMC have plenty of other assets up their sleeve too, with Damiano Caruso, Jean-Pierre Drucker, and the explosive Taylor Phinney all set to work for GVA. But BMC’s biggest asset by far is Van Avermaet’s own form this year: fresh from his string of podium places in the Arabian tours, and his huge win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend, Van Avermaet is almost certain to be amongst those fighting for podium places on the climb up to the cathedral in Siena.
Another strong team this year is Etixx-Quickstep, who again have built a squad around last year’s winner Zdeněk Štybar. Štybar’s been riding into form this year, but hasn’t found anything spectacular thus far in 2016. However, he’ll have had the Strade circled on his calendar, and will be eager to hold onto the title. Punching a hole in the headwind for Etixx will be Tony Martin, who seems to have recovered well from his spill in the Omloop. One of Etixx’s most animated riders of late has been Julien Vermote, who was a key component of the elite moves made in Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, and he’ll be riding for Štybar in Tuscany. And who could forget Bob Jungels, who’s in great shape, and whose win in stage one of the Tour of Oman signals his current form. Etixx have what it takes to get a man into the final selection.
After the might of BMC and Etixx, where else can we turn? Astana, for one, are packing heat: Vincenzo Nibali looks great for this, and he’ll have his favourite lieutenant Jakob Fuglsang around for company, as well as a key component of last year’s race, Diego Rosa. Given Nibali’s recent incredible performance on Oman’s Green Mountain, you’d have to think he’ll be at the head of the race in Siena. He might not, though, have the ferocious kick to match Štybar, Van Avermaet, and our next favourite: Peter Sagan. Given Tinkoff’s recent pattern of letting Sagan ride his own race (with only Sagan actually finishing in Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, as we pointed out), their squad selection might be considered negligible. But Sagan is, of course, a key contender this year. If he doesn’t miss the key moves, like he did last year, then he should be in the mix for podium.
Alejandro Valverde returns to see if he can go one or two better than last year’s placing, but we’re not so sure. Now that his fellow G.C. rider Nibali is signed up, he’s got one more obstacle between him and the win, and, though he made all the right moves, he just didn’t have the kick to finish the job like last year. He was lucky not to have Sagan for company last year, too, so it looks like top five might be the right call for Valverde, but not top three. For a tastier outsider, look to Ag2r and their man Jan Bakelants. He’s been riding well this year, with a stage win in La Méditerranéenne (on a bonkers set of circuits up and down the same hill), and he’s got the legs for the Siena finish. If he’s going to win this he might have to go long, catching out the punchier riders and getting to the climb first, but that scenario’s not at all impossible. He’ll also have some pretty handy company, in the form of Matteo Montaguti and the in-form Hugo Houle.
Lotto Soudal are lining up their tag-team duo Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot once again, and we can expect them to do some damage on the last of the gravel roads. The final suits Roelandts a little more than Benoot, but if an elite break goes in the last 20km or so, you can bet Benoot will do his best to join the move. Sky have got an interesting squad for this one, with riders like Peter Kennaugh and Michal Kwiatkowski ready to duke it out on the white streets. Kwiatkowski is likely to go best here, and he could put up a great fight with the likes of Valverde and Nibali for the bottom rungs of the podium. Lampre will be pinning all hopes on Diego Ulissi, who, again, has what it takes to dance his way up a short, sharp climb at the end of a long day in the saddle.
And, last but not least, Trek once again have their hopes pinned on Fabian Cancellara. ‘Spartacus’ is the only rider to have won the Strade Bianche twice, and he’s been promised a stretch of white road named after him if he makes it a third win. Coupled with the fact that this is his last year of professional cycling, he’ll be keen as they come to win this one. Our views on his chances are mixed (see our picks, below). But in general we feel that he’s more likely to be looking for form for later races at the moment, and he has not shown enough that he’s currently in shape this year. Other riders lining up for this one have shown precisely how fit they are, and it’s pretty difficult to imagine Fabian trumping Van Avermaet or the G.C.-style men here. If he’s going to do this, he’ll most likely have to go long. That means making or matching the crucial moves, and bettering his performance last year — he just missed out on a place in the front group, getting caught back by the last of the sidewinds. However, we’d all love to see him win this, and it would round off a great professional career if he triumphed one last time in Siena.
James is the one of us with most faith in Fabian Cancellara. He thinks he’s got what it takes, plus a superabundance of motivation, to boot. James is looking forward to making a trip next year to ride on the Strade di Cancellara.
Andy thinks this is Peter Sagan‘s year. Sagan, like Cancellara, narrowly missed out on the selection last year, and would have stood a good chance of making the podium if he’d been in the GVA/Štybar/Valverde group (as would Vanmarcke, but he’s not going to be around). He’ll have his work cut out if he wants the win, but Sagan’s performance in the Omloop and the KBK last weekend proved two things: he’s up for anything, and he doesn’t need a team around him to finish well.
Finally, Chris is rooting for Vincenzo Nibali. The bookies don’t like Nibali much for the win here, but he has what it takes to keep the pace, match the moves, and give his all on the final climb. If he’s in the front group, then he has the requisite uphill kick to get to the line first.
That means none of us has picked Greg Van Avermaet nor Zdeněk Štybar. However, we can’t end our preview without acknowledging that both are very likely to make it onto the podium, and we’d be amazed if they weren’t in the final selection charging into Siena. This is going to be a superb one-day race. See you on the other side!