This year’s ‘southernmost northern European classic’ was a grey and chilly affair, and there were threats of a downpour all day. Not wanting to race on slick mud rather than white dust, the riders got a shift on from the word go. Eyes were on Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde, Greg Van Avermaet, and Zdeněk Štybar. As it would turn out, some of these riders would follow the crucial moves, and others were destined to be left in the dust clouds.
A handy eight-man breakaway had led the charge from the gun, and it had featured such talents as Jens Debusschere and Jesse Sergeant. But they stayed out front for only the first 100km of racing, and a second, more powerful break immediately went clear on one of the gravel roads. Amongst them were Gianluca Brambilla working for Etixx-Quickstep, Brent Bookwalter for BMC, and Sky’s Salvatore Puccio. Take a moment to spare a thought for Puccio. His race was plagued with mechanical issues, including an unlucky dropped chain, and yet he found his way back to the head of affairs several times, always working hard for Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski. Puccio must have been one of the hardest working riders on Saturday, but Kwiatkowski would finish in 20th, and Puccio in 43rd.
Whilst Sky were busy sticking bits back on to Puccio’s bike, the race thundered along. The peloton were thinning down their numbers up to the 150th kilometre, and the bunch out the front were also dropping riders. With 20km remaining, Brambilla was the only man left out front, and was beginning his campaign to win Man of the Match for Etixx. Cue a timely attack from Peter Sagan, which would turn out to be the decisive volta of the race: Sagan shot off and gained Brambilla’s back wheel, and was joined by Zdeněk Štybar and Fabian Cancellara. Critically, Vincenzo Nibali appeared to be fading, and Greg Van Avermaet, along with his lieutenant Bookwalter, were caught in the second group on the road, and would not see the head of the race again. There were four men leading the race, and two of them had Etixx-Quickstep written on their lycra.
The four worked well together for the next 15km or so, with Sagan in particular taking huge turns (Cancellara tried one cheeky attack at the 15km remaining mark, but Sagan hunted him down). Štybar, naturally, enjoyed an easier ride, as Brambilla was repeatedly hurling himself into the headwind and loyally exhausting himself for his teammate. It was thanks in large part to the hard work from Brambilla that the four stayed away at all, and he still had something in the legs come the closing kilometres. He threw in a handful of attacks before one stuck, and went hard and fast into the steadily rising roads leading into Siena. He threw his body as well as caution to the wind, and almost cycled straight into the difficult right-hand corner that nearly sent Valverde flying last year. He was taking plenty of risks, and was rewarded with ten seconds in hand come the final climb, with less than 1km to go.
Now, the Etixx plan was clear to all: Brambilla softens the legs of Cancellara and Sagan, and the fresher Štybar sweeps past for the second win in as many years. But Brambilla, amazingly, wasn’t fading at all quickly. He was hauling himself quite ably up the last climb, and the gap back to the chasers was looking insurmountable. But, finally, Cancellara kicked off. He towed Štybar up with him, but Sagan was spent, and disappeared from view. The duo got past the finally exhausted Brambilla, who might enjoy a post-race drink with Puccio to discuss who worked harder today. It was close right into the last twenty metres, but Cancellara took the tight corners brilliantly and swung his way to the line first. He just had to throw his arms up in triumph, before hopping around in his cleated shoes like an excited child with the waiting staff of Trek. And why not? He’s now going to get a nice strip of muddy road named after him, thanks to his triumvirate of Strade Bianche wins. He was a dominant force, and he’s surely got more up his sleeve for his final classics season as a pro.
Zdeněk Štybar will have to settle for second, but Brambilla, despite coming close to the win himself, will still be delighted with third. He must have been expecting Sagan to pass him at any moment, but he held on remarkably. After Sagan in fourth, Etixx also took fifth place with Petr Vakoč, once more displaying their classics supremacy (if not quite managing to take the win). Van Avermaet managed sixth, Valverde tenth, and Nibali was way back in fifteenth. Perhaps Nibali lost interest, or perhaps his form is touch and go at the moment; he’ll have to up his game if he wants to win the coming week-long Tirreno-Adriatico, though.