Paris-Nice gets underway on Sunday, Tirreno-Adriatico starts next week, Milan-San Remo’s in two weeks and then it’s no time at all until the start of the famed hard-man cobbled Classics. This Saturday’s Montepaschi Strade Bianche race on the dirt roads of Tuscany will be a key indicator of some riders’ form.
The race (part of the RCS Sport stable) was inspired by a Gran Fondo ride, the October Eroica sportive established in 1997, where participants have to use bikes made before 1987 and dress accordingly.
What kind of race is it?
Saturday sees the sixth edition of the race. The first professional race was run in October 2007 – classified 1.1 on the UCI European Tour – and the 190km route through the Tuscan hills south of Siena has rapidly become a special and permanent fixture on the calendar, albeit now in the spring, the weekend before Tirreno-Adriatico. The irresistible pairing of beautiful scenery and attacking racing has made it a firm favourite with both fans and riders, confirmed by the recent trend for Strade Bianche-style stages in the Giro d’Italia as it passes through Tuscany.
The race’s previous winners are:
2007: Alexandr Kolobnev (Team CSC)
2008: Fabian Cancellara (CSC Saxo Bank)
2009: Thomas Lofkvist (Columbia-High Road)
2010: Maxim Iglinsky (Astana)
2011: Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
What happened last year?
Philippe Gilbert emerged triumphant in the hectic final few kilometres, beating Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) in an attack up the final climb to the Piazzo del Campo.
The first hour of racing was fast and furious and after 43km a 12-man break away formed including riders of the calibre of Greg Van Avermaert (BMC), Peter Velits (HTC) and Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek). They never had more than three minutes over the peloton who were driven along by the Lampre squad. Finally, the breakaway was joined by riders from the other chasing groups, leaving 20 riders seeking victory in the final 12km.
Lampre tried to set up Cunego on the last climb but it was Phil Gil who took the honours. His final attack was just too fast and too strong. He won by several bike lengths ahead of his podium companions in the packed Piazzo del Campo.
1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 4.44‘26
2 . Alessandro Ballan (BMC) same time
3 . Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) s/t
4 . Jure Kocjan (Team Type 1) s/t
5 . Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) s/t
6 . Angel Vicioso (Androni Giocattoli) s/t
7 . Oscar Gatto (Farnese Vini) s/t
8. Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini) s/t
9 . Greg Van Avermaert (BMC) s/t
10 . Fabian Wegmann (Leopard-Trek) s/t
This year’s race
The peloton faces a unique test on the 190km from Gaiole, in Chianti’s famous vineyards, to Siena’s Piazza del Campo: the rolling hills and the eight sectors of dusty white gravel roads, the famous strade bianche, which account for around 60km of the total race distance and where Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone would feel right at home.
As with the Paris-Roubaix pavé, the dirt roads require a high degree of technical acumen in dry conditions. In the wet, the roads turn to clinging, sucking mud and the race takes on even more epic proportions, as witnessed in the 2010 Giro d’Italia stage to Montalcino.
The first and longest dusty section comes after 35km. The 13.5km stretch is by no means the most difficult but it is undulating and offers the riders a sharp taste of what is to come. By the time they reach the second 5.5km sector a little later, the peloton may already have shattered.
The next obstacle is the climb to Montalcino. Although this is early in the race – its 5% average slopes shouldn’t prove too testing – the climb perfectly characterises the Tuscan landscape. The incline starts off near to 10%, then drops to 2-3% and increases closer to the top again to 6-7% gradient. The riders will see these percentages increase quite severely in the second half of the race, while the short descents also become more technical.
Next up are the twin sections of 11.9km and 8km of dust road, which are significantly more tiring than those that came before. With 60km to go, the peloton tackles the toughest sections of strade bianche: the 11.5km near Monte Sante Marie, a series of short but very sharp climbs, followed by a short, largely downhill section. The riders then tackle the dirt climb of the Colle Pinzuto, 20km from the finish and with slopes maxing out at 16.5%. The final dirt section comes with only 14km remaining and with one short, sharp kick of 18% towards the end: it offers the typical Classics strong man a final chance to slip clear, although there is still the testing run-in to Siena to negotiate.
If a group is still together in the final stretch, the advantage swings in favour of the puncheurs. Travelling at speed down the via Esterna di Fontebranda 2km before the finish, there’s a hard left, a false flat of 900 metres and then the final stinging 9% uphill climb between the houses, on narrow cobbled streets, increasing to 10% with 500 metres to go. Finally it drops to a welcome 7% just 30 metres from the last right-hand turn, then it’s downhill to the finish line in the Piazza del Campo di Siena, better known as the scene of Siena’s biannual Palio horse race.
Who to watch
The Strade Bianche has again attracted many of the big-name classics riders, some Tirreno-Adriatico contenders and others who are intrigued by the race. In particular, with those cobbles on the horizon Fabian Cancellara, leading a strong RadioShack-Nissan team, will be looking to demonstrate his invincibility.
Defending champion Philippe Gilbert, now with BMC and looking to repeat his much enjoyed recent successes on the Italian roads, will be supported by former world champion Alessandro Ballan and George Hincapie, as they seek to put their Classics credentials to the test. Cadel Evans will also line up, and even though he is taking the same measured approach to spring racing this year, he was a worthy winner of that Montalcino stage of 2010’s Giro d’Italia over the same sort of terrain.
Astana have former winner Maxim Iglinsky on their team, along with Roman Kreuziger. Team Type 1, who’ve been riding aggressively in the early races, have Julien El Fares and 2011’s fourth-placed Jure Kocjan, who might just surprise the more fancied runners.
The Garmin-Barracuda squad have last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner, Johann Vansummeren, Classics specialist Martyn Maaskant and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. Liquigas-Cannondale line up with Peter Sagan and Vincenzo Nibali, who will be looking to build on their recent strong showing in the Tour of Oman. Another danger man could be Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD), second in last weekend’s GP di Lugano. Movistar’s main man is Italian champion Giovanni Visconti. Frankly, any of these riders are capable of adding their names to the Strade Bianche roll of honour.
VeloVoices will be lounging on the sofa nibbling antipasti washed down with a fine Chianti [what else? – Ed] and keeping a close eye on rider 126, Georg Preidler, a promising Austrian neo-pro who rides for Team Type 1. Last year in the under-23 ranks Georg won GP Palio del Recinto and Toscana Coppe del Vazioni.
Live coverage of the race will be shown on Eurosport 2, or check out cyclingfans.com for live feeds.