For such a young race, Strade Bianche already possesses the attributes of an age old classic; white gravel roads stretch over dramatic climbs to shape this Italian flavoured affair. The terrain fails to favour the cobbled specialists, nor the climbers; instead serving as a day in the saddle which is sure to force the peloton’s strongest to the surface. Perhaps it is those who savour the Ardenne’s classics which will view the 200km trip from San Gimignano to Siena as an opportunity to add this increasingly popular one day race to their palmares.
Though other aspects of the race may alter from one year to the next, it is the conclusion upon the devastating Piazza del Campo which remains the final showdown for those staking a claim to the title. Rolling hillsides are the constant theme in the area, but it is the combination of the gravel roads which sets this race apart from others; the first sector of which comes at 31.2km and lasts 2.2km. It takes until after 49km of racing before we witness the difficult run of consecutive gravel sections; this run of four is the first testing passage of the day. The third in this series comes in the form of a 5.9km run and requires the peloton to haul themselves over ramps of 10%. In under 15km, the riders will need to navigate their way across two further sections of 4.4km and 5.5km in length respectively.
A certain level of selection is likely to have occurred by this point in time; a 4km climb at a steady 5% will add to the woes of any trying to bridge back to the lead bunch. The peloton will then hit the 9.2km run across gravelled roads; this is generally downhill and should provide little opportunity to impact upon the race’s outcome. With approximately 50km remaining, life in the bunch shall begin to ratchet up as they are tasked with the day’s longest stretch of gravel tracks; the Monte Sante Marie. At 11.5km long and including steep ramps, it is likely to be the first meaningful selection of riders ahead of the last run of three gravel sectors.
The concluding triumvirate’s final section is a draining affair, 1.1km long at an average of 11.4%; it peaks at 18% and is sure to be the scene of a devastating attack. Only 12km remain before the finish at this point, all of which are rolling terrain and includes some technical negotiating of tight bends. Upon the Piazza del Campo is where the hopes of many shall be left in the dust; something which might seem surprising when considering its length of 800m. Though the average is 6.5%, it is the early ramp of 16% which will turn legs to lead as the elite group jostle for positioning on a gradient which does not drop below 10% until 500m from the finish. Navigating a tight right hand bend at 300m will lead the riders onto the fast downward route all the way to the line; ensuring a difficult sprint is required for any harbouring winning ambitions.
Various attributes might be considered crucial for any winner of a race with such a diverse range of aspects, making it a difficult affair to predict a champion of Strade Bianche. Peter Sagan appears to be the favourite after two recent second place finishes at the Italian race and is likely to be in the midst of the action for certain. What remains less certain is whether or not he has the conditioning to dominate above all others; his tactical weakness has been exposed before and his season thus far is still spluttering into life. The multi-talented Alejandro Valverde is a perhaps equally fancied to take the win here; the short and sharp climbs appearing to be the perfect fit for him. He is certainly in great condition having ridden well early season so far and despite this not being a huge target for the year; he will certainly fancy adding this to his already vast mix of trophies.
The only man taking to the line with two previous victories to his name is Fabian Cancellara and is likely to view this a great tester for his fitness at this point in time. Able to cope with ramps similar to those at Tour of Flanders, Cancellara could well sail off into the distance on a solo attack if the opportunity arises once again. Whether or not he can execute such a plan with the power of yesteryear remains uncertain, but he is certainly a risk to disregard. Another talented classics specialist is Greg Van Avermaet, but he comes to the race in a shroud of controversy after news of a doping investigation broke last week. He has performed well in previous editions and looked very strong in the recent curtain raisers to the classics season, but it remains unclear as to the impact of doping allegations will have on his performance.
Zdenek Stybar is certainly a dangerous man to the hopes of others and has already exhibited great form at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He should have the strength to make the selections, but will need to be on the ball in order to be part of any final group who makes it to the line. If he manages this, there are few others who could out-sprint him after 200km of testing Italian terrain though. Similarly talented riders usually seen at home on the cobbles are also in attendance – Sep Vanmarcke, Ian Stannard and Niki Terpstra shall all be protagonists, but it seems that the amount of climbing on the day could be too great an ask for them.
Former champion Moreno Moser appears to be on the ascendence after experiencing a rocky patch of form in 2014 and should be the home fans’ favourites for the win. Physically, he suits this race very neatly and will be a major contender should he still be in contention for the uphill drag at the finish. Roman Kreuziger might be at the disposal of Peter Sagan for the most part, though could find himself as an excellent alternative plan for Tinkoff – Saxo if the Slovak crumbles beneath the Italian sun. Kreuziger has an amount of experience here, looked solid in Oman and will enjoy a hard race as the pressure ramps up in the final 50km. Perhaps the biggest dark horse of the whole day is Team Sky’s Peter Kennaugh, a man who should benefit from an unfavourable course for his teammate Ian Stannard; finding himself as sole leader late on. Kennaugh has shown devastating form this year already at both Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and while supporting Chris Froome in Andalusia; his climbing has been especially impressive already. He possesses an effective sprint when required, something which he demonstrated when beating Ben Swift to the national title in a one-on-one drag race last summer; the finish in Abergavenny of which is vaguely reminiscent of the last 500m in Siena.
Other outsiders who could all cause a stir include Rinaldo Nocentini, Fabio Felline, Damiano Caruso, Francesco Gavazzi and Filippo Pozzato.
1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Peter Kennaugh 3rd Moreno Moser