Much to learn from Strade Bianche, the young Italian classic

The peloton takes to the white roads of Tuscany on Saturday and riders like Cancellara and Sagan are looking for first classics blood

Photo: Watson

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — The white dust will soon settle, but who is the man who will be king of the Strade Bianche (White Roads)? Is it the same man who will rule the northern cobbles? Is it a lesser-known rider the peloton will soon toast?

We’re now well into the season of speculation, when we try to sort the contenders from those who will fall away as the spring races grow in stature. This Saturday’s Strade Bianche will offer an insight into who’s been on the cake diet this winter, and who’s looking to challenge for the monuments come Milano-Sanremo on March 17 and the northern classics to follow.

The race itself is but a speck upon bike racing’s historical plane (it’s going into its seventh edition this year) and yet it has the feel of one of the older classics; it’s a throwback to old-school Italian races on the white roads of Tuscany. Its winners include BMC Racing’s world champion Philippe Gilbert and RadioShack-Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara, twice. In short, it’s a new race, but a race that matters deeply. A tune-up, but a line any rider would be happy to have on his palmares. The white roads will set the tone for the classics to come.

The bumpy course (on road surface and profile) begins in Gaiole in Chianti and finishes in Siena, incorporating steep, short climbs along the 190-kilometer parcours, 70 kilometers of which are gravel roads, or sterrati. The big guns will be looking to establish themselves in Italy, and for good reason: The 100th running of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is little more than a month away. What will happen? Let’s guess (in an educated fashion, of course).

This race screams Peter Sagan, but then again, so do many of the bike races at which the young Cannondale rider lines up. He’s fast (in a sprint and up a steep ramp, or both) and is looking to build into the monuments, notably Flanders. He’s shown his early season form in Oman, taking two stages, but suffered from bronchitis earlier this month. Last year, he was second at Ghent-Wevelgem, third at the Amstel Gold Race, fourth at Sanremo, and fifth at Flanders. He wants better, and there’s a good chance it starts Saturday. Up-and-coming teammate Moreno Moser may be looking to do some damage on home-country roads as well.

Remember that stray bidon that wandered into the feed zone last season at Flanders, ending the classics campaign of Cancellara, and freeing Tom Boonen to attack from Flanders to Roubaix? So does “Spartacus.” He won this race last year, and he’s got to be itching for a test of his classics form before he heads north next month. This is the time for Cancellara to assert himself. No one would be surprised if he took Strade Bianche for a third time in the race’s seven-year history.

BMC Racing is bringing a strong squad, with Cadel Evans the tip of the spear, supported by Greg Can Avermaet, fifth last week at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and fifth last year in Tuscany, and American Taylor Phinney.

Phinney rode well at Roubaix last year (15th) in his first crack at the pros’ “Hell of the North” and closed the season strong with fourth-place finishes at the Olympics in the road race and TT, and a silver medal in the world championship time trial in the Netherlands. Certainly, BMC Racing is missing Alessandro Ballan this spring, who’s out from a heavy crash in training over the winter.

Truthfully, the winner may not come from a list of favorites — see last weekend, for example. Astana brings danger men Fredrik Kessiakoff and Enrico Gasparotto, last year’s Amstel Gold winner, and third place at Liège-Bastogne- Liège. This has the feel of a big classic, which means it’s anyone’s ride.

Should Sagan tear the legs off his competitors on the gravel roads, the peloton will take notice. What if “Spartacus” can defend his crown from last year? Would that make him the man for Sanremo and the northern classics that follow?

Only time, and the white dust, will tell.

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