Preview: Strade Bianche promises to be a strongman’s race

Several former winners will start Saturday's Strade Bianche, a 200km race in Tuscany that includes 45km on hilly, gravel roads

Photo: Tim De Waele

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Strade Bianche, slotted into the 2015 calendar on Saturday, may be newer than most races, but it has all the charm of a proper one-day classic with its white gravel roads rolling over the Tuscan countryside to the finish in Siena’s Piazza del Campo.

“This is one of my favorite races and I’ve already won it twice,” Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) said in a press release. “This race, thanks to its course and its scenery, is certainly unique in the international race calendar.”

The Swiss classics specialist won in 2008 and 2012. The race’s roll of honor includes other big names, too. The Piazza del Campo, famous for its horse race, celebrated Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Moreno Moser (Cannondale-Garmin), and last year, before going on to win the 2014 road worlds title, Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step).

“When I came around the final corner to the finish line in Piazza del Campo,” Kwiatkowski explained, “it was absolutely beautiful.”

The piazza surrounded by medieval buildings for years has hosted the Palio di Siena. The city covers the rough paving stones twice a year in July and August and jockeys race horses bareback among thousands of spectators.

The same piazza, albeit without the dirt, provides the perfect ending to the Strade Bianche bike race as it sits in the city center and is reached by narrow streets that kick up to 16 percent.

To get there, Strade Bianche’s participants — numbering 158 among 20 teams for 2015 — must cover 200 kilometers in Siena’s countryside. The Cypress-lined roads undulate with many small climbs like in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), but with a twist, since 45.4 of the 200 kilometers leading to the “Piazza del Palio” use the famous white gravel farm paths.

The gravel roads are broken into 10 sectors, with the most serious ones being the seventh and 10th. The seventh sector features a quick descent on the loose gravel and No. 10 descends to the base of a sharp 16 percent climb. The 10th could be a launch pad for riders to break free, 12km from Siena’s piazza. This type of hard terrain doesn’t favor riders who sit in and save their matches. By and large, the race has been won with aggressive tactics and good form.

The man to beat: Peter Sagan

Sagan lost a two-horse race to Kwiatkowski last year. This year, racing in his new neon yellow Tinkoff-Saxo colors, he appears to be the favorite thanks to his climbing strength and sprinting abilities. Also, he will not have to worry about the new world champion because Kwiatkowski will sit out this year’s tour of Tuscany’s white roads.

The team to beat: Cannondale-Garmin

The American-registered team boasts 2013 winner Moreno Moser and cyclists like Ryder Hesjedal, who are strong on the white gravel. For backup, the team in black and green can bank on Nathan Haas, 25, who has already found the podium once this year, at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

Chip on his shoulder: Simon Gerrans

Orica-GreenEdge’s Aussie last raced when he placed second to Kwiatkowski in the Ponferrada worlds in September. A broken collarbone stemming from a training crash delayed the start to his season by two months to Strade Bianche. He will want to make up for lost time, and judging by how he went at the end of 2014 — in addition to worlds, he won both of the punchy Canadian WorldTour races — he is suited to the hard parcours.

VeloNews’ darkhorse pick: Zdenek Stybar

Stybar, being a three-time cyclocross world champion, clearly can handle his bike well. He already showed this year in the Vuelta a Murcia (third place) and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (seventh) that he has recovered from last season’s crashes. Backed by Etixx-Quick-Step, with teammates like Niki Terpstra to watch his back, the Czech has a serious chance to win.

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