Weekend Highlight: Le Strade Bianche

TV Update! RAI Tre has a slightly delayed, condensed replay at 16.25 Saturday (7.25 Pacific). Hopefully that will result in some same-day online access. Beware the time lag; if you're planning to watch, you may want to steer clear of our live chat.

First off, no race or series has cooler graphics than the suite of races labeled by la Gazzetta dello Sport as il grande ciclismo. Their latest product: the white roads of Monte Paschi:

Eroica_medium

This dreamscape is not only the scene of a gran fondo in fall, but of course one of the sport's up-and-coming classic events, the Monte Paschi Strade Bianche. The race is 190km of undulating scenery around Siena, including some 55km over the famous "white roads" of the region, gravel stretches consisting of the native rock, white marble. Given the timing, suffice to say this is Italy's way of saying they too can ride on crappy surfaces, though being Italy the crappy roads happen to also look great.

Previously the race was called Monte Paschi Eroica, but it seems like "eroica," Italian for "heroic," is getting dropped. The "eroica" was actually employed by the October gran fondo, which is ridden in period costume and equipment, where available, and was originally conceived as a way to help save the white roads. If you'll be in Tuscany in October, read here, sounds like something not to be missed. Anyway, as cool as the MPSB event is, it's no more or less heroic than every day in the life of a pro racer, so that bit of window-dressing has been removed.

Anyway, apart from being a hard day on an unusual surface, the race has cleverly positioned itself on the calendar as an appetizer for Tirreno-Adriatico -- almost nobody will go from Siena to Paris for the start of the Race to the Sun the next day. Paris-Nice has a few cobbles guys -- Gilbert, Haussler, Boom -- but for the most part the breakout between P-N and T-A has the climbers in the former and the classicians in the latter. So, for those going the Italian route, it's MPSB Saturday, then Tirreno-Adriatico starting Wednesday through the following Tuesday, then Milano Sanremo that Saturday before packing off to Belgium.

So it's a classics-dude event... except that picture of Cancellara pipping Ballan two years ago is a tad misleading. The race finishes with a trip into Siena that includes the Via Santa Caterina, which peaks at 16% with 500 meters to go. If the cobbles guys want a shot at victory, they may need to attack before coming into town. Check it out:

 Strade_bianche_2010_dettaglio_arrivo_medium

Two years ago Ballan bridged up to Cancellara at 9km from the line, and the two held their position on the tough run-in for a sprint. Last year the protagonists were winner Thomas Lofkvist, Linus Gerdemann, Fabian Wegmann, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Martin Elmiger, Giovanni Visconti, Peter Velits and Andy Schleck. In other words, the Ardennes guys, mostly.

Sky are coming to help Lofkvist defend his first classic win, but Saxo Bank are positively loaded: Schleck, Cancellara, Breschel and O'Grady. Meanwhile, BMC are sending the Rainbow Duo, Ballan and Evans, with the latter being a decent bet, and Mauro Santambrogio along for some mayhem. Pippo Pozzato will have Kim Kirchen as his companion, with Kirchen an established closer if the larger pack hangs together to the Santa Caterina. The Usual Italian Suspects will be out in droves -- Gavazzi, both Masciarellis, Ginanni, Garzelli, Bertolini, Bertagnolli, Bertogliati, and so on. Oh, and Vinokourov will lead the Astanese over a course that favors attackers. And we all know Vino is an attacker. In fact, if you register on the Astana web site you will receive a personal email from Vino that simply states "I am an attacker."

My pick... hm... Pozzato.

Oh, and video has been a problem in the past. Stay tuned on that one.

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