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Strade Bianche for everyone

After Belgium hogging the early season attention it’s time we and the top riders turn our attention to Italy. First stop is Tuscany and the Strade Bianche this weekend followed by a highly anticipated, starstudded, Tirreno Adriatico and then finally a massive crescendo with the first monument of the year in Sanremo after that. At this point though, in spite of all the qualities of the other two, question is if the Strade Bianche isn't the one we look forward to most these days?

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

There are many reasons to love different bike races, some have history, some have some specific features, climbs, cobbles etc. that tickle everyones imagination. So much of our experiences of bikeraces is tied to the landscapes and geography in which they take place though. For hours on end bikeraces can be fairly uneventful affairs and yet keep you glued to the television as the peloton makes its way through small villages in Belgium, the mountains of Italy or the summer farmlands of France. Almost all great bikeraces have an intense connection to the nature and geography in which they take place.  In the case of the Strade Bianche that connection is perhaps stronger than anywhere else. In itself the course probably isn’t so remarkable, it’s a typical italian hilly race with lots of up and down finished by an uphill jaunt to the finish line. But when you add in the fantastic backdrop of Tuscan hills and the white gravel roads that give the race its name and then you have an event that never fails to get your pulse racing.

Making it an even bigger event this year is the introduction of a women’s race for the first time. It’s hard to think of a better addition to the women’s calendar I have to say. While ASO have answered the cries for more equality with the uninspired TdF (and in 2015 also the Vuelta) La Course events, their Italian counterparts RCS have actually done so with a real serious race that fills a gap in the calendar.  With all too many flat races this forms a great early season combo with the Alfredo Binda  World Cup for those riders that do well when the courses get a bit more varied and challenging. The women will race a 103 km course that only has the finale in common with the men’s course but while the roads may be different they have the same character as the men’s race. Most of the top names have seized the opportunity to be part of building the history of this great race. Riders like Lizzie Armitstead, Elisa Longo Borghini Emma Johansson and star-of-the moment Anna van der Breggen are all likely to be in the mix on Saturday. Their race won’t be televised of course, let's not go crazy after all, but the women should benefit from a lot of attention because of the shared race day. If journalists won’t come to where the women’s races are you simply have to take the races to where the journos are.

While we see a parcourse that is constantly up and down the Strade isn’t a climbers race by any means. For the men it’s clear looking at the start & winners list that this is the stomping ground of the strongest of the classics riders, the Cancellaras , Gilberts and the Sagans. If you are a classics rider somewhere in the spectrum between Flanders and the Ardennes then chances are you are going to love Tuscany in March.  You need the grit of a flandrien to make it to the finale in the leaders group and you need the punch of Mur de Huy climber to actually win the damn thing. Cancellara is the only one so far with enough power to win from a long range effort while Moser never needed that final climb punch thanks to a bit of brilliant teamtactics from Cannondale. Whether Spartacus will be a factor this time looks a little iffy. While media seem keen to paint him as the favorite he was himself tweeting about having been ill since Oman and only just got back in training. Personally I think it takes a Cance on super form to win here so I’d write him off but hey, I have been known to be wrong once or twice in the past.

One crucial data when looking at what it takes to win on Saturday though could be that all editions so far have been in dry beautiful spring weather. It won’t matter hugely now since this won’t be the year either when we get the answers to what type of race a wet, rainy Strade Bianche would be, reports speak of a sunny and warm weekend once again. Sad for us by the TV, heaven for the gang of Podiumcafesters who are going to the race and riding in the granfondo the day after. The granfondo is another new addition this year, adding an opportunity for fans to ride the course and watch the race. The true enthusiasts may return for the original Eroica race (on vintage bikes) which was the origins of the pro race. Sun, Tuscany, gravelroads, a bikerace and potentially a very small amount of Chianti sounds like a decent way to spend a weekend

I must admit that when the startlist for next week’s Tirreno came out stacked with the top stage racers I had some hopes that a lot of them would take a stab at this too but it seems only Nibali found the opportunity tempting. His best result in a few previous attempts was 15th in 2012 even if it feels like it would be a course that would fit him to a T. Sometimes the math of these things isn't as straightforward as you would think sadly, sometimes riders and races just don’t click for whatever reason (Tom Boonen, Omloop says Hi!). Quintana on his part probably needs to stay out of Valverde’s way here so he couldn’t ride even if he wanted to, Contador hasn’t had much luck in his Huy and Ardennes attempts so he probably doesn’t feel it much either but it has to be said that a Conta/Sagan double punch would be a sight to see and you know he has the grinta to do really well. Chris Froome on the other hand.....not so much by all accounts.

Instead of the Grand Tour bigs we’ll have to "settle" for another cast of characters and it’s slightly fuzzy to me what that cast is going to be this year.There isn’t really an obvious strong cast of favorites. The names that should be on the list are not really looking in top shape and the riders that look no-form on the startlist aren’t really the ones I’d have as top level favorites on this course so its tricky. It’s hard to get past Sagan of course especially with that meanie from last year Kwiatkowski not here to rain on his parade but he’s a hard nut to put your finger on right now. He doesn’t look his all-conquering self yet even if I’m pretty sure he will come Ronde van Vlaanderen Sunday so maybe the better Tinkoff bet is the man in CAS-limbo, Roman Kreuziger? Another Sagan check-mate like we saw when Moser walked away with a crushing win doesn’t seem too far-fetched and Kreuziger has excellent one-day instincts.

Gallery Photo: Moser Stuns the Favorites for Strade Bianche Win

Sagan celebrating Moreno Moser's win in 2012. Photo: Fotoreporter sirotti

Another likely scenario to me is perhaps some of those coming conspicuously emptyhanded from their Flandrian adventures scoring a win here instead. Stybar and van Avermaet both looked too good last week not to win something soon, they both have the right skillset and I suppose the only problem is that van Avermaet is cursed with non-winning and Stybar will most likely be rammed by some nice little Tuscan lady should he be in a position to win. But nonetheless, they’d both be popular winners.

In the bunch of "ardennes-specialists-who-look-like-really-likely-winning-candidates-on-paper-but-always-end-up-sucking-horribly" we can add Simon Gerrans fresh from ill-conceived mountainbiking resulting in injury, the older than dirt(roads) Sammy Sanchez, the possibly/probably/almost certainly chunky Carlos Betancur and the eternally unlucky Robert Gesink. Any one off them could of course catch us all by surprise and actually perform on the day but I wouldn’t put any money on it. Another one who won't be doing as well as he could this weekend is Marco Aurelio Fontana who races for the Italian national side here. If ever there was a rider who laments the loss of Roma Maxima it has to be him. Don’t tell me that with a name like that he wasn’t born to cross the line victorious in front of the Colosseum. He’s not alone in feeling a bit sad about its (temporary?) demise though, it did make for a truly excellent double header for the weekend and we can only hope that the Italians rediscover some previously mysteriously missing funds or something to pay for the race again next year.

And the actual winner then? Well, naturally it will be the guy who is too good not to get a race like Strade Bianche on his palmarès before he retires.  Alejandro Valverde of course.  Who else?