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Strade Bianche: Tuscan delicacy

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Strade Bianche Photo by Bryn Lennon - Velo/Getty Images

Is it possible that Strade Bianche is the most anticipated race of all on the calendar save for one or two that the Flemish hype machine have managed to elevate to almost God-like status? I think it probably is. Last year we engaged in a debate over whether it is in fact the sixth monument already and the opposition to such an outrageous claim was surprisingly mellow. It may not be but it’s probably not far off in many people’s minds.

That said, it’s still pretty early days and Strade is really just the opening salvo in perhaps the most intense period of the year, Paris-Nice, Tirreno, Sanremo all follow like a string of pearls and the coming weeks promise to be a blur of high caliber World Tour racing. The race also suffers from rubbing up against Paris-Nice this weekend. Like always some riders you’d desperately want to see in Tuscany are opting for France instead. This year’s most notable absentee is one the podium revelations of 2018, Romain Bardet. Seeing the grinta of the skinny Frenchman was a highlight as he made the unlikely pairing with cyclocrosser Wout van Aert and set the race on fire. Also missing are guys like Sagan, Valverde, Gilbert, Jungels, Teuns, Kwiatkowski, Calmejane and Uran. All names that would have been mouthwatering to see on the gravel roads.

Really solidifying this as one of the major major dates on the calendar is the now well established women’s race that runs ahead of the men on Saturday. Now in its fifth edition (fourth as a WWT race) it is truly set as one of the greats. If the men’s race doesn’t quite qualify as a Monument the women’s certainly does. With higher caliber winners and podium finishers than any other this course offers a unique challenge for the women’s peloton, especially in terms of climbing. Last year premiered TV coverage albeit flawed and hastily added to the schedule. This year should be improved with coverage confirmed well in advance.

The courses this year are easily explained as they are the exact same as last year. Usually there has been a little fiddling with the sectors but it looks like the organizers have found a format they’re happy with. And why wouldn’t they be? As someone pointed out though, they might do an even better PR job by marketing the gravel sections a little better. Give them names, numbers, star-ratings that make them identifiable in the same way that Paris-Roubaix has would give the race an even greater narrative.

I was looking for a good way to rank the candidates this year but I kept getting deviated by the internet into various fun stuff about Tuscany, 75% of which was food&wine related so I finally decided to give up and go with today’s food theme here at the PodiumFrituur So here are the riders to look out for on Saturday ranked according to a top 10 list of local delicacies that I stole off the internet. I wouldn’t call it a definitive list, in terms of delicacies. A lot of the other food stuff I found sounded a lot more yummy than this but that’s ok, I’m sure no one will agree with the list of rider favorites either.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Florentine T-bone steak is taken from the loin of the young steer (vitellone) and has a “T” shaped bone with the fillet on one side and the sirloin on the other.

A big juicy steak seems a good place to start. And in that spirit let’s talk about last years winners, both returning to the startline this year. Both have to be regarded as race favorites, in the case of Tiesj Benoot perhaps slightly hesitantly and in the case of Anna van Der Breggen resoundingly so. Benoot could have had a better preparation. He crashed out of Omloop and had a bit of a boo-boo on his knee. He’s cleared to race but who knows if he has the great form of last year? Either way his performance then showed that perhaps this is the race that he’s actually the best suited to win with his slightly undefined skillset. He’s somewhere in between a cobbles guy and an Ardennes guy, with a dash of pigheadedness added for flavor, and if that isn’t the very definition of a Strade-guy then I don’t know what is. A good guess is he’s in the mix again but comes up a bit short, especially since he will be more of a marked man this time.

When it comes to Anna there is really no amount of marking that really helps when she’s on. Elisa Longo Borghini, who is out with the flu this year, tried to put up a fight last time but Anna just blew everyone out the back the way only she can in the current peloton. Omloop showed she’s in good form but perhaps not a world beater just yet so we may be in for a bit of a more even fight this time. That said, she did roll over the Muur comfortably on Blaak’s wheel on Saturday so…. probably look for the Rainbow stripes somewhere on, or very near, the top step of the podium.

Also in the beefsteak category I’d list Greg Van Avermaet who is the rider who definitely is the rider that most resembles a T-bone steak physically. I can’t remember if it was his 15th or 16th attack/surge in Omloop that really got me convinced that he is the strongest right now and that if he didn’t attack/surge 15 or 16 times he might actually win the race but it really convinced me. So he should be the true man to beat in this race. In the absence of a few scary names it’s hard to put a finger on any quality he would lack to win except for possibly a cooler head. Perhaps Omloop has done a little to sway him in that direction but either way the Strade course puts a little more premium on who is physically stronger than the Flemish ones do so he may be OK.

Ribollita soup

One of the most popular winter dishes in Tuscany and contains different kinds of cabbage, beans, onions and carrot.

A nice winter dish should do well to describe a former cyclocross World Champion you would think. Wout van Aert almost literally crawled into Siena in third place last year sparking even further the talk of him as the Future Dominant of All Classics Ever. Even though that title has since been usurped by Mathieu van Der Poel, who has yet to ride a classic but is none the less clearly unbeatable, we’re all anxious to see if Wout can replicate his 2018 spring now that he’s on Jumbo-Visma. Personally I think we won’t see Van Aert perform to the same level in Tuscany unless we get a year with the same filthy conditions. It feels like that turned the race into an event that suited him better than it will otherwise.

The greatest constant in the women’s Strade is Canyon-Sram’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma who has podiumed here three times but never won. If you look at the names that beat her you wouldn’t be surprised but at some point you figure she has to win. She was the one to initiate hostilities for real last year, much the same as in the Omloop on Saturday. Perhaps she may do well to lean back a bit and ride a bit more defensively in order to be sharper for the finales but then again, asking for less aggressive racing feels a bit weird. She is one of those riders who really needs to make the most of her climbing abilities before she arrives at a finish though as she’s likely to get beaten by stronger finishers, even with that nasty power climb at the end.

Road Cycling - European Championships Glasgow 2018: Day Four Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Lardo di Colonnata

Cured meat made in the town of Colonnata. It’s pork lard cured in local marble.

Firstly as much as possible I want to avoid any kind of bad connections from the lard part here as Andrew recently chastised us, and rightly so, for our obsession with riders’ (over)weight. And anyway If I was seriously going to talk about lardo then surely I would have made some Carlos Betancur joke here wouldn’t I? I mean, I’m nothing if not predictable. But instead let’s talk seriously about two riders who showed enough last weekend to make them top favorites in Siena. Tim Wellens and Chantal Blaak. These two come to their current position from slightly opposite sides. Wellens is the definitive Ardennes rider, good for the medium climbs, who now seems to be turning into a more than competent rider also for the cobbled and grittier classics. Blaak meanwhile is the archetypical Dutch/Belgian powerful rouleur who has in the last few seasons improved on the climbs enough to win Amstel and be a factor in hilly races. Both share an instinct for clever attacks and aggressive riding that make them even more dangerous than their pure watts would indicate. Both fall in the “slightly underrated as favorites”-category for me in this race. I’ll be surprised if we don’t find one or both of them on the podium.

Panzanella

A cold bread salad whose name of uncertain origins probably derives from the word, pan, which is short for pane or bread, and zanella, an old italian name for a bowl.

It seems a bit puny after steak, soup and cured meat but if there’s any key to success in cycling then surely it’s pan y agua zanella. And few people were more successful last year than Annemiek van Vleuten, who dominated the season between the bookends of Van der Breggen’s monster spring and her Worlds win, and Michael Valgren who took two of the most prestigious spring classics.

Van Vleuten is just a step behind the best here in the past but I wonder if she isn’t a level above those performances now. With no mechanicals and if the race doesn’t take some weird tactical turn I can’t how she wouldn’t make the winning move to fight for the top spot this time. I somehow doubt even AvdB could ride her straight off her wheel on a course like this.

Michael Valgren is a less given name this high up in a ranking but given that he is another one of those riders like Benoot who falls so neatly in the category somewhere in between a cobbles and Ardennes specialist he should be in the conversation. The pale showing from Dimension Data last week should also prompt our blonde hero into action this weekend. I’m guessing it hasn’t escaped his radar that while his new team is struggling Astana, the team he just left, have won 53 million races in the first few weeks of the season alone. I’m guessing he wants to set the record straight soonish on whether last seasons win were his own or a result of team strength.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Twenty Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Tuscan olive oil is world famous for its pungent, bitter, fruity and vegetal flavor.

If we’re going to talk about virgins an intriguing debut this year is Julian Alaphilippe riding his first Strade. It seems counterintuitive that he never has before but until now he has remained loyal to his home race Paris-Nice which often makes Strade difficult/impossible depending on how you see it. Judging by his qualities he should be the perfect rider for this race, a punchy climber with cyclocross background and more grinta than most. So unless he is hampered by his lack of experience of the race he should be a huge factor.

I suppose technically it could turn out that the race doesn’t click with him, it sometimes happens even when you think it’s a perfect fit, but I sincerely doubt it. Coming off a strong South American start to the season Ala should add some fun spice to the Italian races this spring and Strade especially. It should also come as a shock to no one that Deceuninck-QuickStep may be coming here with the strongest unit of all. Co-leader is former winner Zdenek Stybar, fresh off his win in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and with some stomping form. Beating that combo alone is a formidable task and as usual they have some “decent” help too.

Another semi, if not extra, virgin who will be part of a strong team unit is Mitchelton’s Lucy Kennedy who had her major European breakthrough last year here finishing in the top 10 before she embarked on her string of unlucky injuries that marred her first season. Her climbing abilities have since been repeatedly confirmed and she will be one of the most exciting riders to follow this season. She may be tasked with ripping many races apart early for Van Vleuten and the other Michelton star who we will get to later but there is every chance that she will get a result or two for herself as well if her development continues as it has.

Lampredotto

The fourth stomach of the cow which is cooked in a broth and then served with salsa verde or/and spicy sauce

A rider whose riding style possesses all the natural style and grace of a cow’s intestine is another interesting newcomer, Trek’s Bauke Mollema. As far as I can see he’s never done the race before for whatever reason. With the emerging one-day abilities shown in the last few seasons he should be quite interesting to follow. Especially since he’s a typical grinta-rider which is a desirable quality here even if the weather reports point to a much less gnarly edition than last year. Dry and fairly warm seems to be the menu for the day

In the women’s race the natural representatives for the cow stomach dish has to be our Polish team representatives from CCC. When I think tripe,I think Poland, so sue me. Marianne Vos’s WaowDeals team merged/was incorporated with the new CCC team and their biggest signing for the year was Ashleigh Moolman. The South African is generally the most dependable top 10 rider whenever a course has any sort of climbing. Always near the top but so far never really winning has been her record for a few seasons. This is clearly what she aims to change by teaming up with Vos who looked last year on route back to her old dominant self. A course like this is more or less custom made for Vos near her top shape but is that the Vos we will be seeing? As hard as it is to pity someone like Vos who has won ”everything” multiple times it really would be a pity if she didn’t get to put a race like this on her palmares before she retires.

2016 Paris - Roubaix Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Pappa al Pomodoro

This soup is one of the foods that Tuscany has contaminated the entire peninsula with. It’s made with stale Tuscan bread, tomatoes garlic and basil leaves.

The pomodoro section seems as good a place as any to get to the Italian hopefuls. You’d think for a hilly race like this there would be more of them than you can shake a stick at but such is the poor state of Italian cycling that the best we can come up with is a potentially racist tractor aficionado with an accordion fixation. I am of course talking of everyone’s darling Gianni Moscon whose likability seems to be an exact inverse function of his qualities as a bike rider. He’s the only rider I know where people list ”he’s a Sky rider” as one of his more positive qualities. Of course among those qualities we could list ”potentially the most promising all-round cyclist of his generation”, the guy can do gnarly classics and he can climb well enough to be a credible future stage racer. Apart for possibly the sharp climb to the square in Siena he looks tailor made for this thing. And he should be the undisputed team leader as well since GERAINT THOMAS CAN’T REALLY BE BOTHERED WITH CLASSICS ANYMORE (he is on the startlist though). Whew, I’m glad I got that out of my system. Just a few more outbursts, five or six or so, and I should come to terms with the Welshman’s poor life choices.

In Elisa’s absence the best placed Italian to win the women’s race is most likely Marta Bastianelli. Mainly a strong sprinter in later years but she used to be a climber and her early season form indicates she could be competitive pretty much anywhere. I wouldn’t bet a huge amount of money on her but with the right early selection and perhaps some misfortune for those fastest up the wall into Siena she could rule the day.

Cacciucco

Comes from the Turkish world “kuciuck”, which means minute, small, and indicates precisely a dish in which ingredients are made into small pieces.
Cacciucco is a popular seafood soup from the coast of Livorno and Viareggio, but each town has its own recipe.

Speaking of minute and small it’s impossible to overlook Amanda Spratt, the climber on Mitchelton who has been getting increasingly important to the Aussie team, culminating in her silver in Innsbruck last fall. In the three-headed spear Spratt is likely the early attacker and the way things are progressing for her she could well turn that role into a winner nowadays. I won’t stretch to calling her a favorite but she could well be a very small piece in a winning soup for Mitchelton.

Now Jakob Fuglsang may not be minute but if ”kuciuck” doesn’t make you think of bird I don’t know what does. Having just won in Andalucia you’ll be hard pressed to find a rider with better form and in theory he should be a major factor in a race like this. There is that thing though where Fuglsang is most often more convincing in theory in oneday races. His best performances have really been in the service of others if you don’t count Rio and I’ll therefore limit my expectations to hopes. I do hope he puts together a great classics performance one day, he’s a bit too good not to have at least one big win.

Crostini Toscani

The word crostini literally refers to the bread (named frusta), similar to a baguette where the chopped chicken liver sauce is spread

And so we come to the bottom of the list which of course technically is the bottom of the list but these riders aren’t exactly chopped liver, they’re quite decent outsiders you know.

On the men’s side I’m mainly curious about a few youngsters like Robert Power (now at Sunweb) and everyone’s latest darling Tadej Pogacar. Power had a minor breakthrough here last year when showing signs that he may be coming good on his super talent promise after a rough start to his pro career . A rare bone marrow disease cost him a year and that lost him a bit of momentum. 2019 might give us an indication if he is back on track again. Pogacar got pretty much the exact opposite start to his pro career with an unlikely win in Algarve. His history indicates we should probably not have as high hopes for his oneday results as for his stage racing but it will still be intriguing to see how he does. His UAE team has bigger names on the list but not really ones for this race so there is every chance he gets to try his own wings.

In the few early season races so far we’ve had two major revelations who are both starting in Siena tomorrow. There’s Clara Koppenburg who outclimbed everyone on Xorret di Cati and Soraya Paladin who figured in pretty much everything that happened in Setmana Valenciana. Koppenburg with her new Mara Abbott-esque climbing physique may be less suited to a more varied and challenging course like this than a clear shot up one fearsome climb but that remains to be seen. Paladin on the other hand is the more classic women’s rider type, capable of handling everything from windy flats to a medium mountainous course and she will be interesting to follow here.

Her former teammate Janneke Ensing, now at Sunweb, should probably rank higher on this list but we’ll mention her down here because while impressive she does seem as one of those riders who are always good but struggle to take that final step up on the top of the podium. She’s already 32 years old and good enough to win pretty much any race on the calendar. I just wonder if she actually will?

More likely to be a winner is Bigla’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, everyone’s favorite social media Duracell bunny. Her capability is by no means limited to that though, it’s going to take something very major going wrong for her not to develop into a big-race winner fairly soon. She is one of those climber/stage racer types who aren’t really blessed with a myriad of chances on the women’s racing calendar. She needs to hone her oneday tactical skills in races like this to keep results coming with a little greater frequency.