by Fabio Valente (twitter: @cyclingideas_)
Even if just at his 12th edition, the Strade Bianche classic has rapidly established itself as one of the most interesting and entertaining races of the UCI World Tour calendar. Scheduled in March, it offers a first taste of what the riders will find while later competing at Paris-Roubaix or Flanders: Strade Bianche mixes elements from the two monuments, as it is characterized both by gravel sectors and short but hard and steep little climbs in the italian countryside. Previous winners of this race are some heavy names in the recent history of this sport, such as Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, Michal Kwiatkowski and Fabian Cancellara, who lifted the trophy in Siena three times, back in 2008, 2012 and 2016 and also has a gravel sector named after him.
Starting and ending in Siena, the 2018 edition of Strade Bianche will be a 184km-long hard one. Eleven gravel sectors are on the menu with the most demanding of them placed right in the middle and toward the end of the route: sector 10 could be a crucial one with just 13 kms to go. Even before that one, the peloton will have to deal with the difficulties of riding on the white roads of the tuscanian countryside. Plenty of dust and mud will be expected on Saturday, which will make the steep little ascents pretty hard to deal with. The last thirty kms could prove to be the key of the race, as they include the last two gravel sectors and dirty roads hitting gradients of 16-18%. The race, with attacks coming from the best riders on this terrain, could rapidly become an hot one here, even if temperature will be very low.
An interesting topic, which could play a key role in the race. After the coldest week Italy have seen in the last at least ten years, some snow is still falling in Tuscany but it should be over in a few hours. Cold wind and rain are expected for Saturday all day-long, as now, which could mean a muddy and freezing race around Siena. Some riders will deal better with this kind of weather, while some who have spent a month racing in Abu Dhabi or Oman could find harder to adapt to these different conditions. Roads will be tricky if full of mud and wet and crashes could be a danger everyone will be trying to avoid. Temperatures will be around 5-8 °C during the race.
After more then 180 kms run in tricky weather conditions on old, dusty roads, a hard finale like this one is not what a rider will desire the most. Last 3 kms of Strade Bianche are hard as hell after some hours of riding in the countryside: last kick of the race come with less than a km left and reaches a top gradient of 16% while going up to Via delle Terme. A late attack from a small bunch of riders could came right here.
Team strenghth and contenders
All top teams are in Tuscany for one of the most awaited races of the year. Some come to Siena with a top team, some with a clear leader, some could play different tactics during the race and some have to hope in one of their outsiders. Team SKY enters Strade Bianche with last year winner Michal Kwiatkowski: the pole was in an amazing form in 2017 and he could not be in the same shape this year, but the profile suits him very well and I rate his chances pretty high. On his side he could have Lukasz Wisniowski, who had a tremendous week with top-10 both in Omloop and KBK, and Gianni Moscon: the italian could prove to be a key card on Saturday, both as Kwiatkowski’s helper or as a candidate for the overall win.
Three teams whose chances I rate pretty high are Bora-Hansgrohe, Lotto Soudal and Quick-Step Floors. Bora have Peter Sagan as their leader: the slovak already has two 2nd places here and will be looking for a win. The race suits him and I think he is in Siena with a single aim: victory. His team is not the strongest one, but Oss and maybe Burghardt could be some good partners for him during the first part of the race. It shouldn’t be a problem though, as Sagan has already demonstrated he can win this kind of races even without a proper team to support him.
Lott Soudal made my short list due to their captain, Tiesj Benoot: he was so strong in Omloop and I would say he has been pretty consistent in almost every one-day race he competed in. He never fails to surprise me and even if not supported by the strongest team here, I think he starts Strade Bianche with high chances of riding it as a protagonist.
Quick-Step is one of those teams you can never exclude from this kind of analysis: what they did in Le Samyn was the last proof, if we needed it, of the strenghth of this team and the ability they have to control and eventually win a one-day race. They start Strade Bianche with a strong team, with Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert leading, plus Keisse, Gaviria, Serry, Capecchi and Schachmann. Given the difficult weather and the profile of the race, Stybar has his chances to contend for the win, even more after his strong performance in Omloop.
Another man you can never rule off is Greg Van Avermaet, for Team BMC. The belgian one-day veteran knows very well how to win this races and how to deal with difficult weather. He already has two 2nd places here in Piazza del Campo and will be looking for a win this year: he has not looked the best version of GVA to me in Omloop but he is an old fox and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lifting hands up on Saturday. Bettiol, Kung and Caruso will be his men, but I don’t know how far they will go.
A paragraph for an immortal champion like Alejandro Valverde is a must: what can we expect from the spaniard, a recent winner of Tour of Abu Dhabi, where he destroyed everyone of his opponents? El Bala has already finished Strade Bianche in 3rd place two times, proving he likes this race as he likes the steep finish. He comes as the only leader of a Movistar Team which will line up also Betancur and Amador. I don’t think he will need their help: if he has fully recovered from the stomach pain he had recently, he can contend for the win, like he does everywhere he races.
Team Astana has been the biggest team surprise of this first part of the year, earning winning and placements almost everyhwere with plenty of their riders, culminating with Valgren’s solo win in Omloop. They are in Tuscany with a strong squad and they might surprise again, maybe with Andrey Lutsenko and Moreno Moser, but I don’t think it will be easy for one of them. Maybe Lutsenko could play his chances but he has to stay with the other top riders and be careful in the closing kms: he could receive help in the race from Moser and Oscar Gatto.
A similar thought can be made for Team Bahrain-Merida, who lines up Vincenzo NIbali and Sonny Colbrelli among the others: I don’t think it will be easy for both of them to contend for the final win, but a cold, rainy day could shake things a bit and maybe be a little help for a rider like Colbrelli.
Last paragraph mentions: Jasper Stuyven (Team Trek-Segafredo), who is in pretty good shape but the race looks a bit too hard for him, talking about the amount of little but explosive climbs. Same could be said about Sep Vanmarcke (Team Drapac Education First), who has been one of the bravest and strongest men during the first week of Belgian classics but he is not in my contenders list for this Strade Bianche.
Luke Durbridge (Team Mitchelton SCOTT) could be a very solid name for this kind of races but the collarbone injury he suffered down under keeps me away from thinking he will do very well in Siena. Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) didn’t look in his best shape in Abu Dhabi and the white roads shouldn’t be his most liked terrain: he maybe will surprise in the future, but not on Saturday, me thinks. Last but not least, Wout Van Aert (Team Veranda’s Willems): the young belgian is a beast and his Cyclocross results prove it, but can he be a protagonist even on the roads of Strade Bianche? The race could be a bit too hard for him, even if he was smart and fast staying with the best ones in Omloop. Bad weather and mud will be a lovely news for him, but will it be enough?
Never an easy task when talking about one-day events and even harder when they happen to be raced on gravel roads under an inclement weather. I usually like to picks some long-shots when we have plenty of short-priced favourites but honestly I find very difficult to see past the top riders for the overall win, as the Sagan-Kwiatkowski-GVA-Stybar group looks very solid and hard to beat. I see interesting prices for Alejandro Valverde EW (you may find him under “others to win” between 8/1 and 11/1), Tiesj Benoot EW (available at 17/1 or more), Wout van Aert EW (25/1 or more) and little punts on Vincenzo Nibali EW (66/1 or more) and Lukasz Wisniowski EW (100/1 or more).
Thanks for reading!