Zdenek Stybar proves himself the strongest of a powerful lead trio on the final climb of the Strade Bianche

Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) won the Strade Bianche on Saturday, the last man standing of a powerful trio going toe to toe in the final steep kilometer.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) was first of the three to attack going into Siena, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) quickly marked him.

But the Spaniard couldn’t stick it out, and it was Stybar who closed on and then shot past Van Avermaet, powering across the line with both fists punched skyward. Van Avermaet hung on for second, two seconds down, while Valverde rounded out the podium a distant 18 seconds behind.

Stybar, who was Etixx’s designated captain for the day, said he was worried about Valverde in the finale, “but also Van Avermaet, because he didn’t pull a lot in the last five kilometers before the last clime to Siena.”

“He was on my wheel and I expected his attack, but not so early on the bottom of the climb,” he said. “My ‘finish line’ was at the top of the climb, so I really gave everything to catch him and then when I did, I was able to pass him there.”

Strongmen out front

With 35km remaining in the 200km race from San Gimignano to Siena a strong lead group held just over a minute’s advantage: Stybar; Daniel Oss and Van Avermaet (BMC Racing); Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing); Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo); Nathan Haas (Cannondale-Garmin); Diego Rosa (Astana); Valverde; and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo).

Orica-GreenEdge was leading the chase, and as the pursuit closed in Oss jumped away from the other leaders. Vanmarcke tried to do likewise, but Stybar shut him down. The chances of pace overhauled and discarded Oss and also shot Sagan out the back.

Twenty kilometers out the leaders were Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet, Stybar, Valverde and Cancellara, who lost contact on the penultimate section of gravel.

Down to four men, the lead group had a couple dozen seconds over Cancellara and Oss, who was sitting in with a man in the front group. Behind them, Orica remained at the helm of the peloton.

Van Avermaet attacks

A resurgent Rosa latched onto the Cancellara-Oss tandem, and the trio closed on the leaders. Van Avermaet used the opportunity to attack ahead of the 10th and final section of gravel, Le Tolfe, which awaited with 13.1km to go. Stybar took charge of the chase.

With 12km to go, and the gravel behind them, it was Van Avermaet, Stybar and Valverde in front. Vanmarcke had lost the wheel.

Six kilometers out it was status quo: Valverde, Stybar and Van Avermaet ahead of a solo Vanmarcke with Rosa, Cancellara and Oss forming a third chase on the road.

The three leaders held their fire through a twisting descent leading to the final climb. Vanmarcke was pegged at 16 seconds with the Cancellara chase at 45 seconds.

Van Avermaet began skipping his pulls on the descent, and with 2km to go it seemed they would hit the finishing climb as a trio.

A three-man battle

Indeed, they hit the red kite together, with Valverde on point, Stybar second and Van Avermaet bringing up the rear. Vanmarcke, meanwhile, ground his way back to within sight of the leaders as they began the final ascent.

Van Avermaet was first to make his move. Valverde followed, with Stybar on his wheel. But the Spaniard couldn’t hold the pace. Stybar could, though — and the Czech powered away from them both to win. Van Avermaet finished second and Valverde scored a second consecutive third.

“When I turned into Piazza del Campo it was a dream,” said Stybar. “When the sun is in your face in that beautiful location, with such a passionate public, and you know you are the winner with no one able to catch you, it is like an explosion of joy. It was truly incredible.”

Vanmarcke, who just missed the podium, finishing fourth, said he took solace from an improvement in his climbing.

“I came close, a lot closer than I had thought I would,” Vanmarcke said. “It went better than expected. It is unfortunate that I ended up just outside the podium, but I’m pleased to see that my climbing has improved a lot compared to last year. I feel ready for the spring classics.”