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Preview: Women’s Strade Bianche rides into the unknown

Saturday's first-ever Strade Bianche women's race offers a course of moderate length, with punishing hills

In the world of pro cycling, staid tradition often means we rarely see an entirely new race on the calendar. Some races grow in prominence and others fade, but there is usually a point of reference when we look ahead to prognosticate.

True, the men’s peloton has raced Strade Bianche since 2007 — and in that time, its become a fan favorite, offering aggressive racing, beautiful scenery, and unpredictable finishes.

Can we expect the inaugural women’s event to play out like the men’s race? Perhaps, but the racing dynamic is by no means guaranteed to be the same.

What we do know is that the peloton will tackle 103 kilometers of racing. That’s 24km shorter than La Flèche Wallone and last year’s worlds, and 37km shorter than Ronde Van Vlaanderen. But what it lacks in distance, it makes up for with relentlessly rolling hills, including 15-percent, 18-percent, and a 16-percent gradient climbs in the final 20km.

Of course, the race also features its namesake white gravel roads. Five sectors on gravel add up to a total of 17.4km, with the longest section — 9.5km — coming about halfway through the race.

The first rider to the line in Piazza del Campo in Siena will need a combination of technical handling skills for the rough, sometimes loose roads and good climbing legs for the short, steep kickers.

The hot hand: Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) is on a tear, having won two stages, the GC, and points classifications at the Ladies Tour of Qatar in February. Although that race is quite flat, she’s proven herself in hillier courses, taking second at last year’s La Flèche Wallone and finishing with the front group in Ponferrada at 2014 worlds.

American hopeful: Shelley Olds (Bigla) has the experience to tackle a race with a lot of unknowns. This is her eighth season as a pro. The 34-year-old also has a quick turn of speed and was in the mix at last autumn’s worlds, sprinting to sixth place. Her Bigla team is new this season and surely motivated to establish its place in the peloton.

Ready to win: Emma Johansson leads one of the strongest women’s teams on the circuit, Orica-AIS, into Strade Bianche, but she’s yet to notch her first win of the season. The Swedish national champion made it onto the podium this week at Le Samyn, placing third, and her form seems to be ramping up for the major spring classics

Italian favorite: The locals will surely be pulling for Italian star Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-Honda). A third place finish at last year’s Flèche and second in 2013, plus a fifth in last year’s Giro Rosa, are just a few indicators of her climbing prowess. Plus, she medaled at worlds in 2012, proving she can rise to the occasion when the chips are down