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Strade Bianche women’s preview: Five favorites

Kristen Legan breaks down the route of the Italian race and lists some riders to watch on Saturday.

The Women’s WorldTour kicks off this Saturday with Strade Bianche. Returning champion Lizzie Deignan leads the Boels-Dolmans team against an escalating field of aggressive racers. New teams and rosters have their first chance at testing their strengths and a strategy on women’s cycling’s biggest stage.

Weather forecasts point to rain on Saturday for unpredictable racing across Italy’s white gravel roads. So far, no livestream coverage or TV broadcasts are planned for the women’s race, but follow the action on Twitter using the hashtag #stradebianche. Post-race recap videos will also be available from the UCI and some teams. And of course, check VeloNews.com for race reports, commentary, and videos after the race.

The Route

The peloton faces a twisty and undulating course with no long climbs, but punchy hills and plenty of unpaved roads dot the course. The riders will tackle roughly 30 kilometers of gravel across eight sectors that also appear throughout the men’s route. The demanding final kilometers into Siena take riders up gradients of up to 16 percent. Passing under Fontebranda Gate with 900 meters to go, the road surface turns to paving slabs while the road continues to climb. Riders enter the Piazza del Campo and immediately shoot downhill at 7 percent in the final 30 meters to the flat finish line.

Sectors

Sector 1 (2.1km): Straight and slightly uphill.
Sector 2 (4.7km): A short descent followed by a long climb that reaches 10% gradient in sections.
Sector 3 (4.4km): Part of sector 1 from the race’s first edition.
Sector 4 (5.5km): A classic gravel sector featuring in the course since its first edition with no significant gradient.
Sector 5 (9.5km): Continuous up and downs in the first part, ending with a twisting climb.
Sector 6 (800m): Includes pitches of over 10%.
Sector 7 (2.4km): Climb toward Colle Pinzuto that ramps up to 15%.
Sector 8 (1.1km): A sequence of demanding descents followed by a very punchy climb (max 18%) that ends with just 12 kilometers to the finish in Piazza del Campo, Siena.

The Contenders

Lizzie Deignan (Boels-Dolmans)
The returning Strade Bianche winner is our top pick for Saturday with the strongest team in the peloton backing her. The Brit started her season a week earlier last year, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. So does she have the same race form and focus for early spring races, or is she targeting later races like the Tour of Flanders or the new Ardennes week?

Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5)
Borghini’s aggressive racing at both Omloops last week reveals she’s on excellent form and isn’t afraid of attacking and attacking until something sticks. She needs a solo escape or needs to climb away from a small group on the final slopes into Siena to win. But Italian fans will go crazy if their countrywoman is in the hunt at the finish.

Marianna Vos (WM3 Energie)
Vos has the pop and skills to tackle Italy’s punchy gravel roads after recently finishing a strong ’cross season. She lacks experience with this new modern classic having never raced it before — this is only the third year running — but she’s not one to back down from new challenges. Strade Bianche is one of only a few races missing from the seasoned pro’s palmarès — will it be for long?

Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott)
Racing in Australia this January helped set this young Dutch rider up for a successful classics season. She took third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week and is knocking on the door for a big win. Van Vleuten is dangerous on steep climbs — think back to her impressive attack at the Olympics last summer — and will be hard to beat up the final steep kilometers if she’s still in the lead group.

Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Energie)
Watch for WV3 Energie to shake up the race with its two very capable contenders in Vos and Niewiadoma. Second at last year’s Strade Bianche, Niewiadoma couldn’t match Deignan’s power on the crushing final kilometer. But with another year of experience in her legs, the young polish rider is prime for a breakthrough performance.

The Dark Horses

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Canyon-SRAM)
Prevot makes her 2017 debut at Strade Bianche wearing the new team colors of Canyon-SRAM. She also arrives with a fresh perspective on racing after nearly quitting the sport following a disappointing 2016 season marred by injury. She wrote an emotional Facebook post after the Olympics in which she said, “I don’t know when I’ll get back on a bike,” but it seems she’s rediscovered her motivation with the help of Canyon-SRAM. If she can channel some of her 2015 form and energy, Prevot won’t take long to nab her first podium of the year.

Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans)
A move to the star-studded Boels-Dolmans team this year means van der Breggen will have to share leader duties with Deignan at races like Strade Bianche. The teams looks to be backing the returning winner at the opening WWT event, but van der Breggen could easily slip onto the podium or take over if something takes Deignan out of contention.