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Strade Bianche men’s preview: A clash of climbers and classics specialists

Strade Bianche may only be in its 12th edition, but that hasn't stopped it from emerging as one of the sport's best one-day events.

Strade Bianche may only be in its 12th edition, but that hasn’t stopped it from emerging as one of the sport’s best one-day events. Between the scenery, the start list, and the savage terrain, it delivers spectacular racing year after year.

The trek through Tuscany earned a WorldTour bump last season, and Michal Kwiatkowski put on a fitting show to ring in the upgrade. The Sky rider attacked just inside the final 15 kilometers to power to his second career victory in Siena.

With cold, wet weather in the forecast for this weekend, the 2018 edition figures to be another thriller. Stay tuned for our preview of the Women’s WorldTour race as well.

The route

The 184-kilometer race starts and finishes in Siena, and includes 11 sectors of white gravel roads, the famed “strade bianche” that give the race its name.

The second of those sectors, starting 23 kilometers in, will be the day’s first test. If the morning escapees haven’t gone clear already, they’ll have a great opportunity here.

After two more gravel sections, a trio of challenges will put early pressure on the peloton. First, the trek up Montalcino and the descent down the other side will break things up. That runs into the lengthy and technical fifth gravel sector. Following 11.9 kilometers of bumpy riding, the riders only get one kilometer of asphalt to recover before the 8km sixth sector, which includes a pair of small punchy hills and then a tricky downhill run.

The pack will finally get a reprieve (and a feed!) after sector six, but it won’t be a long break in the action. The seventh sector will bring the peloton back to reality at kilometer 111, while the eighth sector that follows at kilometer 130 is the day’s hardest. Multiple steep ascents rise up along the 11.5km ride.

Another string of small climbs after sector eight will keep everyone on their toes until the short ninth gravel sector, a very tough little lump in the road. The same goes for sector 10, which runs up to Colle Pinzuto and crosses into double digits at times. The 11th and final sector opens with a wicked descent and concludes with a double-digit gradient climb for around 500 meters. From the top, it’s just 12km to the finish.

The final push

Those last 12km involve multiple ups and downs before the final dig into the heart of Siena. With half a kilometer at 12.4 percent, the climb maxes out at 16 percent near the top. Any group that makes it to this point together will surely be blown to bits by the apex of the ascent.

After cresting the climb and smiling for the cameras, the leader(s) will have 500 downhill meters to the line.

The contenders

The beauty of Strade Bianche — well, one of the many beauties — is the breadth of potential winners. Punchy climbers can try to get clear on one of the many uphill tests on the menu. Cobblestone specialists will find their bike handling skills and grit well-suited to the terrain and the weather.

That makes for a wide-open affair sure to delight fans — and confound prognosticators like us. But we’ll try picking a few favorites anyway.

Favorites galore

If you could design a Strade Bianche specialist in a lab, he might come out looking like Michal Kwiatkowski. The punchy Pole loves to attack Ardennes-style climbs, but he’s also proven his knack for bossing rough roads, winning E3 Harelbeke in 2016. On great form right now, he’s a fine bet to take a third Strade Bianche win on Saturday.

The only real knock against Kwiatkowski is his inconsistency. He will, occasionally, disappear in races where he should be fighting for the win. If that does happen, his Sky teammate Gianni Moscon is another jack-of-all-trades who will see potential launching pads all over the parcours. Diego Rosa gives Sky yet another option.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has never managed to reach the top step of the Strade Bianche podium, but he’s a two-time runner-up and an obvious threat on both the gravel and the climbs.

The question mark for Sagan is form. He has not raced since January’s Tour Down Under, and will be coming into Strade Bianche on the back of an altitude training block. He may need a day or two to find his racing legs. Or not. If he leaves the field behind on the gravel en route to hamming it up with those goofy ski goggles atop the Siena podium, will anyone be surprised?

Greg Van Avermaet‘s Flemish classics skillset translates beautifully into Italian, at least in Tuscany. Like Sagan, the BMC racer is a two-time runner-up. Then again, he’s another rider for whom form and motivation are a small question mark. Van Avermaet looked good at the Tour of Oman, but he was less impressive at opening weekend in Belgium. April’s Ronde van Vlaanderen is his white whale, so it’s possible he’s holding back a bit early this spring.

Recovering from a bout with illness, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde was only confirmed for this race on Thursday. If he’s healthy, however, he’s a huge threat to win. A two-time podium finisher who is on blazing form (like always) right now, he’s among the best climbers on the start list.

Philippe Gilbert won Strade Bianche during his epic 2011 season, but only raced it one time since then, finishing 48th in 2012. The new version of Gilbert, now more of a Flanders-winning hardman, should be even better-suited to the parcours.

Quick-Step has another former winner (of course) in Zdenek Stybar, who always makes Strade Bianche a priority. The former cyclocross world champion has underrated climbing chops, so don’t be surprised to see him motoring up that final climb with the very best on Saturday.

Best of the rest

Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) is in the mix in almost every one-day race from the Omloop to Paris-Roubaix. Strade Bianche may be a tad too hilly for the Belgian, but he was sporting some great climbing legs on the Muur van Geraardsbergen last Saturday.

Bahrain-Merida brings a fearsome two-headed monster to Siena. Vincenzo Nibali is a threat to go long and Sonny Colbrelli capable of out-kicking practically anyone on the start list should he make it into the final few hundred meters.

Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot, Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko, UAE’s Diego Ulissi, Trek’s Jasper Stuyven and Fabio Felline, Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin, Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Ag2r’s Romain Bardet are others who could be in the mix this weekend in Italy.

Wildcard watch

Beware Wout van Aert, the reigning world cyclocross champion racing the road Saturday with Vérdanas Willems-Crelan. Van Aert is a proven gravel grinder, with a Schaal Sels win already on his palmares.

Plus, he’s already shown off some excellent road form so far this year. He hung with the selective front group last week at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He’s a legitimate threat to win Strade Bianche.

Podium picks

I like Kwiatkowski’s odds to repeat, tying Fabian Cancellara for a third career win on Saturday. I’ll also tab Sagan and Gilbert as our top choices to join the Pole on the podium in Siena.