The focus of attention for the WorldTour peloton moves from Belgium to Italy this weekend as riders tackle the white roads of Tuscany at Strade Bianche.
The young-but-instant classic tempts general classification contenders and one-day specialists and the 12th edition of the Italian one-day race looks set to throw up an additional challenge beyond the dirt farm tracks synonymous with the course – snow.
An in-form Sep Vanmarcke captains the EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale squad on Saturday. Vanmarcke, third last weekend at Omloop het Nieuwsblad, will be joined by road captain Simon Clarke, Alex Howes, Swedish road champion Kim Magnusson, Dani Moreno, Taylor Phinney and Tom Van Asbroeck. Phinney, who missed out on Abu Dhabi Tour due to illness, makes his season debut in Siena.
“We have a strong team and start with important ambitions,” said EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale Directeur Sportif Fabrizio Guidi. “It’s difficult to predict how the race will unfold in light of the weather forecast. We have a plan for every situation. We are prepared. We start to win, as always, and strategy and team spirit will make a difference.”
What Strade Bianche lacks in heritage it more than compensates for in mystique. The race has been both a fan favourite and rider favourite since inception.
“I’m not surprised by the popularity of this race,” said Guidi. “I also think that there are conditions for the popularity to continue to grow. The scenario and characteristics of the course are unique. Strade Bianche represents the answers to those looking for both spectacle and tradition and offers the opportunity for victory to climbers and classics riders.”
“It’s a special race because it’s heroic,” said Vanmarkce. “It’s very hard to race on gravel roads. Like with a cobbled classic, you need to be in good position, stay focused from start to finish and have some luck.”
Saturday’s 184-kilometre course takes the peloton through the Chianti and Brunello vineyards in the Tuscan hills. The route includes 11 gravel sectors, totaling 63 kilometres of dirt roads or 34% of the unforgiving course. The race is typically one of attrition, with selections made over the sharp climbs and descents featured in final few sectors. Traditionally, it’s the cobbled climb to Siena’s Piazza del Campo with 900 meters still to race that determines the victor.
Weather conditions may force a departure from tradition. Snow began to fall in Southern Tuscany on Thursday and temperatures dipped below freezing. Current forecasts call for milder temperatures and rain on Saturday, which would turn dusty dirt to soupy mud.
“Growing up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, most of my favourite routes incorporate wild dirt roads where conditions are often times unpredictable and inhospitable,” said Howes. “To have a spring classic on dirt with the potential for snow is a dream come true for me.”
“The snow can upset this race, making it very hard,” said Guidi. “We’re not worried about this. The weather conditions support us and our goals.”
EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale for 2018 Strade Bianche:
Simon Clarke (AUS)
Alex Howes (USA)
Kim Magnusson (SWE)
Dani Moreno (ESP)
Taylor Phinney (USA)
Tom Van Asbroeck (BEL)
Sep Vanmarcke (BEL)