Strade Bianche 2018 Preview

A modern-day classic that this year only celebrates its 11th edition, Strade Bianche is a race that has won the hearts of many, myself included. The mix of rolling terrain, punchy climbs, gravel roads and a finish amongst the picturesque Piazza del Campo make this a great day to sit in front of the television and watch the race unfold. Given the wide-variety of parcours to be tackled, a range of riders have found themselves in contention coming into Siena at the end of the race.

Last year saw poor conditions with rain throughout the day which made the race one of attrition, especially as crashes splintered the peloton on crucial sections of Strade. An elite group of riders forged ahead but it was Michal Kwiatkowski who was rewarded for an incredibly attacking display by taking the victory.

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Behind, a trio of Van Avermaet, Wellens and Stybar fought it out for the minor podium places with a sprint up to the Piazza. They came home in that order with the Czech rider losing out.

This year we could be set for another great edition of the race due to an exciting start list but also some incredibly challenging conditions. First though, let’s have a look at the parcours the riders will face.

The Route

At 184km it certainly isn’t the longest race the riders will face all year, heck, there will even be plenty of stages in Grand Tours that are longer, but with 63km of dirt roads in total then it isn’t easy-going in the slightest.

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Sectors 5-8 are where the bulk of the “Strade” are, with the last being the most difficult. At 11.5km long big gaps can be made, especially when the rolling nature of the sector is considered. This is where Cancellara used to make his mark and after his third victory in 2016, the sector is nicknamed after the Swiss rider.

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Once through Monte Sante Marie there are just over 40kms and only 3 gravel sectors remaining but that doesn’t mean the action is over. With the continual rolling nature of the road there are many potential locations to attack and those at the head of the race need to be attentive for the final hour.

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There are two gravel sections in the closing 20kms, both of which involve uphill sections that are steep enough for stinging attacks. However, the flatter sections of road also provide a good launchpad for a move if there is no co-operation in a group. Really, all the riders need to be attentive throughout the closing stages of the day or the race could be lost in a few moments.

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The climb up to the Piazza in Siena is sharp but it is short enough that the puncheurs and climbers both have an equal chance to go well on it. Once over the crest, you really want to be at the head of the group as the run-in is very narrow and technical. Leading through the final 200m almost guarantees the win!

Weather Watch

Conditions are looking much better for the race than they were at the start of the week but they will still certainly be grim.

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Source: Windfinder

It looks as if it will be wet, wet, wet! The gravel roads will turn to mud and this will certainly make the racing more interesting to watch. It will also test the riders bike handling skills as they make their way down some tricky muddy descents. The winner will definitely deserve it come the end of the day!

Contenders

A wide-open race that has many potential winners amongst the start list, it all depends on how the race is played out. I’m going to go through the “big 5” according to the bookmakers then name three others who I think might have a good chance of the title, so apologies if the list is not as exhaustive as you were hoping for!

Michal Kwiatkowski.

The defending champion returns here in great form having just won the Volta ao Algarve. This is a race that he seems to love and it would not surprise me to see him go and win again, matching Cancellara’s record of three wins. The punchy climbs are great for him but he is also strong enough on the flatter sections to make a difference. Will he get as much freedom as last year? Probably not but given we have both GVA and Sagan here, then he might just profit from their rivalry.

Peter Sagan.

Back for his first race on European soil he’s spent a lot of time recently at altitude camp. It will be interesting to see how that transfers into his performances during races; it might take a little bit for him to get back into the swing of things. Sagan really wants to win San Remo so given the tricky conditions here he might just go 90% with a focus on what is to come. Then again, he is a racer and given his incredible talent, he is in with a great chance of taking a title that is missing from his palmarès.

Zdenek Stybar.

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Winner of the 2015 edition the former cyclo-cross star will love the terrible conditions that are forecast. Results wise the start of his season has been so-so but it is his performances that have impressed. He looked strong out on the attack in the final day of the Algarve, forcing those behind to do a lot of work to catch him. He then followed that up with an attacking display in Omloop that ultimately was fruitless in the end. Nonetheless, I’m sure he’ll be happy with his current condition. Last year I picked Stybar as my winner only for him to finish 4th and I’m not sure if I’ve seen anything that much different from him this season to see him finish any higher. He can’t be truly discounted though, especially when the weather is considered and with super-domestique Gilbert to help.

Greg Van Avermaet.

Incredibly consistent at this event he didn’t seem to pack the same punch at Omloop that he normally would. Now, that is probably not a good thing in terms of his chances of winning this race, but it is good for him being on track for the bigger goals slightly further along in the season. Nonetheless, GVA is a classy bike rider and with parcours like this he can’t be discounted. The short punchy climbs and challenging gravel sections are right up his street or should I say “Strade”. Sorry, I’ll let myself out…Saying all that, compared to the rest of the big 5, I just can’t see a situation where he wins.

Alejandro Valverde.

The evergreen rider from Movistar was originally on the start list for this race but it looked as if his participation was in jeopardy after having some stomach issues. He’s over that now and is here to race, I think it might all be a smokescreen anyway. In stupendous form as always, he’s somewhat disappointed at this race in the past only managing to come third on two occasions. That could well change this year!

One interesting thing to note from the “Big 5” is that they are all excellent bike-handlers, something that will be very important tomorrow. Now onto my three picks for the race, all of whom are Italian…

Moreno Moser.

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If you’ve kept up with this blog since the start of the season then you would know that this pick was pretty much inevitable! Astana have been flying this year with Moser picking up a great win in Laigueglia, breaking a duck that lasted for a few seasons. It was the way in which he won that race that really impressed me, his attack on the final climb can only be described as brutal. Admittedly the competition was at a lower level than it is here, but he made almost a 50m gap in roughly 200m. Following on from that he then went and worked selflessly for the team in Andalucia, often being the last rider in front of the two Astana leaders going onto the climbs. He arrives here with a strong team and I expect them to play a big part in the race, possibly splitting it early just like Lotto Soudal did last year. If they have numbers in the front group like they did in Omloop, then expect them to repeatedly attack until one gets away. Moreno has a great chance in a situation like that.

Gianni Moscon.

Who needs a snow plough when you can just get a Tractor instead?! Insanely talented, 2017 was not just a normal breakthrough year for the Sky man, I would describe it more as an explosion!

It started off rather innocuously until a very impressive 5th place at Roubaix got things rolling. Solid showings in Route du Sud were then followed with a win in the Italian TT champs and a 5th place in the road race. A second place on Stage 4 of Burgos was a microcosm of what we were going to see in the coming Vuelta; Moscon absolutely blitzing it on the short 2kms climbs and putting everyone into difficulty. A respectable 6th place in the Worlds TT came not long after before a very unrespectable disqualification in the road race. Two more top 10s in the end of season Italian one-day races before a big third place in Lombardia. All in all, not bad!

This year started off with some good outings in the pre-season style races in Spain before actually being the best Sky finisher GC-wise in Valenciana. Since then he’s been at training camps, honing his form. Strade on paper looks like a race that should suit him perfectly. He’s more than likely going to be the last Sky rider with Kwiatkowski and if things are getting cagey he will be the first to attack. If he’s anywhere close to that 5 minute power he showed during the Vuelta, then he is a dark-horse for this race.

Vincenzo Nibali.

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Predicting a Nibali peak outside of a Grand Tour is arguably one of the hardest bits of cycling punditry; the guy is an enigma. This is a race he’s attempted in the past but has fallen flat on almost every occasion. Last year was a quite literal example as he crashed before later suffering a flat tyre as well. His start to 2018 has been quiet, using the races in the middle east as training miles before his bigger goals later in the season. I have a feeling though that he really wants to give MSR a proper dig this year so his form will be on the up here. Conditions on Saturday also remind me a lot of that famous Tour de France stage back in 2014 when Nibali went on the attack on the cobbles. He’s not afraid of bad conditions and as an excellent bike handler, he might put some into difficulty on the descents. It will be hard for him to out-punch anyone on the final climb to the Piazza so he more than likely needs to arrive alone, but like with everyone else I’ve mentioned above, it is possible.

Prediction

Moscon to take the win!

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Like others, I think we’ll see a fairly tactical race with a lot of looking around at each other by the “Big 5”. Consequently, we’ll see a smaller group with some of the “second tier” riders get away to fight out for the win. If Moscon is at 90% of what he was like in the Vuelta last year, no one will be able to match him up the climb to Piazza del Campo. He’ll take a spectacular but very divisive win!

Betting

Backing the three picks;

1pt EW on them all…

Moscon @ 18/1 (Would take 14)

Nibali @ 80/1 (Would take 50s)

Moser @ 80/1 (Would take 50s)

I’ll take a little longer and have a look at some H2H later. If I find anything I’ll fancy then I’ll post them on Twitter.

Thanks as always for reading! Who do you think will win tomorrow? I’m certainly looking forward to an exciting race! Anyway,

Those were My Two Spokes Worth.

Strade Bianche 2017 Preview; Siena -> Siena

Strade Bianche 2017 Preview; Siena -> Siena

One of my favourite races of the year, hands down! It has the mix of everything really; awesome parcours; great start-list; amazing scenery; and some pretty aggressive racing.

Cancellara broke the heart of Brambilla last year, and managed to out-fox Stybar into the final corner, taking a quite excellent win.

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Cancellara is obviously not here this year, so that leaves the door open for a new victor or one of the three former winners that are here to regain their crown.

Let’s have a look at what’s in store for them.

The Route

I’m going to make this section a lot, lot shorter than normal because there are already several previews out there with this information so I don’t want to bore you with it again!

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There you go…

Basically lots of short sharp punchy hills, although there are a couple of longer ones earlier on, interspersed with gravel sections. Rolling terrain for most of the day means there is little time to rest and the action is always on.

A tough closing 20km can see someone get away solo, but there is also the possibility that it all comes down to a sprint up to the Piazza del Campo!

One thing that may have a say in that is the…

Weather

After the brutal conditions in Samyn mid-week, I’m sure the peloton would have been hoping for something less miserable here. The fans certainly want the opposite and it looks as if the weather gods are going to appease the crowds.

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Weather in Siena (Source: Wunderground)

Nothing concrete but there is a very good chance we’ll get rain at some point during the race, which would make it even more of a spectacle. I’m sure a lot of you will remember the Giro in 2010…

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It probably won’t get as torrid as that, but even a smattering of rain could cause some issues for the riders!

Anyway, who’s got a chance of taking the crown this weekend?

Contenders

Where better to start than with the current world champion, Peter Sagan. The Slovak shredded the race to bits in Omloop last Saturday and once again was in the thick of the action on Sunday, managing to win Kuurne. He clearly is in very good form at the moment and he has gone well here in the past. My one issue with him is that he always seems to struggle on the final climb up to the Piazza so he’ll need to ride everyone off of his wheel before then. Not impossible, but I can’t see it happening. Am I being too bold discounting him?

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After me playing up his chances for Omloop, Zdenek Stybar, was left bitterly disappointed at the end of the race, visibly shaking his head as he crossed the line. That to me indicates that he knew he could and should have been a key protagonist in the outcome of the race. Held up in the crash that took out Boonen, he tried attacking later on in the race to bridge across to the lead group but couldn’t manage it. I’m sure he’ll want to bounce back this weekend in a race that suits him very well, he did win it in 2015 after all! With Brambilla and Vakoc, he has a strong support team which could very well be crucial.

Picking up the win in Omloop while still not at 100% form shows what a great cyclist Greg Van Avermaet is. The Belgian has done fairly well here in the past but hasn’t managed to win this race yet, with the closest being a second place finish to Stybar in 2015. Good on short, steep climbs and rough terrain, he has all of the characteristics to win this race. Yet, like Sagan, I just have a feeling he won’t and I’m not sure why. BMC do have a very strong team with them and an in-form Hermans could be a very useful second card to play in a tactical race.

Without Cancellara, Trek will turn to Fabio Felline as their main charge for this race. After an explosive start to his season, winning Il Laigueglia, he’s followed that up with a 5th place in the TT at Andalucia and a 4th at Omloop last weekend. This race should suit him perfectly and if he can follow the best over the gravel, he certainly has a very good chance up the punchy climb to the Piazza.

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Sky arrive here with a very solid squad; Kwiatkowski, Rosa and Puccio all have a chance of going well. The Pole seems to slowly be returning to the rider he once was before he joined Sky, finishing 2nd on GC in Algarve earlier in February. However, he still didn’t seem in tip-top shape so this race might be too early for him. On the other hand, Rosa looked very strong in Andalucia and had he not been working for others (again!), could have finished higher up himself. He seems to love one-day racing in Italy and may very well go on to win here, but he’ll need to come to the line alone! Puccio is a bit of a wild-card, but this is his home race and he always manages a fairly decent result here. Well, apart from last year when I had backed him and he had 3 mechanicals while in the front group. I won’t put the #HaugheyCurse on him this year, but I shall be watching with interest.

Benoot and Wellens will lead the charge for Lotto Soudal. Both riders are capable of winning here if they get a bit of luck, but both will need a different type of race to play out. Benoot will be the one happier waiting until the finish line whereas Wellens is much more likely to go on the attack from far out. He’s certainly a danger if given too much leeway!

I’m really intrigued by the selection that Astana bring to this race, because on paper it looks a very strong, well-rounded team. They have a former winner in the shape of Moser and a podium finisher with Gatto. Not to mention Amstel Gold runner-up Valgren, solid one-day racer and climber Sanchez, and Grand Tour winner Aru. The last of those makes his second appearance at this race after finishing 20th here way back in 2013. Often slated for his one-day racing, he’s not as bad at these types of races as he’s made out to be in my opinion, and I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised by Aru tomorrow. The race only being 175km certainly helps him.

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FDJ arrive with a solid squad and it seems to be the same riders that are following Pinot around all year. Thibaut himself has had a good start to the season, picking up a very impressive stage win in Andalucia. Anyone who managed to beat Contador there must be going well! Making his debut in this race, he might struggle with some of the surfaces but I think his form will overcome that and he is my dark horse for the win. His team-mate Reichenbach is another good outside candidate if we get a very tactical race where the “second string” riders get sent up the road and manage to end up staying away. Like Pinot, he was also impressive in Andalucia and can’t be discounted.

Roglic, Haas, Dumoulin and Vanmarcke could all go well with a bit of luck.

Prediction

Like my women’s preview (shameless plug, view it here) I’ve had this rider in mind all week for this race. Unlike that preview though, I have had my doubts about him but that’s been purely based off of his odds being shorter than I would have liked. Nonetheless, after much deliberation I still think he’ll take the victory, capitalising on some good early season form. If we get bad conditions, that makes it even better for him. Stybar to win!

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Betting

As mentioned above, I was almost backing out of this one purely because I would have hoped for something like 10/1 on Stybar. But the more I think about it, the 6-7/1 on offer in places is still good value IMO.

Stybar 2pts WIN @7/1 with PaddyPower (would take 6/1 available elsewhere)

I tweeted these two out yesterday after prices were released but they have subsequently been shortened;

Pinot 0.25pts EW @200/1 with Bet365 (would still take 125/1 with PP or the 100/1 with William Hill)

Reichenbach 0.25pts EW @ 300/1 with Bet365 (would still take the 200/1 with PP or the 150/1 widely available)

I don’t really like any of the H2H available at the moment. Might change my mind later.

 

Once again, thanks for reading and any feedback is greatly appreciated. Who do you think will win this incredible race? I’ll be back again tomorrow with a Paris-Nice GC and Stage 1 preview so keep an eye out for them. Anyway,

Those were My Two Spokes Worth.