Last weekend was Belgian opening weekend, and what a rollercoaster it was. Boonen, Benoot, Keukeleire and a bunch of other favourites crashing on Donderij at Omloop. The incident ensured the break of Sagan, GVA and Vanmarcke stayed away from the pack all the way to the line, no matter how endeavoured the chase of Quickstep was. Then on Sunday at KBK, Sagan just proved to us once again why he is the worlds best cyclist, demolishing Stuyven, Rowe and Benoot in a reduced bunch sprint. On a side note, I was very happy that a couple of my picks last week performed quite well – Benoot 4th at KBK, Sagan winning KBK and 2nd at Omloop, and the Sport Vlaanderen duo of Van Lerberghe and Farazijn making an impact either in the bunch or the break.
This weekend brings along the Italian opening weekend, with another newly promoted WT race in Strade Bianche, as well as GP Industria (1.HC). Strade Bianche, famous for its use of gravelled roads, is entering its 10th year of existence; while this year marks a big landmark for GP Industria – its 40th edition runs on Sunday. Jeez, it’s quite the year for Italian race anniversaries.
Strade Bianche is known for one thing quite unique in the racing calendar of any year – its sterrati roads. The utilisation of gravel, country lanes and farm tracks give the race a different feel to the hard hitting cobbles and the solid tarmac, and this difference comes out in the rain…which is forecasted. The gravel tracks turn muddy and it becomes a pure slogfest. 2017’s Strade Bianche uses 11 sections of sterrati totalling 61.9km of the 175km race from Siena to Siena, which is more than the usual 9 sections. The start of the race is relatively flat until the 17km mark when the riders reach the Bagnaia sterrati section which includes a climb of around 4km with a 4% average. This could be the final launch pad for a break, if the first sterrati section doesn’t provide enough. The Montalcino climb is 6.6km at 4% average according to Strava (where Kiel Reijnen holds the KoM at 14:01) and is the biggest peak of the day heading into the beautiful city of Montalcino.
After leaving Montalcino, the riders encounter the longest sterrati section of the day in Lucignano d’Asso – although it is mostly flat, but nevertheless quite technical. And then from there, the racing should really start hammering along. The downhill Pieve a Salti sterrati will allow for the pace to really break up, while either 5 sections after Ponte d’Arbia could hold the decisive move. Whether it be the uphill Sante Martino in Grania section, the 5-star difficulty section in Monte Sante Marie or the cluster of sections within 25km of the finish (including some very punchy climbs, one of which averaging 11.4% over 1km on sterrati), it will be the riders to decide. However, one thing we can rule out of the equation of how to win this race is a bunch sprint – the last climb into the Piazza del Campo averages 5.3% in the last 3km and finishes 300m away from the finish line after a 16% pinch at the top. Not to mention the roads are usually narrow. And with rain involved, we might not even see a road race, because it would look something straight out of the turf of Van Aert.
GP Industia is to Strade Bianche as KBK is to Omloop. Although instead of being the bastardised smaller sibling, it’s more of the neglected older brother while everyone continues to admire the dust of Strade Bianche. “Oooh, It’s so cute, look at the gravel!” (if you are out of the loop on this reference, here is the reference. While you are at it, go watch all his videos). Now with the Cosmo references out of the way, we can talk about what is quite the interesting race. While GP Industria features no such sterrati, it instead features 2 different circuits – one flatter, one with the San Baronto climb – which the riders attack 4 times. The first flatter section loops around the southside of Larciano, going down to Stabbia and Lazzeretto before turning back into Larciano. Nothing particularly interesting, perfect material for a break to go and gain a decent lead before the start of the section circuit.
The second circuit will be where the action is, and where the winning move will be made. The Strava segment for San Baronto is 3.8km long averaging 7% (with the KoM being held by Manuel Di Leo, a 21 year old Italian youth rider at 9:45), but the actual climb is a lot longer and more shallow than this if you take it from the base around 9km from the top. Either way, it’s a tough climb to do at the start of a race, let alone the end, and doing it 4 times would be excruciating. The summit of the climb is 6km from the finish line in Larciano, while the bottom of the descent finishes at 2km to go, so either a solo break on the ascent could hold off until the descent or a reduced bunch sprint off the back of the climb could get the win. If you decide Paris-Nice on Sunday is a bit of a ‘dead rubber’ Stage 1, watching this beautiful race should satiate your cycling needs.
While the startlist of these races have some overlap, some riders are saving themselves for Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatco or other races in the coming days and weeks and will skip GP Industria (not to mention it clashes with Paris-Nice Stage 1), so most riders I select to watch won’t be doing both races. Just a heads up before I start.
The Bookies Favourite: Peter Sagan
Unless it’s a race involving multiple climbing stages over 3 weeks, you can’t ever rule out Peter Sagan winning any race. Luckily, this rule trims down Sagan’s pool of ‘Races He Can’t Win’ down to 3, so in the gazillion other races on the cycling calendar, Sagan will ride like a bat out of hell and go for the win. Always. So why should this change at Strade Bianche? The ever essentric and charismatic Slovakian comes into Siena on a high after a win at KBK and a close second at Omloop and will be looking to Strade Bianche as the next race to conquer in his rampage on the WorldTour. He would be at home on the technical sterrati, while the uphill finish benefits his punchy style of just riding everyone off his wheel either on the last little section or beating them after the climb. Even if everything goes wrong for Peter, he will find a way, that’s just how he races.
The Hometown Hero: Vincenzo Nibali
When you hear the name Nibali, you don’t normally associate him with classics riding. That is unless you consider the fact that a) he loves hills and b) he is Italian in an Italian race. Strade Bianche and GP Industria fulfill both criteria, so he should be set to try and take it out for his country in 2017. He has won Industria before, way back in 2007 while his best place at Strade Bianche is 15th. Not as punchy as the likes of Sagan, Benoot, GVA or Vanmarcke, Nibali’s best chance of winning at Strade Bianche will be Bahrain Merida slamming on the pace for the whole race and allowing Nibali to take time on the sterrati and demolish them on the final climb. His chances at GP Industria though are a lot better – the final finishing circuit is tailor made for him with a large climb and a descent finish where he should be able to beat every other rider in the peloton. The Italian veteran will be hoping to take something out of Italy’s milestone year of cycling in 2017, this weekend would be a good place to start.
The Youngster: Tiesj Benoot
Benoot is the best U23 rider in the peloton, hands down. He is also once of the best classics riders in the peloton, regardless of age, experience, or alikeness to Sagan. After an rollercoaster of a weekend in Belgium to start off the classics season with a DNF at Omloop after the huge crash in Donderij and then a 4th place at KBK, Benoot would be looking to have a more successful and consistent result at Strade Bianche this week. With no experience on the sterrati (how many times can I fit this word into a preview?) being his only ‘downfall’ coming into Siena on Saturday, there aren’t many kinks in his armour. And in the wet conditions like it is forecasted, he might even feel more at home – a Belgian takes to a wet classic like a pig takes to mud.
The Unknown Entity: Andrea Vendrame
Vendrame took the U23 stage by storm last year in the youth classics season, with 5 top 5 finishes last year in the one day races. While not taking out a victory last year, he has shown how much he loves the hilly classics with a 2nd at Piccolo Lombardia, 2nd at Ruota d’Oro, 3rd at the U23 European Championships and 5th at Giro del Belvedere – all of which where quite hilly. However, he didn’t just race in the .2U races, he also took on the Coppa Sabatini, where he beat Bakelants and Sbaragli in a bunch sprint (where Cavendish was surprisingly AWoL) to take 4th. And the finish isn’t particularly flat there – it’s an uphill sprint. This kid has street cred for the future, especially in these hilly classics which involve some element of off-roading. His contract with Androni runs until 2018, so good performances in the next two years will ensure a WorldTour contract in the future (my prediction: he’ll go to Bahrain-Merida). He is riding both races this weekend, and should have a good chance of getting a top 10 in either or.
The Previous Winners: Zdenek Stybar and Simon Clarke
Oh look. Another race where the winner isn’t riding in 2017. We miss you already Spartacus (also, where the hell is his personalised sterrati section?!). Luckily, the first loser of 2016’s Strade Bianche Zdenek Stybar isn’t anything to scoff at. He’s already won this race in 2015, and is probably the second favourite behind Sagan to take out the win again. Again, another great Quickstep squad to back him up – but that depends on who is feeling the best on the day. 14th at Omloop after the team got caught out on Donderij was a fair result, while 9th at KBK wasn’t shabby either. Personally, I don’t think Quickstep will ride for him as first choice though, being Brambilla’s home race certainly means that he will be the lead man, right?
Oh…there was another race too, GP Industria? Simon Clarke won that last year, and is coming back to both Strade Bianche and GP Industria to defend his title. Clarke has done Strade Bianche once before, finishing 17th back in 2010, but Cannondale would surely be riding for Vanmarcke or Uran to taken the win on Saturday. However, Sunday brings a whole new kettle of fish, where either Uran or Clarke could be the leaders for Cannondale. The competition at GP Industria this year is much tougher than years past – Nairo is leading the Movistar charge while Nibali and Adam Yates are also attending – so defending his title will be tough. Do I expect him to perform well at either race? Not something outstandingly amazing, but he will ride his heart out like the true Aussie he is.
And that is a wrap for my preview of Strade Bianche and GP Industria! Two more WT races are coming up this week with Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatco, so expect some previews for those in the coming couple of days. My picks for Strade Bianche and GP Industria though? Peter Sagan to take out Strade Bianche, and Nibali to take out GP Industria up the last climb before out-descending Quintana. If you have Eurosport, you can catch Strade Bianche, while GP Industria is available on Eurosport and others too. For now, I’m out.
~The Cycling Raven
P.S: I said sterrati 15 times including this one.