What an incredibly diverse sport we follow. Last week we were watching riders rocketing around the marble-smooth boards of the Cali velodrome.
They were on slick, fixed-wheel machines with no brakes as they fought for gold at the world track cycling championships, while this weekend we will be watching riders plough their way through the choking dust of Italy’s Strade Bianche on fully decked-out road bikes.
The Strade Bianche, the infamous white gravel roads of Tuscany, play host to one of cycling’s modern success stories, a one-day race that in just seven editions has itself become something of a classic.
With ten sections of unsealed road scattered around its 197-kilometre parcours, Strade Bianche holds a unique place on the international cycling calendar. But this race is not a curiosity, nor a novelty event. It is deadly serious.
To prove this point, we need look no further than the start list. Classics riders, sprinters and climbers alike are all clamouring to be part of the action.
Peter Sagan, Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valeverde, Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara will send the gravel flying as they skip and slide their way over the loose surfaces.
And none of them are there to make up the numbers.
Add to that list other notable riders such as last year’s winner Moreno Moser, Franco Pellizotti, Damiano Cunego, Filippo Pozzato, Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Nicolas Roach and you’ll see this race boasts a depth of talent the equal of any other.
Of its six previous winners (Cancellara has won twice), only 2011 victor Philippe Gilbert will be absent this time around.
So what can we expect when the riders roll away from San Gimignano to start the much-anticipated eighth edition this Saturday?
A visual spectacular, that’s what.
In a nostalgic throwback, riders will be coated from head to toe in dust. Their faces will be streaked by dirty rivulets of sweat, and their usually colourful jerseys dimmed and muted by dirt. It will be a photographer’s delight.
Make the riders loop a couple of spare tyres around their shoulders and you’d have the perfect old-school race.
And it will be even better if it rains. Think Cadel Evans at the 2010 Giro d’Italia, mud-splattered and unrecognisable after an epic stage-seven victory over similar roads, and you’ll know what I mean.
If you haven’t seen it, check this out. You won’t be disappointed.
But enough reminiscing or I’ll start prattling on about Louison Bobet or Gino Bartali.
This year’s Strade Bianche should be fought out among the Classics specialist, and in this case that means Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.
If all goes to plan, the master and the apprentice should hit the closing stages of this race together, and if they do we will be treated to a power fest.
The pair will be able to knock each other senseless over the last 12 kilometres with the wickedly nasty Le Tolfe climb (just 1.1 kilometres long, but 18 percent gradient) and the 15 percent ramp of the Via Santa Caterina (appearing with two kilometres to go).
Clear the Santa Caterina with any sort of break and you will be hard to catch on the descent into Piazza il Campo for the race’s finish.
But the race is far from a foregone conclusion. As with Paris-Roubaix, anything can happen. A crash, an untimely puncture, a pesky breakaway that refuses to yield to the might of the peloton – any or all of these things can happen, especially on the shifting surfaces of the Strade Bianche, and with almost 50 kilometres of the race taking place on the gravel, the winner will need just a little bit of luck to go his way.
The Classics boys won’t have it all their own way though.
Evans heads a strong BMC line-up which includes Brent Bookwalter, Steve Morabito and new recruit Sammy Sanchez. We already know that Evans can handle himself on rough terrain (odds-on the commentators will mention his mountain biking background at least one or twice) but the wily old veteran’s best chance would be if conditions were muddy, negating some of the power of his younger, more-fancied rivals.
Omega Pharma-Quickstep also has a strong team and they seemed to have an option for any eventuality.
Super sprinter Mark Cavendish appears to be their plan A, supported by the dynamic duo of Alessandro Petacchi and Aussie Mark Renshaw. It is not a race that typically suits Cav though, and the inclusion of all-rounder Michal Kwiatkowski seems to be a wise move.
The youngster from Poland is beginning to make a real name for himself within the pro peloton and has the talent to both clear the climbs and win a sprint if need be.
But just to make sure they really do have all bases covered, OPQS have also named general classification rider and climber Rigoberto Uran.
Team Sky has named Bradley Wiggins as their leader, with the former Tour de France winner hoping to transform himself into something of a Classics rider. The presence of Wiggins adds extra interest to the race, as his performance here will give a good indication of not just his physical condition, but also his current mental approach to the sport.
His attitude has been questioned since his Tour win two years ago and despite a handful of wins last season, his best from limited opportunities this year is a sixth place in the prologue at the Vuelta a Andalucia back in February.
If Wiggins falters, Ian Stannard, fresh from a solid victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend, may be Sky’s next best hope.
Movistar (with Valverde and Quintana), Lampre-Merida (Cunego and Pozzato), Tinkoff Saxo (Roche and Roman Kreuziger) are also not without their chances, while former winners Maxim Inglinskiy (Astana), Thomas Lovkvist (IAM cycling), and Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) will be doing their best for their respective teams.
On the Australian front, Evans is their best and only chance. Renshaw will be working for Cavendish, while Ben Day (United Healthcare), Calvin Watson (Trek) and Nathan Earle (Sky) will be largely anonymous as domestiques. Orica-GreenEDGEis not participating.
Strade Bianche has come a long way in a short time and while it can’t compete with the history of Roubaix and its notorious cobbles, the very nature of its parcours should ensure that it holds its place on the sporting calendar for many years to come.
The riders love it, the fans love it, and so will you.
Strade Bianche rolls away on Saturday. Australians can watch the race unfold live on Eurosport from 12:30am Sunday morning (eastern Australian time).