What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
It’s not easy for a modern race to muscle its way in to the grizzled hearts and grease-stained affections of the hardcore cycling fan but Italy’s Strade Bianche seems to have bucked that trend, establishing itself in just seven short years as a modern classic.
This race has it all: beautiful scenery, rolling hills, a good distance and some very challenging loose gravel roads that, if wet, turn into brutal, slimy, drive chain-clogging lanes that suit the true hard men of the peloton.
This is how this race very quickly became a fan’s favourite, because like the true Classics, such as Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, the Strade Bianche offers no hiding places.
Bravery and courage are rewarded, if not by victory then with a nod of respect from the tifosi.
The race starts in the Chianti region, in Gaiole, and reaches its conclusion 188km away in Siena. On the way the riders face some 70km of gravel.
So who’s in with a shout?
Well, Radioshack Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara is on for a hat-trick of wins here (he won in 2008 and 2012) and you’d be hard pushed to bet against him. He’s not been on the kind of top-end form he had this time last season but there’s no doubt this is just the kind of route that suits the big Swiss.
Also up for grabs is having three sections of the gravel named in honour of the first man to claim a hat-trick, announced recently by the organisers.
Still though, this Radioshack team have had their fair share of knocks recently – what with Frank Schleck being banned for a doping positive, Johan Bruyneel losing his job and Andy Schleck losing the plot – so perhaps Spartacus’s confidence is wobbling.
We shall see. I doubt it. Granite doesn’t usually wobble.
Another rider looking very good at the moment is Cadel Evans of BMC Racing. Former world champ Cadel hasn’t won this race but he did win a stage in the Giro d’Italia that ran over these very roads in 2010, giving Alexandre ‘Dope? Who? Me?’ Vinokourov a proper spanking along the way.
Anyone who saw that moment when El Vino was hanging on to Evans’ mud-flinging wheel and seemed to be crying in pain will know that Evans is in with a chance here.
Evans will be without Alessandro Ballan, who is injured, but he will have excellent support in Taylor Phinney and Greg van Avermaet, both potential winners in their own right.
To be fair though Evans does look sharp at the moment and if he gets rain, it could be his day.
Others to keep an eye on include Lars Boom of Blanco, who looks in good shape, Nick Nuyens of Garmin Sharp, who could be dangerous if he gets off the front in a group, and of course Luca Paolini, the gate-crasher of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week, from those backdoor boys Katusha.
However the other big threat is that young demon of a rider and thorough dis-respecter of reputations, Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale. He has stated that he has the Monuments in his crosshairs and he’s always trigger happy, so he might be looking to test his aim here.
As ever, should be fascinating.
Prediction? Evans. Probably the Kiss of Death, that…