Strade Bianche 2017 preview: six men who could win on Tuscany's white gravel roads - Road Cycling UK

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Strade Bianche 2017 preview: six men who could win on Tuscany’s white gravel roads

World champion Peter Sagan among the favourites for increasingly-popular Italian Classic

Tuscany’s white gravel roads take centre stage on Saturday (March 4) for the 11th Strade Bianche, a race fast becoming an integral part of the Classics season.

Since its first edition in 2007, the Siena race – which blends gravel sections with tough, short, steep climbs and an uphill finish – has grown rapidly in popularity and, for the first time this year, is now part of the UCI WorldTour.

Strade Bianche is now a UCI WorldTour event, having rapidly grown in prestige (pic – Sirotti)

And with 2016 champion and three-time winner Fabian Cancellara now retired, those white gravel roads are waiting to crown a new king in Siena this weekend.

– Strade Bianche 2017: TV schedule – 

A stellar startlist has been attracted to the race, which thanks to its varied parcours appeals to a broad spectrum of riders, from the rufty-tufty Classics specialists to those with a penchant for steep climbs.

So who will triumph on Tuscany’s chalky white roads this weekend? We’ve picked out six leading contenders…

Zdenek Stybar (QuickStep Floors)

While last year’s winner Fabian Cancellara is an obvious absentee, Zdenek Stybar is one of three former Strade Bianche victors set for Saturday’s startline.

And having followed up his 2015 success with second-place behind Cancellara last time out, you would back the former ‘cross world champion to be up there again.

Zdenek Stybar won on Tuscany’s white gravel roads in 2015 (pic – Sirotti)

QuickStep were the dominant team in 2016, despite Cancellara’s win, with Stybar, Gianluca Brambilla and Petr Vakoc all inside the top five.

But it’s Stybar who stands out as the obvious contender thanks to the bike-handling skills he honed on the cyclo-cross stage, and his ability on the sort of short, uphill finish awaiting in Siena.

Stybar was ninth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last weekend, but he is rightly considered among the bookies’ favourites this time out.

Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe)

Peter Sagan got his Classics campaign off to a near-perfect start last weekend, winning at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the day after finishing second at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

As statements go, it was certainly a big indication the world champion means business this spring as he looks to add to his Classics collection.

Peter Sagan will done the rainbow jersey at Strade Bianche for the second consecutive year (pic – Sirotti)

Sagan is yet to win at Strade Bianche, but has twice finished second and certainly has the requisite skill set to triumph on the gravel roads – just look at last year’s Tour of Flanders success for evidence.

Sagan’s first win for Bora-hansgrohe, coupled with four second-place finishes already this season, are a further reminder of the 27-year-old’s undoubted talent.

Compared to the Monuments to come, Strade Bianche is relatively small fry, but Sagan will be keen to add his name to the winner’s list of a race increasing in prestige and popularity every year.

Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing)

The other winner on the opening weekend of Classics racing, Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet successfully defended his Omloop Het Nieuwsblad crown.

It was a further reminder of how he has gone from nearly-man to serious Classics contender, and the Belgian has shown consistency in the past at Strade Bianche too.

Greg van Avermaet is consistently in the top ten at Strade Bianche (pic – Sirotti)

While he awaits a first win, Van Avermaet has been on the podium once before and finished in the top ten on five occasions in all.

He proved at Rio 2016 that he can deliver on the big stages, and is more than capable on short, steep climbs and with uphill finishes.

Van Avermaet’s fast finish makes him more than a match for most in the peloton, and his rise in form has also seen him show plenty of tactical nous: a perfect blend for winning in Siena.

Diego Rosa (Team Sky)

Diego Rosa made a strong start to life at Team Sky, with the Italian finishing fifth overall at the Ruta del Sol, his debut race.

Since joining Astana in 2015, Rosa has proved himself a decent option for the Classics, and last year followed up tenth place at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with second at Il Lombardia.

Diego Rosa showed during his Astana days he can compete in the Classics (pic – Sirotti)

Rosa is also a former Milano-Torino winner and was fifth the last time he raced Strade Bianche – so the 27-year-old certainly has previous in his home country.

Team Sky are desperate to make their mark on their Classics, and Rosa is one of a number of riders worth watching on Saturday – former winner Michal Kwiatkowski is also on the startlist for starters.

But Rosa has proved he can be a contender over this terrain, and the former Astana man has a big chance to prove his worth to his new employers early on.

Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal)

Belgium’s Tim Wellens has enjoyed a fine start to the season, winning three times already thanks to two victories at Challenge Mallorca and stage success at the Ruta del Sol.

Strade Bianche is next on the cards for Lotto-Soudal’s 25-year-old, and you can definitely rely on Wellens to animate the race in some form on Saturday – it’s the only way he knows how.

Tim Wellens has won three times already this season (pic – Sirotti)

Lotto-Soudal are quietly assembling a young, talented Classics squad which could really do the business down the line, and Wellens is at the heart of that.

Alongside Tiesj Benoot – a top-ten finisher at last year’s Strade Bianche – his attacking style of racing has won many admirers already.

Victory at Strade Bianche will take a big step up, but with three wins under his belt already this season, Wellens is clearly a man in form.

Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb)

Multiple Grand Tour stage winner Tom Dumoulin kicked off his season with a strong showing at the Abu Dhabi Tour, where third place on the race’s queen stage earned him third overall.

He is yet to really pull up trees at Strade Bianche, with just a pair of top-20 finishes to his name from previous performances, but Dumoulin – still only 26, remember – has been improving year-on-year.

Could Tom Dumoulin emerge as a one-day contender? (Pic: Sirotti)

A powerful engine and an ability to get up and over the short, steep climbs point to more potential in the Classics than he’s shown to date.

He will have his hands full if he wants to make an impact in Siena on Saturday – but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth consideration as an outside bet.

Best of the rest

As stated, it’s difficult to hone in on just a few favourites because the nature of the race means it’s open to a lot of riders.

Rigoberto Uran and Sep Vanmarcke are both very different types of Classics riders, with Uran more at home on courses like Il Lombardia and his new Cannondale team-mate Vanmarcke a master on the cobbles – but both have been inside the top ten at Strade Bianche before.

Vincenzo Nibali loves to animate the Italian Classics (pic – ANSA-RCS Sport)

On the other hand, you have Vincenzo Nibali, who has showed plenty of himself in his home country before, be it aggressive, attacking racing at Milan-San Remo or victory at Il Lombardia.

Though not considered a Classics rider – or at least much better known for his Grand Tour-winning capabilities – the Bahrain-Merida is still nevertheless a man you’d be foolish not to keep a close eye on.

That said, only one Italian has ever won at Strade Bianche – Moreno Moser was teed up for his 2013 triumph by Peter Sagan, but the 26-year-old will line up for Astana this time out.

Finally, what about the Brits? There’ll be three on the Siena startline on Saturday, namely Team Sky duo Tao Geoghegan Hart and Owain Doull and Dimension Data’s Scott Thwaites – all of whom will ride at Strade Bianche for the first time.

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