The nice weather forecast will be welcome news for the riders, as they will know that whilst the rain will make the gravel and dirt more compact, on descents they will be slipping all over the place. A moderate crosswind will also be assailing the riders for the majority of the race, and will assist in splitting up the peleton.
The course will be over almost constantly rolling terrain, some of the climbs are pretty nasty, and these come on both sealed and gravel surfaces. There are 45.4 kms of the white roads of the 200 kms to race, (you wouldn't find a cobbles race even approaching that amount) and these will test the riders bike handling, and it certainly won't hurt to have a strong team in support. The longest sections are 9.5 and 11.5 kms long, they come with 80 and 53 kms to go respectively. These will be crucial to shaping the group that the winner will be decided from, though it is generally after these sections that the decisive move goes. There are three more sections which can provide the basis for attacks, but really they can go from anywhere, particularly if the group is fairly thinned down as it is most years.
If it isn't a solo attacker the race will come down to the finishing climb into the Piazza del Campo, which is only 600m long, but with an average gradient of 9.2% and pinches at 16%, it will ensure that the strongest man that gets to this stage will win the race, due to the fact that there is less than 1 km to go from the top.
Ahead of time, it is very hard to make plans for this race, as it very much comes down to who is the strongest on the day. The peleton is worn down by attrition, but whilst the gravel roads are important to that, it isn't as crictical to hit these sections on the front as it would be on cobbles. Though, as you can see from the pictures, it can really dusty if you are caught back in the pack, so unless you want to spend the day eating dirt, it pays to be somewhere near the front.
Having numbers is always handy, as it was when Moreno Moser won in 2012. His attack was successful because the chasers weren't keen to drag Sagan to the line (he proved them right by taking second easily). I can't see any particularly dominant team that will dictate the race, but there a number of teams that could have some riders for a one-two punch. For instance Van Avermaet-De Marchi, Terpstra-Stybar, Vanmarcke-Martens, Sagan-Bodnar. Once a decent attack has been launched, it is often really hard to get an organised chase behind, as riders will want to save as much energy as possible to go for the win themselves, and you often see a determined attack go and stay clear in the late stages of the race.
I think we will see a small group come to the bottom of the the finishing climb, with the race to be decided on that climb.
The Strade Bianche will once again finish in the Piazza del Campo, a huge square which has been dedicated to commerce, sport and leisure in Siena since the 14th century. It has been the site of all sorts of bloody arena sports, including pugna (a many-sided boxing brawl), jousting and bullfights (outlawed in 1590). When the bullfighting was banned the city wards (contrade) took up the idea of competing against each other in races on various mountable animals, but it wasn't until 1656 that they hit upon the Palio di Siena, which survives to this day. There are two annual races a year, but they also hold additional races to commemorate special events (Apollo 11 moon landing, millennium, Italy's centenary).
Basically it is a no holds barred horse race around some pretty tight confines. What I was struck with however, was its similarity with cycling. The race is started by the entrance of the final horse, who often hangs back until it is most advantageous for his tactics to go, but he will rarely win, as he has to start from the back on the outside. (Breakaway riders animating the race?) As horses are allowed to block other horses and maneuverer around before the start, often deals are done between contrades to only start when the favourite is blocked out. (Sticking to every move made by a favourite?) Also there are a lot of crashes, and like cycling fans can get up ridiculously close to the action. Perhaps my favourite point is that the loser isn't the horse that came last, it is the one that comes in second. After all the recrimination that went on after Omloop Het Niuewsblad, it is clear that this attitude is very much held in cycling as well. As Filippo Pozzato said when he came 2nd in Ronde Van Vlaanderen (one of the biggest results of his career) "Second is only the first loser". Seriously, check this race out, it is one of the weirdest, scariest and bizarre things I have ever seen.
We're looking for a strong Ardennes classics type, who handles the bike well, and doesn't mind making an attack.
There's a reason that I've opted for Ian Stannard as the picture. He was my second choice for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and was so strong there, that it is hard to imagine him not being good here as well. He is more renowned as a cobbles specialist, but he is equally at home on the hills and has a great engine to make an escape, and enough of a kick to win in the finale.
Fabian Cancellara is also a rider in pretty good form, winning a hilly stage in Oman, outsprinted Sagan, Valverde and Van Avermaet, who all line-up here. He also has all the tools to do well here, as he has shown in the past, being a former winner, and rarely far from the podium in recent editions.
Peter Sagan unfortunately gets the favourite tag with every race he is in, which is unfortunate as he finds it very hard to get cooperation, and he goes around with a target on his back. His last two appearances here have been two 2nd places, so clearly he likes the terrain, and I'm sure he won't want to be the "first loser" again. Nonetheless, he doesn't look as strong as we are used to, and I'm going to wait to see a bit more of him in action.
Alejandro Valverde is in his typical early season form, though a little gloss was knocked off, with his third place in Oman. None the less, there aren't many better than him in these Ardennes-style classics, and he has probably the best kick in the race for the final climb. Will certainly be tough to beat, but may be isolated in the front group.
Zdenek Stybar will be a formidable prospect on these dusty roads as no one will handle the conditions better than former cyclocross champion. He's not in bad form at the moment, taking 7th in the Omloop, but he did have an armchair ride on Vanmarcke's wheel, and then had nothing in the sprint. I think he'll be one to watch later on in the big classics, but he might need a race or two more before he is in top form.
Finally, there are a lot of outsiders in what I consider to be a very open race. Lars Boom, Greg Van Avermaet, Filippo Pozzato, Paul Martens, Giampaolo Caruso, Maciej Bodnar and Fabio Felline, are all strong riders who could surprise the big names if they are allowed too much room.
I'm feeling an upset today, mainly due to news from the course about strong cross-winds, my thinking here is that the race will be split to pieces earlier, which will advantage the teams with more riders present, as they can dictate the shape of the race a bit more. Trek's main man is Cancellara, but they have a talented roster, with Arredondo, Felline and Stuyven all good at this sort of racing, I'll go with Fabio Felline, who is coming off some very nice form in the French classics.