The ninth Strade Bianche delivered the now expected helping of beautiful scenery, exciting racing among the men expected to contest the historic cobbled races of Belgium and northern France, and a denouement on the 16 per cent ramp into Siena’s extraordinary Piazza del Campo.
Zdenek Stybar gave a frankly unnecessary reminder of Etixx-Quick-Step’s strength in depth, but where will it leave him Patrick Lefevere’s pecking order for the Ronde and Roubaix? Peter Sagan received mild chastisement from Bjarne Riis for an early attack that left him prey to the accelerations of the heavyweights later in the race. Can Tinkoff-Saxo restore a once relentless winning machine to his best form?
It was Sepp Vanmarcke’s attack that did for Sagan on the Monteaperti, but the giant Belgian finished the day with a relentless pursuit of a train that had gone, much as he had a week earlier at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Is 2015 the year in which LottoNL-Jumbo’s leader finally bags a Monument?
Alejandro Valverde gave no indication of his 34 years, and in his fifth race already this season looked well placed for victory, before his hopes were shattered by the Via Santa Caterina. How well will Nairo Quintana have to perform en route to the Tour de France to justify leadership of Movistar at cycling’s biggest race?
And with the demise of historic European races a continuing theme, do races as inventive as the Strade Bianche point to a brighter future? Might La Drôme Classic, another new race with a vicious climb to a technical finish fought through narrow streets, and with coverage featuring on-screen rider ‘telemetry’, be taken as a further example of a sport able to flourish given the right treatment?
Stybar, Lefevere's ace in the hole?
Further evidence, were it required, that Etixx-Quick-Step is by far the strongest team in the WorldTour came with Zdenek Stybar’s remarkable victory in Siena. The Czech champion had ridden with impressive tactical assiduity for much of the Strade Bianche, neither forcing the pace in the manner of Valverde nor panicking when BMC Racing sent Daniel Oss up the road in a bid to draw the sting from Greg Van Avermaet’s rivals. Stybar’s most notable contribution in the 200km from San Gimignano to Siena came in his failed attempt to hand an unwanted gilet to the crew of a television moto.
When the moment came to strike, Stybar seized it with confidence, accelerating clear of a flagging Valverde on the final climb before passing Van Avermaet in the final corner and winning alone. It was his second strong performance in a week of understated effectiveness. While his colleagues made a hash of Het Nieuwsblad, Stybar quietly hung back to police the pursuing Sepp Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Van Avermaet.
What will be his role at the cobbled Monuments? Stybar was highly effective at Roubaix in 2013, when even an intrusion from a roadside spectator failed to put him off his stride. While he is highly unlikely to lead Etixx-Quick-Step there this year, or at Flanders, even with his current form, Stybar will remain an extremely useful card for Patrick Lefevere to play – perhaps even an ace.
Sep Vanmarcke is long overdue a major win in the gruelling one-day races of spring and served further notice of his excellent early-season form at the Strade Bianche. The LottoNL-Jumbo leader looked to have missed his chance when the decisive break of Stybar, Van Avermaet and Valverde went clear, but by persisting alone and operating with little more than bloody-minded determination, he came close to regaining contact with the leading trio as they passed beneath the flamme rouge.
His relentless pursuit of the leaders was blamed/credited a week earlier for Etixx-Quick-Step’s blundered finale at Nieuwsblad and he appeared still more determined in Tuscany. Reports of Vanmarcke’s doggedness are hardly revelatory, however. He made Fabian Cancellara fight to the line at Roubaix in 2013 and at Flanders last year, not to mention dropping him on Saturday. Time remains on the side of the 26-year-old, and in terms of consistency, Van Avermaet is his only real competitor, but there is a growing sense that Vanmarcke needs to land a big one soon. 2015 could be his year.
Peter Sagan was strong enough to make the decisive break, but not strong enough to remain within it. Signs of Sagan’s continued struggle to regain his best form come no clearer than with 20km of Saturday's race remaining, when he was dropped at almost the precise location where, last year, he had ridden clear with Michal Kwiatkowski. On that occasion, he finished in what is becoming an almost customary second place.
A new team and new management will attempt to return Sagan to his untouchable form of 2012 and 2013, when he won seemingly without effort. Sean Yates, one of the men who will direct him at Tinkoff-Saxo, though not the man in the car at Strade Bianche, believes Sagan was over-raced at Cannondale, where he alone shouldered the ambitions of an entire squad and so found himself entered for almost any race on the calendar, but the Slovak champion appeared to have reaped little benefit from the near two-week break between his previous engagement on the final stage of the Tour of Oman and the Strade Bianche.
Indeed, his ride in Tuscany gained him no more than a mild rebuke from Bjarne Riis, who, pointedly, praised the team for "sticking to the strategy" and highlighted Sagan's deviance from it. "...Peter attacked too early with 50km to go and he took a lot of responsibility at the front of the group - and therefore also a lot of wind. It would perhaps have been more secure, if he had waited."
Riis may not be alone in feeling that Sagan has been oustmarted more often than he has been outperformed. His outrageous physical gifts should make victory a formality, as they did earlier in his career. If Sagan is to become the Monument winner many believe he should be, a more intelligent approach to his craft is essential.
Valverde the evergreen
Alejandro Valverde is seemingly a contender for victory in every race he enters, from January to October. The Spaniard was chief instigator at Strade Bianche and likely to have been the most fancied of the trio who passed together beneath Siena’s city walls. His disintegration on the Via Santa Caterina was unexpected, but there is no shame in failing to hold the wheels of Van Avermaet who went exceptionally deep in his effort to rid himself of his breakaway confederates, and the monstrously strong Stybar.
Valverde arrived in San Gimignano with a Middle Eastern ‘Grand Tour’ in his legs, having raced the Tours of Qatar and Oman and the Dubai Tour. Even these were not his first engagements of the season: prior to racing in the Middle East, Valverde had contested (and won a stage of) the Vuelta a Mallorca. Sadly, his implication in Operacion Puerto and subsequent two-year ban will always cast a shadow over his remarkable consistency, but judged purely by performances on the road, there are few in the peloton as versatile, professional, or hungry for success as Movistar’s 34-year-old champion. If Nairo Quintana is to supplant him as leader at the Tour, he will need to perform as well in the run up as his team-mate - a tall order.
The old order changeth, yielding place to new
Much is made, rightly, of the demise of many of the historic races on the European calendar, but Strade Bianche has shown that flair and imagination are the key requisites for events to replace them. Sufficient financial backing is a must too, of course, and here organisers of the Tuscan race can rely on the backing of Italian media giant RCS, but the Giro owner’s success with this modern day Classic is due to the aforementioned qualities. Build it, and they will come.
A further example might be found at La Drôme Classic, an event held for only the second time last week, after an inauspicious beginning when it was cancelled due to snow in 2013. It is a counterpart to the Classic Sud-Ardèche and was won in exciting fashion this year by Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r-La Mondiale) after pacing from team-mate Romain Bardet, the defending champion.
A decisive final climb and a finish through narrow and winding streets will be familiar to viewers of Strade Bianche, even if the south Ardèche lacks Tuscany’s beauty. As significant, perhaps, is the on-screen telemetry, relaying data for speed, cadence, gradient, and power (although the last might be described, charitably, as “unreliable”). Taken together, the elements of challenging parcours and modern televisual prompts bodes well for its future.