The Strade Bianche is a beautiful race. Long camera shots of rolling Italian hillsides show a peloton meandering its way through the Tuscan countryside with dust kicking up from the narrow gravel roads they traverse at a furious pace. It’s a single day classic, but not in the conventional sense with cobbles or Belgian bergs or Muurs, or history — it only began in 2007 — and it doesn’t have monumental status, though you can’t help but think with an extra 50km onto its distance and 50 years to breathe, it would be all but worthy. But it’s a race that is popular among the viewers and the riders who will hope to contest and win those conventional single day cobbled classics in the weeks ahead.
It comes with a magical finish up into the town of Siena, a punishing steep little climb that stretches the exhausting leg to breaking point after a day of little climbs. And today was no different. It’s the kind of race made for a man like Fabian Cancellara; powering along those dusty dirt roads and grinding up over those tight Tuscan hills. No wonder then that he has won it twice before in 2008 and 2012, and no wonder then that he won it again on Saturday. One on the short list that he would badly have wanted as part of his retirement tour of 2016. A shortlist that contains names like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, another stage at the Tour de France, and even the World Championships.
Yes, it’s almost as though the events founders sat down in 2007 and decided to build a race for a young Fabian, something absolutely fitting to his talents that he could win a bunch of times. There must have been shock 9 years ago when Alexandr Kolobnev, and not Cancellara, won the first edition. Then again, back then Fabian had only one monument win to his name, his career as a single day great still to be carved out. Now, with retirement on the horizon and one last kick at the Monuments can lying in wait, he’s got a 33% win record at Strade Bianche. Indeed, the race organisors announced pre-race that should he win a third time they would name a dirt sector after him. His three fingered salute as he crossed the line only served as a reminder to them of their promise.
But this only tells the story of the result. Cancellara may have won in an epic final climb duel with reigning champion Zdenek Štybar, but it was a gripping race to even get to that point. An early break that had contained the Italian, Gianluca Brambilla, had been reeled in when Peter Sagan began to make noise on one of the later climbs of the day, yet Brambilla had been able to stay with that surge and soon the race had been broken into three clear groups.
At the front, the contenders: Sagan, Cancellara, Brambilla and his Etixx team-mate, Stybar; Behind, the pretenders: 10-12 men desperate to bring back a move that with every pedal stroke, was looking more and more like the winning one that they had missed; and finally, the rest: Everyone else who had been washed away, unable to hack the Sagan surge.
It seemed finely poised for Etixx, though we thought that at last years Omloop too when Ian Stannard looked dead in the water against three Etixx classic specialists. This time however they played their tactics right: Brambilla, the more exhausted of the two, went on the attack in the hope that one of Sagan or Cancellara would bring him back leaving the door open for a rested Stybar to make the winning move. The only problem was that Cancellara played his tactics right also. He recognised that Brambilla would tire quickly and so there wasn’t the need to pull Stybar across to him. He took his turn at the front but he kept it composed and he let Brambilla dangle. It was a supreme effort by the Italian, but it always seemed it would be in vain come the vicious final ramp up into Siena.
Brambilla lasted a fair while, into the final few hundred metres in fact, but when Cancellara and Stybar both kicked, his lead collapsed as Sagan too went out the back. The dueling pair of Cancellara and Stybar blew past the broken Italian and through the final corners shoulder to shoulder, all but touching. Cancellara got the right line as a man of his experience is apt to do and he got in front when it mattered, and on those narrow streets of Siena, Stybar stood no chance of getting past again as they swept down the final 50 metres to the line.
It was perfectly played by Cancellara in response to the Etixx tactic, perfectly timed to reel in Brambilla, and perfectly positioned to overpower Stybar and get position to win. A fitting win for a man headed out. Who knows what sector they will eventually decide to name after him though making it that final climb into Siena or even the final corner at the top of the climb, might be an idea instead!
Strade Bianche result:
|1. Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory)
2. Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick Step)
3. Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx – Quick Step)
4. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)
5. Petr Vakoc (Etixx – Quick Step)
6. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)
in 4h 39′ 35″