The ribin and the piglet: Tro-Bro Lèon

The leaders tackle the ribinoù in 2013 (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
The leaders tackle the ribinoù in 2013 (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)

“My passion is, sometimes, beyond reason”

So says Jean-Paul Mellouët. He’s talking about his race, the Tro-Bro Lèon, a French Classic which he founded 32 years ago.

Actually, scrap that – it’s the Breizh (Breton) Classic. At least that’s what Jean-Paul would say, for it’s a race that personifies the rugged coastal region situated on the western tip of l’Hexagone. The Bretons are out there on their own, and they seem to prefer it that way.

For centuries, the sea has been a dominant part of life in the region, providing a livelihood for generations of sailors and fishermen, as well as featuring heavily in Breton mythology.

Kêr-Is is one example. A city built in the far-western Douarnenez Bay for the King of Kerne’s daughter, Dahut, it became a city of sin under her influence. While her father slept, Dahut opened the city gates, allowing it to be swallowed by the sea. According to legend, she later became a morgen (siren), having been thrown into the sea as punishment.

Stories are told too, about the shadowy figures of Kannerezed Noz, three washerwomen with green skin and webbed feet. Said to gather by the sea at midnight, they wash the clothes of those about to die. Unsurprisingly, they are seen as a bad omen and appear, in various guises, throughout Celtic mythology.

 

Winds blowing from the coast are another obstacle during the race (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
The race skirts the coast of Brittany’s north-western tip (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay, also header image)

Legends and myths aren’t the only commonality shared between Brittany and the other Celtic nations though, as strong traditions of fishing and farming endure. Other common/shared traits include an independent spirit, a seemingly incomprehensible (and under-threat) language, and a resolute people.

Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault is a man who neatly encapsulates the latter. Defiant, brisk and pugnacious both on and off the bike, he was a patron of the peloton as a 23-year-old.

Le Blaireau was not the only star the region has produced, with Tour winners Jean Robic, Lucien Petit-Breton and Louison Bobet all hailing from the region – or in the case of Robic, “born in the Ardennes by mistake.”

There are fewer big names in Brittany nowadays, at least not to the extent of Hinault. But each year the first Breton over the line in the Tro-Bro Lèon (Tour of Lèon, the north-west part of Brittany) is rewarded with a piglet. It may seem a novelty but the origin of the prize is serious, as Mellouët explains.

“The idea came from the young farmers of the area,” he says. “It was to promote their breeding business.” Another Breton sport, Gouren (folk wrestling), traditionally awards the winner a ram.

Pierre-Luc Périchon won the piglet in 2014, with a fourth place (teammate Benoît Jarrier won one last season). He’s not a Breton but rides for locally-based team Fortuneo-Vital Concept (formerly Bretagne-Séché Environnement). So what did he do with his new pet? “Actually I couldn’t bring him on the train, so he went to the farmer who offered to take it.”

Originally a track rider, Périchon transitioned to the road in 2008, turning professional five years ago with Roubaix-Dalkia. A good all-rounder, Périchon finished fourth at the Tour de Langkawi last season, and won the 2012 edition of Paris-Camembert.

He has raced Tro-Bro Léon four times, with consistent results, improving from 64th to seventh in 2013, before missing out on podium places in the final sprint at the two most recent editions.

“Yes, the race is quite different to riding on the track but the level of effort isn’t,” he says. “The classics often provide more disjointed racing but it suits me better. I’m quite at ease on the pavé. The approach to the ribinoù is similar to Roubaix but as for riding them, it’s more like cyclocross.”

 

(Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
There are 25 sectors of ribin in the race (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)

As Périchon points out, the race doesn’t quite offer the same challenges as the cobbles found in Belgium and Northern France. The ribinoù are dirt farm tracks, more comparable to the roads found at Strade Bianche.

Mellouët, a designer by trade who takes on a raft of responsibilites every year, including the design of the race poster, agrees.

“They say that this is the Breton Paris-Roubaix but it’s not comparable,” he says. “My inspiration for the race came from Roubaix and the Belgian cobbles but our ribinoù are not paved. We currently have 30km in the route, while we started out with just 10km.”

Something the race does have in common with Roubaix is the hand-picked selection of sectors. “I choose my ribinoù according to their length and difficulty. And if there’s grass in the middle it’s even better – more rustic,” Mellouët explains. “As the race evolves each year I try to find new locations.”

The race has evolved, and then some, since the first edition in 1984. Back then it had a budget of 8,000 Francs and the race route included only four ribinoù. Now those numbers have swelled – there were 22 ribinoù last year, while the budget hovers around the €250,000 mark.

On the subject of money, the race has a special reason for existing. Rather than using his race to sell newspapers – the reason many of the biggest races around today were started – Mellouët had an altogether different, more patriotic, motivation.

“The race was created in order to support the Diwan schools which my children went to.” A share of the money raised by the race’s cyclosportive, first run in 2008 and led last year by Stephen Roche, also goes to the schools.

These schools, privately-funded and not recognised by the French government, provide an education in the Breton language, with the first opened in the 1970s. Mellouët, born in 1949, was brought up during an era where speaking Breton was actively discouraged by schoolteachers.

So there was a noble cause behind the race’s creation. Only the first race didn’t quite go to plan.

“We set out the signposting of the route the night before the race, and of course there were some slight errors,” says Mellouët. “Some riders took the wrong route! The local press said there would be no second edition but they were wrong about me. Stubborn as a Breton, they say.”

There was, of course, a second edition, with the arrows set out so well that the Highways Authority asked for them to be covered up. Up until 1999 it was run exclusively for amateurs, with Estonian Jan Kirsipuu a notable early winner.

Pierre-Luc Périchon and his prize (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
Pierre-Luc Périchon and his prize (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)

Sixteen editions have passed since professionals were first invited, and despite Mellouët’s insistence that he will find someone else to organise the race (he says it every year), there are ambitions for growth. Moving up to 1.HC status is a target, though only if the UCI reforms the calendar, says Mellouët – but that ambition is balanced by a desire to retain the local feel.

That said, the race hasn’t seen a Breton winner since 2008, when FDJ’s Frédéric Guesdon beat Maxim Gourov of A-Style in a two-man sprint. “Every year I expect a successor to Guesdon,” says Mellouët. “This year we can hope for a rider from Bretagne-Séché or Johan Le Bon, who is always very motivated for this race.”

Le Bon hails from the town of Lannion – 100km east of the race’s HQ in Lannilis – and has yet to win Tro-Bro Léon, his best result second place to then-FDJ teammate Francis Mourey in 2013. Several ex-winners are down to start this time around though, including Mourey, Europcar’s Vincent Jérôme, and last year’s winner – Alexandre Geniez of FDJ.

The diminutive sprinter Samuel Dumoulin (AG2R La Mondiale) will also be there – he won back-to-back editions in 2003 and 2004. Meanwhile Périchon’s past results suggest that he can join them on the roll of honour. He’s coy about it though, “It’s held when I normally have good form, so I have aspirations.”

Whoever is the next conquerer of l’Enfer du Ouest, Mellouët will be there in his hometown of Lannilis, ready to greet them. There will be a new name for the history books, a new home for a piglet and soon after, a new edition to start organising.

Follow Tro-Bro Lèon on Twitter here, organiser Jean-Paul Mellouët here, and Pierre-Luc Périchon here.

Sunday’s race is only broadcast on France 3 and French Eurosport, so look to the usual alternatives.

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Who is Imanol Erviti?

Erviti Movistar 2015 Vuelta Espana COR VOS

The Spring Classics usually throw up a surprise or two, and this season was no exception, especially at Paris-Roubaix where we saw rank outsider Mathew Hayman win from the early breakaway.

Spaniard Imanol Erviti was one of Hayman’s companions in that move, and the only other man in the break to finish in the top ten. The Movistar man’s ninth place came a week after an equally surprising seventh in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

So who exactly is Imanol Erviti, the anomaly among these top ten standings, otherwise filled with cobbled specialists?

The 32-year-old is one of a rare breed in cycling – a one-team man. Since turning professional in 2005, Erviti has stuck with Eusebio Unzue’s Abarca sports through its several different iterations. He’s not the first rider to stay with the team for such a long time, following in the footsteps of José Vicente Garcia Acosta (17 years) and Pablo Lastras (18 years).

Like those riders Erviti is a gregario, a worker, a loyal lieutenant to long-time team leader Alejandro Valverde. He has helped Valverde achieve some of his greatest victories, including the 2009 Vuelta a España and last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was supposed to ride in his service at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

Instead Valverde went to an altitude training camp to prepare for the Giro. The rest is, for Erviti at least, history.

Erviti Movistar 2015 Ronde Vlaanderen COR VOS 2
Erviti on the way to a surprise seventh-place finish at De Ronde

At De Ronde he became only the second Spaniard in history to finish in the top ten, the first since Juan Antonio Flecha in 2008. That ride included over 180km in the breakaway. At Roubaix he was out front for over 200km.

Speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca after Roubaix, Erviti said, “I have raced these cobbled classics many times and have returned disgusted, so the results are a surprise. However, my physical performance doesn’t surprise me.”

This spring saw Erviti race the two cobbled Monuments for the twelfth time, and with his previous best result being a 40th place at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix, it was a surprise to everyone. Of course, experience plays a big factor at these races, something that Erviti agrees with.

“Maybe [these results could have come earlier], but I don’t know. Clearly it’s a matter of experience and learning how to manage in these races,” he says. “The method is more or less trial and error. Maybe there are teams who are experts in these races and can teach you a lot faster, but they are not like Movistar in other aspects.”

“Everyone has their way and I do not regret mine.”

Erviti Movistar Roubaix 2016 COR VOS
Sprinting to ninth behind Heinrich Haussler and Marcel Sieberg at Roubaix

So there are no regrets about this late emergence, but does Erviti forsee a future in leadership?

“It’s a step on the way and what I need to do is to keep working so that it’s not the final step,” he says. “Being a leader is nice but it’s not easy in any race, and it’s a big responsibility.”

Erviti is not a natural leader, and even if he has done well on the cobbles he’s unlikely to lead a team again until next April. It’s his willingness to work for others that is of most value to his team, and this is something that has caught the eye of others too.

One notable man who has recognised Erviti’s talents is Spanish national coach Javier Minguez. The ex-Vitalicio Seguros DS has been in charge of World Championships team selection since 2013, and has selected Erviti in 2014 and 2015. It’s no small deal when a country like Spain could easily fill a squad of stars.

“Imanol is a very good rider, and he has very specific qualities to do the hard work,” says Minguez. “These are qualities that every leader wants to have at his side.”

Minguez wasn’t surprised about Erviti’s rides over the past few weeks though.

“He’s a rider with the quality to do very well in races like De Ronde. Usually his gregario mentality limits his thoughts about showing his personal brilliance though,” he says. “He has the physical potential that allows him to do extra work on behalf of the team.”

Erviti Movistar 2015 Ronde Vlaanderen COR VOS
Erviti riding in the break at De Ronde

Minguez wouldn’t be drawn on whether these performances are likely to secure him another Worlds selection, but don’t be surprised to see him in Qatar, working for Spain’s stars once again. It’s a role that he’s comfortable with.

“I have been a gregario for a long time,” he says. “It’s what I’m good at and suits the qualities I have, so this is not something I want to change.”

After the highs of the cobbles it’s back to that supporting role for Erviti now, starting at the Amstel Gold Race before racing the other Ardennes classics. Then he hopes to ride the Tour de France, his seventeenth Grand Tour, in service of Nairo Quintana.

But first, the big question – which race is harder?

“They are both very demanding. You push your limits in both. Roubaix is hard for the enduring pain, De Ronde for the gradients,” he says. “The worst of Roubaix is undoubtedly the falls and danger, but the impact of reaching the vélodrome is the best.”

 

A POTTED HISTORY

Born in Pamplona, Navarre, Erviti started out at the local Ermitagaña Cycling Club. He rode in the amateur ranks with Bideki, the ONCE feeder team previously known as Iberdrola.

The team had previously brought through Alberto Contador and Juan Manuel Garate among others, but shut down in 2002. A move to Serbitzu-Kirolgi followed and steady results, including stage wins at the Vuelta a Valladolid and Vuelta a Navarra saw him secure a contract with Pamplona-based Illes Balears for 2005.

Since then Erviti has stayed with the team, helping them top the ProTour/WorldTour rankings in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015. It hasn’t always been about toiling away for the leaders though. In 2008 he won stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, outsprinting breakaway companion Nicolas Roche in Valladolid. Two years later came his next (and most recent) victory, again at the Vuelta and from another breakaway.

The spring Erviti the worker has proven his talent as a sometime breakaway specialist once again.

Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix

Work on Haveluy-Wallers - April 2 - LES AMIS DE PARIS-ROUBAIX
Work on Haveluy-Wallers on April 2 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Think Paris-Roubaix and you think of the roads. It’s not about the 205km of the plain asphalt roads though. No, the majority of the race is run on roads no different from any other on the calendar. The other 52km are what set this race apart. The cobbles are Paris-Roubaix.

As crazy as it sounds now, there was, once upon a time, a push to wipe out these cobbled roads. In the aftermath of World War Two, France began to modernise the damaged road system, and the pavé of the north slowly disappeared.

The race first lost a cobbled sector to the unrelenting march of modernisation in 1939, with more and more covered by asphalt as the years rolled by. The advent of live television only accelerated this process as local authorities, ashamed of their poor roads, would resurface them if the race passed through.

In 1983 that changed. Paris-Roubaix organiser Albert Bouvet and Jean-Claude Vallaeys, founder of Vélo Club Roubaix, founded a new organisation – Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix (the friends of Paris-Roubaix). The group’s aim was to preserve cobbled sectors, repairing and restoring them each year.

Les Amis repaving Ennevelin on March 19 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)
Les Amis repaving Ennevelin on March 19 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Fortunately, they are still at it today, headed up by President François Doulcier. His day job, a car assembly line manager, Doulcier joined the group as a member in 2001, and has been President since 2011.

The organisation has grown from 40 members when Doulcier joined to over 200 today. These members come from around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, and anybody can join for a fee of between €20-30.

This money goes towards the maintenance of the cobbles, and the same local authorities who were once dead-set against the race now work with Les Amis in order to carry out the work, as Doulcier explains.

“For the big jobs, the work is funded by the local government, yes. Smaller jobs are done by the students, and they are funded by us as well as local communities.”

Those students are from the Raismes Horticultural College near Valenciennes. The school has been involved since 2002, and groups of students have worked on the cobbles every spring. Last year they worked on Quérénaing-Maing  and Wallers-Hélesmes (otherwise known as Pont Gibus), while this spring has seen them restore sector 19, from Haveluy to Wallers.

“These are future gardeners, and the paving work is part of the landscaping integrated into their training,” says Oliver Codron, the landscaping teacher at the college.

Students work on Haveluy-Wallers - April 2 - LES AMIS DE PARIS-ROUBAIX
Students work on Haveluy-Wallers on April 2 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Lugging around twenty-pound stones is some apprenticeship for these students. It’s estimated that over 50,000 cobbles have been repositioned and restored by students of the college over the years.

“There are classes of fifteen to twenty working for fifteen days. The budget for their work is €15,000 each year,” says Doulcier. “The heavy work has a budget of €100,000.”

Of course the organisation, which is entirely voluntary, does not make a profit – their work is a labout of love.

The heavy work described by Doulcier is outsourced to companies. He says a team of four work for several months, with 100 metres of the route taking around a month to renovate.

Such work includes a street sweeper cleaning the famous Trouée d’Arenberg sector – its forest location means that moss and mould thrive on the cobbles there.

Arenberg brings with it another problem – cobble theft. Yes, really. Each year the organisation replaces dozens of stones in the forest and elsewhere. Finding the replacements isn’t a problem though, as the group has a stockpile of over 90,000 thanks to local authorities, who save the stones they dig up.

Street Sweeper cleaning Arenberg - March 25 - LES AMIS DE PARIS ROUBAIX
The street sweeper cleaning Arenberg on March 25 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

This year, the work has been extensive, with restoration carried out at a number of well-known sectors, including Auchy-lez-Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. For Les Amis (or the ‘convicts of the road’ as they call themselves), this has just been a regular year.

“The repairs have been a similar level to recent years,” says Doulcier. “In addition to the spring work, the pavé is checked throughout the year in order to identify any potential problems.”

Don’t think that the group is making the race easier though – the challenge is in maintaining the cobbles. That is, keeping them tough to ride as well as preserving them aesthetically.

“We don’t want to turn it into a pool table,” Doulcier jokes. “We have to keep the challenge of the cobbles, but remove the ruts and potholes.”

For now though, he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his organisation’s labour. On Sunday the peloton will roar over the same rough cobbles that Les Amis have spent months painstakingly renovating.

Sunday’s victor will take home one of the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix – one from the vault I’m sure. But then it won’t be long until thoughts turn to next year, for Doulcier and Les Amis, at least. The work is never done.

 

Scheldeprijs: Clash of the sprint titans

 

Kittel Cavendish Greipel Scheldeprijs 2016 sprint COR VOS
The big three faced off for the first time this season at Scheldeprijs (Cor Vos)

Not everybody love Scheldeprijs. It’s a flat windy race, stuck mid-week between two races of much greater prestige, a time when most fans are either basking in the afterglow of De Ronde or looking ahead to Paris-Roubaix.

The race is 200km long and part of the Flanders Classics organisation group, but it stands apart from its stablemate – races like Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Scheldeprijs lacks the hills and the cobbles that make those races selective.

In recent years the race’s main obstacle has seemingly been the pile-ups that decimate the field as riders fight for places before the finish in the town of Schoten, north-east of Antwerp. Things were changed this year, with an alternate route designed to prevent a repeat of last year’s mass crash in the final kilometre.

Other than that, it’s the lack of obstacles that make the race notable. Aside from adverse weather conditions and the usual bad luck of ill-timed mechanicals or crashes, Scheldeprijs is almost always destined to end in a sprint – in fact the race is informally known as the ‘Sprinter’s World Championships’.

And today it did. Whether it was down to the redesign, good luck, or just a more careful peloton, there were no major crashes on the run-in, so we saw a clean sprint. A clean sprint featuring the generation’s top three sprinters – Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, and Marcel Kittel.

Cavendish Greipel 2011 Tour de France Lavaur COR VOS
Ex-teammates Cavendish and Greipel embrace after the Brit wins in Lavaur at the 2011 Tour (Cor Vos)

Six years may separate them, but Cavendish and Greipel came to prominence at the same time, battling to be top dog at HTC-Columbia between 2008 and 2010. Cavendish, armed with his low-profile aero style, came out on top, taking 15 Tour de France stage wins as the German was consigned to “shitty small races” (Cav’s words, not mine).

During that time Greipel won the Tour Down Under twice, along with four stages of the Vuelta a España and two at the Giro d’Italia. 2011’s move to Omega Pharma-Lotto saw him ride the Tour, finally. He won a stage, but Cavendish was better, taking three and later winning gold to Greipel’s bronze at the World Championships in Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, ProContinental team Argos-Shimano were nurturing their own sprinting talent. Kittel, another big tall German (both are 10cm taller than Cavendish), was busy winning a variety of Europe Tour races, also tasting victory at his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta.

At the 2012 Tour it was a draw as both Greipel and Cavendish won three stages, while Kittel left the race after five stages due to illness. The next two years would see him usurp the title of ‘World’s Best Sprinter’ though.

In 2013 he took four stages including Paris, a stage which Cavendish had claimed ownership of, having won it four years in a row before. The Brit won two stages that year, Greipel just one.

Kittel Greipel Cavendish Tour de France 2013 2 COR VOS
Kittel beats his rivals to the line in Paris at the 2013 Tour (Cor Vos)

2014 saw Kittel win another four, including Paris once again. Cav crashed out early and Greipel took another solitary win. It was also the final year of his Scheldeprijs three-peat, though none of those races saw the all of the ‘big three’ take the start.

Of course we all know what happened last season. It was Kittel’s annus horribilis, as he was plagued by a virus which saw him take only one win all year. Cavendish took Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and a host of stages at the smaller races he had once derided Greipel for having to ride.

Meanwhile Greipel, at the age of 32, took advantage to win four Tour stages to Cavendish’s one. The tables had finally turned.

While Kittel may have won this race three times, he had never before faced off against his two great sprint rivals here before. That has been something of an oddity, but you can file it alongside the fact that the trio only have one Tour de France green jersey between them.

Back to today though, and it was Kittel who triumphed, taking a record fourth win at the race. He sprinted from the front, and was unassailable. Cavendish, hidden behind him, was able to draw alongside him but couldn’t move ahead. Meanwhile Greipel came in behind the duo, unable to get near either of them. On the line Kittel took it by just half a wheel.

Today’s race was the first time that the calendars of the three men have lined up so far this season. The next, should all go to plan, will be in July. The last meeting of the year, most probably, will be at the actual World Championships, in pan-flat Qatar.

In 2016 it’s round one to Kittel, just.

The sprint, in their own words

Cavendish – “I was a little bit late to go actually. When I saw 150 metres to go I thought there was still 50 more metres so I thought I better go now.”

Greipel – “Because of the tailwind in the final road to the finish line I’d planned to take the initiative.”

Kittel – “I started my sprint with around 200 meters to go. I made a small mistake, sprinting in a gear which was too big at first, so I had to shift up. It wasn’t easy, but I gave my all.”

Cavendish – “When I came alongside Kittel I thought I had the better of him. He was just able to pull that little bit more out; it was something I used to be able to do but not anymore. I’ve lost by closer this year – it is how it is.”

Kittel – “I saw Cavendish come around and tried to shift down again, but it didn’t work. Suddenly my legs got really soft and I just tried to hold it as good as possible to the finish. I managed to keep my advantage.”

Greipel – “But then [when it came to the sprint] it became clear that I can’t compete with Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel at the moment. I know I can sprint better than I did but today is today and the best rider won.”

Kittel Cavendish Greipel Scheldeprijs 2016 podium COR VOS
On the podium earlier today (Cor Vos)

Outsiders at their own race: Milano-Sanremo

After ten years of waiting, will 2016 see an Italian win in Sanremo? (Cor Vos)
Is Vincenzo Nibali the man to break Italy’s Sanremo drought? (Cor Vos)

After ten years of waiting, will 2016 see an Italian win in Sanremo?

Last Autumn, the Italian drought finally ended. It was October 4th, and at the 107th edition of the Giro di Lombardia Vincenzo Nibali rode into Como alone, having been alone for some 16km since his attack on the Civiglio climb.

The Italian announcer was yelling as the Italian champion rode across the line, arms in the air, in Italy. A very Italian scene, and the first time a home rider had won the race (or any other Monument for that matter) since Damiano Cunego’s triumph all the way back in 2008.

The 2016 edition of the Giro di Lombardia is a long way away, but the other great Italian Classic is almost upon us. In fact it’s on Saturday, though everybody is already aware of that. One thing you perhaps aren’t aware of is the similar drought suffered by the Italians at La Classicissima di primavera.

Once upon a time, home domination was expected, with names like Girardegno, Binda, Bartali and Coppi filling the roll of honour during the first half of the 1900s. More recently Cipollini, Bettini and Petacchi joined the list, with Filippo Pozzato the last man from the Peninsula to cross the line first, back in 2006.

And now? The Italians are enduring their longest dry spell since the 1960s.

With 61 Italians lining up at the start in Milan, let’s assess the chances of those having dreams of spraying the Prosecco on the final podium.

Vincenzo Nibali ends
Vincenzo Nibali ends seven years of Italian hurt in Lombardia last October (Cor Vos)

First up, it’s the star man – certainly the biggest star in Italian cycling, anyway.  The race wasn’t originally part of Vincenzo Nibali’s plans for 2016, but he’ll be there, back for the ninth time.

He’s fresh from finishing sixth in a neutered Tirreno-Adriatico, and will have a point to prove having been taken out of contention for victory by the cancellation of stage five. And just as the lack of hills hindered him in The Race of the Two Seas, it is likely that he’ll have the same problem here – Nibali will be hard pushed to replicate his podium finish back in 2012.

Lampre-Merida, the last remaining Italian WorldTour team, come to the race with an all-Italian line-up, and they have some interesting options to choose from. Davide Cimolai was eighth last year, but you would always bet on him getting burned by the likes of Alexander Kristoff and Peter Sagan in a sprint finish.

Puncheur Diego Ulissi is another decent outsider, but once again there are better options, and a huge dose of luck would be needed for second-class sprinter Sacha Modolo (fourth in 2010) to prevail. Barring a big crash somewhere in the finale, don’t expect a Lampre winner in Sanremo.

One man who they will regret having to let go over the winter is 22-year-old Niccolò Bonifazio. He sprinted to a surprise fifth here last year but will ride in support of Fabian Cancellara over at Trek-Segafredo this time around. He’ll be right up there again should the Swiss veteran falter though.

Paris - Nice 2015 Stage - 1
Could the young Bonifazio make a step up from last year’s fifth place? (Cor Vos)

Sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo is another backup plan for the cosmopolitan team, but he’s more frequently seen on the second and third steps of the podium, rather than the first. The versatile Fabio Felline belongs in the same category.

Now at this point understand that we are already plumbing the depths of implausibility. Things aren’t looking good. Scanning the startlist, there are only five other men who have finished in the top ten.

First up we have the last Italian to win the race, Southeast-Venezuela’s Filippo Pozzato. He finished sixth here in 2012 and hasn’t won a race since 2013, so extrapolate from that what you will. Edit – His teammate, the 21-year-old sprinter Jakub Mareczko is certainly a name to remember for the future. Then there’s Daniele Bennati, who is 35 and will be riding firmly in support of Peter Sagan.

Fourth in both 1995 (!) and 2008, 44-year-old Davide freakin Rebellin is riding here for the first time in seven years. He is certainly not going to win but admit it, it’d be pretty hilarious if he did, right?­ BMC’s Daniel Oss has finished ninth here before but will be supporting the in-form Greg Van Avermaet’s bid for victory.

Next up, we come to Sonny Colbrelli of Bardiani-CSF – the other team with an all-Italian contingent. Sixth here two years ago, he’s one of several Italians in the group of not-quite elite sprinters. Still, he’s obviously in strong form, winning the GP Lugano two weeks ago, so a top five placing wouldn’t be a surprise – Bonifazio did the same last year remember.

Onto the other Italian ProContinental team next, and it’s Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec. Once upon a time, a line-up of Franco Pellizotti, Francesco Gavazzi and Francesco Chicchi would have been an interesting proposition here, but not anymore.

Etixx-QuickStep count punchy fighter Gianluca Brambilla, who had a great race at Strade Bianche, and fastman Matteo Trentin among their ranks. Both ride in support of Tom Boonen and Fernando Gaviria at Etixx-QuickStep, but should be strong enough to provide alternative options if the main men falter

Lastly, pure sprinter Elia Viviani will be riding as back-up for Geraint Thomas, Michał Kwiatkowski and Ben Swift at Team Sky. He has yet to prove he can handle the race though, finishing 108th on two occasions in the past. Salvatore Puccio finished twelfth in the 2012 edition.

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Viviani eases to the win at last year’s Tour of Britain but his odds of victory on Saturday are much longer (SweetSpot)

Honestly, I would be surprised if the duck is broken on Saturday. Several Italians are better suited to the race than Vincenzo Nibali, but frankly lack his talent.

At the moment the country has no riders that match up to sprinters and classics men like Kristoff, Van Avermaet, Sagan or Cancellara, and it looks like it would take a large slice of luck for any Italian to best them on Saturday.

There are some positive signs for the future though – most notably Bonifazio. The youngster has already proven that he can compete in the longest race on the calendar and knows the finale as well as anyone – he lives in Diana Marina, just down the coast from Sanremo and situated among the Capi climbs.

If any of this gang of outsiders can end the Sanremo drought this year, I’m going with him as the man most likely.

 


 

ANDRONI GIOCATTOLI-SIDERMEC
Giorgio Cecchinel, Francesco Chicchi, Marco Frapporti
Francesco Gavazzi, 
Franco Pellizotti, Mirko Selvaggi, Davide Viganò

ASTANA
Valerio Agnoli, Eros Capecchi, Vincenzo Nibali

BARDIANI-CSF
Simone Andreetta, Enrico Barbin, Nicola Boem, Mirco Maestri
Sonny Colbrelli, Stefano Pirazzi, Marco Rota, Alessandro Tonelli

BMC RACING
Damiano Caruso, Alessandro De Marchi
Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato

BORA-ARGON 18
Cesare Benedetti

CANNONDALE PRO CYCLING
Alan Marangoni, Moreno Moser

CCC SPRANDI POLKOWICE
Simone Ponzi, Davide Rebellin

DIMENSION DATA
Kristian Sbaragli

ETIXX-QUICKSTEP
Gianluca Brambilla, Fabio Sabatini, Matteo Trentin

KATUSHA
Jacopo Guarnieri

LAMPRE-MERIDA
Matteo Bono, Davide Cimolai, Matteo Cattaneo, Roberto Ferrari
Sacha Modolo, Manuele Mori, Diego Ulissi, Federico Zurlo

LOTTONL-JUMBO
Enrico Battaglin

MOVISTAR
Giovanni Visconti

NOVO NORDISK
Andrea Peron

SKY
Salvatore Puccio, Elia Viviani

SOUTHEAST-VENEZUELA
Manuel Belletti, Samuele Conti, Andrea Fedi
Jakub Mareczko, Filippo Pozzato, Mirko Tedeschi

TINKOFF
Daniele Bennati, Manuele Boaro
Oscar Gatto, Matteo Tosatto

TREK-SEGAFREDO
Eugenio Alafaci, Niccolò Bonifazio
Marco Coledan, Fabio Felline, Giacomo Nizzolo

“The Northern Classic in Southern Europe”

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The leaders tackle the sterrato last year (Cor Vos)

At least that’s what RCS claims, but is it an accurate comparison?

After the first classics of the season at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the peloton heads south to Italy and the Strade Bianche. It’s a race that feels decades-old but Saturday sees just the tenth edition of the Tuscan classic.

The wording in the title is from the organisers, RCS Sport, as part of the race promotion. Of course every promoter seeks to liven up their press releases and put a positive spin on their offerings. So, I thought I’d take a closer look at the race and see if the comparison to the likes of Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen holds up.

Non-tarmacked roads are a novelty common to all of these races, and realistically the basis of all comparisons between them. Strade Bianche is, of course, known for (and named after) the white gravel roads (sterrato) that make up sections of the course.

These are roads that are unique in the sport, save for the rare occasion they find their way into the parcours of the Giro d’Italia. Brittany’s ribinoù – the dirt farm tracks found at the Tro-Bro Léon – are perhaps the closest analogue in terms of texture and ride-feel.

Certainly riding the sterrato gives a sensation unlike riding on any other road – the contrast between riding the white gravel or normal roads is as stark as the contrast in appearance between them. Two-time winner Fabian Cancellara is in a better position than most to comment, and the Swiss draws an interesting parallel.

“I remember once I came off the road when I punctured in Qatar,” he says. “I ended up riding through the sand there. That’s the kind of sensation you have at Strade Bianche.”

Sienna - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack - Nissan) pictured during Strade Bianche 2012 - Gaiole in Chianti > Siena 190 km - 03/03/2012 - foto RB/Cor Vos ©2012
Cancellara takes his second win in 2012 (Cor Vos)

These are normal roads too, used by all as opposed to the pavé of northern France – the exclusive domain of heavy-duty farm vehicles. As a result, the gravel is ground down into a mixture of sand and small stones – a world away from the bone-aching cobbles seen on the road to Roubaix.

“It’s harder to manoeuvre at Strade Bianche though,” says Cancellara. “Because when you are riding through a lot of gravel it’s very difficult to keep your bike steady.”

There is one similarity in terms of feeling, and that is the age-old law of ‘the faster you go, the smoother it feels’, as the bike almost glides over the harsher bumps. Well, not glide exactly but you get the drift.

Selectivity is of course an important factor in these classics – more specifically the road’s importance in how selective the race can be. At Roubaix, the cobbles are often where the race is won and lost, but here the hills are the main obstacle. In this regard, Strade Bianche has more in common with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, with gradients upwards of 10% the norm.

There are no stand-out climbs in the race yet, nothing to compare with lionised hills like the Koppenberg or Muur anyway. Instead it’s an attritional slog made up of innumerable of small but sharp hills and rises.

But while the north has Roubaix and its fabled and historic velodrome, the Strade Bianche has Siena and the Piazza del Campo. The town’s medieval main square is associated more with the famous Palio horse race than bike racing, but just look at it. That is a fitting end point for any bike race, and is certainly one of the more memorable finishes in the sport.

Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie Vittoria pictured during Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014 - San Giminiano - Siena 200 km - 08/03/2014 - photo Claudio Minardi/Cor Vos © 2014
The Piazza del Campo, Siena (Cor Vos)

But before riders get there they have to put the hard miles in – and this is another instance in which the race bears no comparison to the Northern Classics. While 1.HC races such as this are restricted by UCI rules to 200km, WorldTour one-day races have a freer reign, and so we see the 250-260km norm for De Ronde and Roubaix. This year Strade Bianche is 176km long, so in that respect the races differ massively.

And what does Cancellara think about the Strade Bianche-Roubaix comparison?

“It isn’t similar to Roubaix at all. The gravel doesn’t feel the same,” he says. “There are some parts where the roads are a little fluffy, but the race is a different experience altogether.”

It’s an unequivocal statement from the man who will be riding his last Strade Bianche on Saturday, but just because the races are so different doesn’t lessen the value of the Tuscan classic.

So the promotional spin exists to draw attention to the race and boost the profile, but it has certainly worked. Strade Bianche has risen from 1.1 status to 1.HC and there’s even talk of it moving up to WorldTour next season. The startlist is already of a quality approaching Paris-Roubaix, with stars like Nibali, Van Avermaet, Valverde, Cancellara, Sagan and Kwiatkowski all riding on Saturday.

Probably the most important factor to consider though, is one that all of these races have in common – the excitement. The chaos, crashes, punctures and heavyweight battles right to the final turn of the wheel that characterise the Northern Classics are here too. And ultimately, that’s what it boils down to – it’s we watch bike racing for.


A final note: It looks like we might see the first ever wet Strade Bianche on Saturday, as showers and thunderstorms are likely in the morning and afternoon. We all know how revered a wet Paris-Roubaix is, but if you want a taste of what a wet Strade Bianche could be like, look no further than stage seven of the 2010 Giro d’Italia.

Strade Bianche 2012
The peloton kicking up dust in 2012 (Cor Vos)

Gallery: RideLondon Grand Prix

Brompton Racing
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Pre-race

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Wiggle-Honda with their new signing for 2016, Emma Johansson
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Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS)
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Shelley Olds (Alé-Cipollini)
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Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS)

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Fans & Tourists of Buckingham Palace


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Post-race
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Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS)
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Emilia Fahlin (Wiggle-Honda)

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Molly Weaver (Liv-Plantur)

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Danielle King & Annette Edmondson (Wiggle-Honda)

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Maria Confalonieri (Alé-Cipollini)
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German champion Trixi Worrack and Lisa Brennauer (Velocio-Sram) watch the podium ceremony
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Maria Confalonieri (Alé-Cipollini)
Anna Christian (Wiggle-Honda)

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Laura Trott (Matrix Fitness)
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Adele Martin (Velocio-Sram)

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The winner, Barbara Guarischi (Velocio-Sram)
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And her bike
Annalisa Cucinotta & Shelley Olds (Alé-Cipollini) filled out the podium
Annalisa Cucinotta & Shelley Olds (Alé-Cipollini) filled out the podium
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Eileen Roe (Wiggle-Honda

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Danielle King (Wiggle-Honda)

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