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For the third time in 10 years, Fabian Cancellara is the winner of Strade Bianche.
Outnumbered in the winning move by Etixx-QuickStep riders Gianluca Brambilla and defending champion Zdenek Stybar, with world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) rounding out the group, Cancellara chased down several attacks before launching on the final steep climb into Siena.
The win was far from assured, as Cancellara caught Brambilla with 250 meters to go, and held off Stybar, who followed his wheel but could not come around the Trek-Segafredo rider in the final righthand turn at 150 metres to go.
“I’m really, really happy,” said Cancellara, who is retiring after the 2016 season. “I tried not to give Brambilla too much gap, and I kept trying until the end.”
If Trek-Segafredo was the day’s big winner, Etixx was left wondering what might have been, taking second and third with Stybar and Brambilla. And though it was a valiant effort from the Italian, who had ridden off the front in the day’s main breakaway, Stybar could only accept that he’d been beaten by a stronger rider.
Saturday’s race was the 10th edition of Strade Bianche, a 176km race across the white gravel roads of the Chianti region in Tuscany, starting and finishing in the medieval city of Siena.
There is no other race in pro racing quite like Strade Bianche, which delivers a twisty and undulating course, with no long climbs but countless punchy hills, most notably on unpaved sections. The 176km route offers 53km of gravel roads, appearing in nine sectors.
It was a windy and cool — and at times damp — edition of Strade Bianche, but the foul weather that had been in the forecast never quite delivered.
With 50km to go, a four-man breakaway held a 1:10 lead over the main bunch. In the move were Brambilla, American Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), Maxime Monfort (Lotto-Soudal), and Russian Grivko (Astana).
Leading the main bunch were Movistar and Sky, riding for Alejandro Valverde and Michal Kwiatkowski, respectively. Along with Cancellara, Sagan, and Stybar, other favorites in the main bunch included Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Diego Ulissi (Lampre), and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal)
For a while, Sky’s Lars Petter Nordhaug rode in no-man’s land, 43 seconds behind the four and 30 seconds ahead of the main bunch.
With 25km to go, Brambilla and Bookwalter slipped away from Monfort and Grivko at Monteaperti, the seventh of nine gravel sections.
Kwiatkowski attacked from the chase group while Brambilla rode away from Bookwalter at the front. Unfortunately for Sky, at the same time that Kwiatkowski attacked, his teammate Salvatore Pucci was sidelined with a third puncture on the day.
The winning move formed on the uphill Colle Pinzuto, the eighth of nine gravel sections, when Sagan attacked. Stybar chased onto Sagan’s wheel, followed by Cancellara, and the three bridged to Brambilla to form a front group of four with 18km remaining.
Favorites who missed the move included Van Avermaet, Nibali, Kwiatkowski, Benoot, and Valverde. Marking that group was Etixx rider Petr Vakoc.
With Nibali struggling, Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang went to the front of the chase group and set out on his own, though no one followed, and his move was brought to heel.
At 14km to go, and looking to split apart the group before the steep final climb, Cancellara put in a strong acceleration. Stybar reacted, with Sagan on his wheel. Brambilla, while struggling, kept contact.
The gap between the front four and the chase group was just 13 seconds with 12km remaining as Nibali was shed from the main bunch.
BMC had Van Avermaet and Daniel Oss in the chase group, but with most other teams down to one rider in the group, the chase was not well organized.
At 10km to go, Stybar attacked, with Cancellara taking up the chase. Brambilla then attacked at 8km to go, forcing Cancellara to chase as Stybar sat on. Cancellara’s effort dropped Stybar, who then took to Sagan’s wheel.
Those in the chase group behind included Valverde, Vakoc, Ulissi, Van Avermaet, Nordhaug, Fuglsang, and Benoot.
At 6km Brambilla attacked again, opening up a 10-second advantage. Cancellara and Sagan took up the chase, with Brambilla’s lead about five seconds at 3km to go.
Brambilla was still alone on the front at the bottom of the climb, nursing an eight-second gap with 1500 metres to go. He remained alone 900m from the finish line, where the route passes beneath Fontebranda Gate and the road turns to paving slabs.
For a moment it looked as though Brambilla might stay clear, but Cancellara timed his attack perfectly. Sagan could not react, and with Stybar on his wheel, Cancellara caught and passed Brambilla on the steep, 16% gradient of Via Santa Caterina.
“I attacked relentlessly, went full gas, but eventually I got tired after being all day at the front, and got caught with 200 meters to go,” said Brambilla. “I can’t say I lost the race, as Fabian was very strong. Of course I am sad because we didn’t land the win, but I am happy for being at the front with such big champions.”
At 150m from the line, Cancellara led into the right turn onto Via Rinaldini. It was Stybar’s last chance before he entered the Piazza del Campo, just 70m from the finish line, but Stybar was unable to come around. By the time they hit the 30m descent to the finish line, Cancellara was able to post up, holding three fingers in the air to signify his hat-trick at the Italian semi-classic.
“This day is special,” Cancellara said. “I had to play my best cards. I’m speechless. I knew that I couldn’t let Brambilla get too far ahead, despite Etixx-Quick Step outnumbering me. I used my experience and confidence to leave it to the very end. It’s because I know myself very well. To win it for the third time means that I have made history as I’ll now have my name on a gravel road. I put my mark in Siena forever. It makes me happy.”
Sagan finished fourth, at four seconds. Vakoc finished fifth, 34 seconds behind Cancellara, to give Etixx three riders in the top five.
“The last corner is a key of the race, and we had confirmation of this today,” Stybar said. “I tried to overtake Fabian, but he was too strong and didn’t let me in. I’m not ashamed to lose to Cancellara.”
CANCELLARA Fabian CANCELLARA Fabian Trek - Segafredo
|Trek - Segafredo||04:39:35|
ŠTYBAR Zdeněk ŠTYBAR Zdeněk Etixx - Quick Step
|Etixx - Quick Step||0:00|
BRAMBILLA Gianluca BRAMBILLA Gianluca Etixx - Quick Step
|Etixx - Quick Step||0:04|