Saturday, March 31, 2012

Favorites for Ronde van Vlaanderen

Finally. I think that’s the most fitting word for a preview of this amazing race. I don’t need to write why Ronde van Vlaanderen is such a fantastic race, reading this blog, you obviously know quite a bit about cycling already.

Instead let’s take a look at the riders who are going to animate the race this Sunday.

Fabian Cancellara
If you want to bet on this race, you better bet on Fabian. For me he is the biggest favorite. He may not always ride very smart tactically, but you simply can’t ignore the fact that he is the strongest rider in the bunch. The race is extra hard this year with difficult laps ending with Paterberg so the chances of an ‘early’ breakaway with ‘secondary riders’ to stay away are very low. I think a small group of maximum 10 riders will get away in the last part of the race and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Cancellara just said good bye to the rest of the favorites like in Strade Bianche and went solo without even attacking. As you can see I feel pretty confident picking Spartacus as winner of Ronde van Vlaanderen 2012.

Sep Vanmarcke
If you watched Dwars door Vlaandere and E3 Harelbeke you saw Sep Vanmarcke being one of, if not the strongest rider in the peloton. Everytime one of the favorites tried to attack, Vanmarcke was the first rider to follow. Vanmarcke has already shown he can stay with the favorites – and beat them – when he outsprinted Tom Boonen and won Omloop and if he shows same strength on Sunday as he has been showing the last couple of weeks he should be a strong candidate for the podium!

Tom Boonen
I said it back in December last year I still stand by those words. Tom Boonen is back! He has the strongest team - without any doubts whatsoever - and he can outsprint any of the other favorites if it should come down to a sprint. So why isn’t he my number one favorite? Because of his (lack of) tactical sense. Boonen often tends to show off too much and waste a lot of energies early in the race or he ends up working too hard in the end. He made that mistake in Omloop and he paid for it. I would be happy to see Tom Boonen win Ronde van Vlaanderen once again, but against Cancellara, who hungers for revenge from last year, I really have my doubts.

Matti Breschel
Another great rider who is back again is Matti Breschel. Being one of the strongest riders in 2010 “dancing, almost whistling up the hills” (words of Gilbert) his 2011-season got ruined by one injury after the other. Matti showed in Volta Algarve that his sprinting legs are back in shape and in Milano – San Remo he was just a few meters short of joining the winning trio on Poggio. In E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem he seems to miss the last few percentages on the hills but still managed to get 11th and 3rd in the final sprint. Matti Breschel knows how important it is for Rabobank finally go get a big win this season and normally he works very well under pressure. I think (and hope) he will able to stay with the best on Sunday and even though he may not win, top5 should be a safe bet.

Björn Leukemans
Last up among my personal favorites and outsiders for the win in Ronde van Vlaanderen is Björn Leukemans. Vacansoleil-DCM has been outstanding this season and if they can take that with them to the cobblestone classics, team leader Björn Leukemans is a man to watch out for. Last year he was great with top10 in all four Sunday-classics and that even despite having a lot of bad luck. Leukemans recently said he is living like a munch the last weeks up to the big races. Sleeping alone, going to bed hungry and not inviting his friends around if they are just remotely close to getting sick. “I don’t have the talent like Cancellara and Boonen so I have to do everything else that I can”, he explained. In E3 Harelbeke he made the front group with Cancellara, Boonen, Pozzato and Vanmarcke and that shows the shape is there. I don’t expect Leukemans to win this race, but like with Matti Breschel, I think he is good pick for a top5 spot.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Exceptional authorization

Yesterday we learned that Alexander Kolobnev could come back riding for Katusha, despite the Russian team not having any space for him with a full roster. UCI made a so-called "exceptional authorization" and now Kolobnev is free to ride as soon as he is fully recovered from his injury.

I was joking about it with a good friend of mine ending up with him sending me this fake screen play about how UCI President Pat McQuaid went from hunting down Kolobnev to letting him return on a exceptional authorization.

I wasn't really sure about uploading this one, but hey let's have some fun! Look at this as an early April Fool's Day story - I promise they won't be any from me on Sunday with Ronde van Vlaanderen going on.

[Press the BLUE download button in order to download]

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Look out for Luke

Another time trial victory could end up
giving Luke Durbridge the overall win
in this year's Driedaagse De Panne.
Australian young-gun, Luke Durbridge, made his European season debut in Driedaagse De Panne today (Tuesday) and despite not having been racing on the road since Tour Down Under, he showed great shape and managed to stay in the front group. That means that current Australian & U-23 World Champion now has great chances of getting a good overall result in the Belgian stage race.

Both the second and third stage will most likely end up in a mass sprint and that means that the GC will be set on the time trial the final day. 14,7 km in De Panne should be perfect for Luke Durbridge and according to team manager Matt White it could very well end up with yet another overall win for GreenEDGE.

“There is no reason why he won't win the time trial. It's made for him. As long as he gets through the other stages alive, he'll be fine”, White told cyclingnews before the race started.

To me the big favorite for the overall win in Driedaagse De Panne is still Lieuwe Westra, being one of the absolute strongest on stage1, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Luke Durbrdige managed to take a podium spot in his first professional European race ever.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

No luck for Team Saxo Bank

It really doesn't seem like Team Saxo Bank will ever catch a break. In their fight for crucial UCI points they came to Volta Catalunya with a strong team lead by Dani Navarro, Jesus Hernandez and Chris Anker Sørensen. All strong riders for a hilly stage race but apparently nothing goes how it supposed to for the Danish team. Hernandez withdrew early with a muscle injury, Navarro never recovered from his illness and did the same and when Chris Anker Sørensen finally got in the right breakaway and looked to move up in the classification, the race organizers decided to get everybody the same time.

For Team Saxo Bank every UCI point counts if they want to keep their license and naturally they weren't satisfied with the race organizers' decision. After the stage they planned a meeting the next morning to hand in an official complain, but again something got in their way.
Team Saxo Bank bus and team car this morning.
Photo by: Laura Meseguer
As the picture by Spanish journalist Laura Meseguer shows, the snowy conditions didn't allow Team Saxo Bank to get down from the mountain to meet with the race orginazers. Therefore an official complain about yesterday's decision were never given by the Danish team.

The only positive thing for Team Saxo Bank is that Chris Anker Sørensen got the mountain jersey yesterday so at least they have one positive memory from Volta Catalunya. Time will tell if they will get more from the remaining stages.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Volta Catalunya 2012

With just a few hours to the start of this year's Volta Catalunya here is a quick preview of the race.

Without a time trial in and with a lot of uphill sections Alejandro Valverde is of course the number one favorite. He has a great team around him with Moreno, Pardilla, Arroyo, Quintana etc. and it will take a real climber like Daniel Martin or Robert Gesink to beat him in the overall classification. Samuel Sanches is another rider with a good chance in the GC, same goes for Janez Brajkovic. Astana actually expect the Slovenian to fight for the overall win here.

I don't have much time to dig in any deeper about the favorites, so I figured I would give you my pre-top10 for the GC instead. Here you go:

1. Valverde
2. Gesink
3. Samu
4. Martin
5. Brajkovic
6. Andy
7. Cunego
8. Van den Broeck
9. Uran
10. Navarro

As always I would like to mention a few jokers for the GC. First up is the French youngster Thibout Pinot who climbs very well and aims high on this race. Pinot has a lot of strong riders around him and if he is ready he should be able to fight for a top10 spot, maybe even more. Second joker is Nairo Quintana. He won Vuelta a Murcia thanks to his performances in the mountains and even though he will have to help his team mate Alejandro Valverde, I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up getting a good result for himself as well.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Favorites for Milano - San Remo

It feels good to be back again, even though I’m just relaxing on the couch recovering without much to do. I have had some time to catch up on the last days though and I feel pretty confident stating the following riders as my favorites for Saturday’s Milano - San Remo.

As always there are two scenarios; mass sprint or break away on Poggio. Therefore I have divided my favorites into two categories. Here they are:

Break away:
Nibali attacking with
2 km to go in 2010.
One of the strongest riders uphill right now is Vincenzo Nibali. Ever since San Luis in Argetina, Nibali have been showing great condition and his overall win in Tirreno-Adriatico proved he is probably the best pick for break away win in San Remo. The last two years Nibali has tried to get away on the descent from Poggio but even though his skills on the downhill sections are amazing he has never been able to stay away. Personally I think that if Nibali tries to attack already on Poggio, stronger and more powerfull than he did last year, and get a gap before the descent he will be close to impossible to catch again. It will require head wind and a sprinter with at least 3 team mates in the peloton to rail him back as I see it.

Cancellara's solo win in 2008.
One of the only riders who would be able to follow Nibali on the descent is Fabian Cancellara. He has been in shape since Tour of Qatar and he only gets better and better now. In Strade Bianche he went solo without even attacking, he simply just set up the pace a bit. I doubt Cancellara will have any difficulties following the strongest on Poggio and even if so, he shouldn’t be too far off when they start the on descent. Cancellara knows what it takes to win Milano - San Remo and after his recent performances he must be named as one of the big favorites.

Mass sprint:
Cavendish' photo-finish win in 2009.
The number one favorite, should the peloton reach the finishing line together, is Mark Cavendish. No doubts about that. In January Cavendish said he felt as good as in 2009 when he won the race and looking at his team this year you’ll find Eisel, Löfkvist and Hagen to support Cavendish just like they did in 2009. Milano - San Remo is a huge goal for Mark Cavendish this year. According to his team mates all he talks about is winning this race in the rainbow colors and if he manage to stay in front on Poggio I’m pretty sure he will repeat his win from 2009 – without letting get as close as back then.

Freire made it look easy with his third
Milano-San Remo victory in 2010.
There is one sprinter you just can’t count out  no matter what. Oscar Freire! The former multiple World Champion has won Milano – San Remo not just once or twice, but three times already. He surprised a lot of people when he did it in 2010 and this year he seems to be even stronger. Freire has confirmed that the 2012-season will be the last in his glorious career and what better way of saying good bye that start out winning one of the biggest races of them all. Freire showed in Tour Down Under and Vuelta Andalucía that he still knows how to win mass sprints and he even came very close to beating Mark Cavendish in Tirreno-Adriatico. Freire is strong on the hills and he is experienced enough to know where to be when it counts. If Oscar Freire is in first group when the peloton gets to San Remo I would be very surprised not to see him in the top3 at least.

No fun without a couple of jokers, so here we go. First up is Marco Marcato. A lot of people may have forgotten this, but Marcato actually had a real chance of winning Milano - San Remo last year. Being the only other fast guy in the front group after Poggio, Marcato crashed on the descent and never managed to get back to the front. This year Marco Marcato seems to be stronger than ever before and after having worked hard on his sprint in the winter season, I think Marcato could be right up there among the best riders on Saturday.

Being as close as only Zabel has been to winning Milano - San Remo, Heinrich Haussler was denied the win by Mark Cavendish in 2009. Ever since Haussler has only been “close” to winning big races. Nevertheless he is always in the mix when the winner has to be found. To me it seems like Haussler is in good enough shape right now to pull off a top performance again this time and if it comes down to a sprint, he is definitely a rider to watch.

Other names for a mass sprint is Andre Greipel and Tom Boonen while Alessandro Ballan and Matti Breschel are good picks in a break away group.

Update: A lot of people is already asking why Peter Sagan isn't on the list. Well, of course Sagan has a real chance of winning Milano-San Remo but so many things need to go his way. If it comes down to a sprint, Sagan most likely needs to beat Cavendish, Greipel, Freire etc - can he do that? If not, he has to get away on Poggio and as I said, I think that is Nibali's only chance. Of course if something happens to Nibali, Sagan can play his cards on Poggio, but a lot of things really need to Sagan's way in order to win this race.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The one with the rifle shoots!

It's a new world at Team Saxo Bank. Alberto Contador is out until August and that means the Danish team now needs to find another rider ready - and able - to step up and try to fill Contador's shoes. Seems like Mission Impossible right?

And if we stay in this movie-theme, I think a specific scene from Enemy at the Gates actually fits the situation very well. Preparing for battle the Soviet officers are given out one rifle per two men with the second man getting a clip of ammunition.

Handing out the rifles the officer says: "The one without a rifle, follows him with one! When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one who is following picks up the rifle and shoots!"

Alberto Contador has been sidelined so now it's time for the second guard to pick up the rifle. Riders like Dani Navarro, Jesus Hernandez, Chris Anker Sørensen and the Polish youngster Rafal Majka, who is set to the team in the Giro, all have potentials to do great things and now it's time to show it.

At Team Saxo Bank they feel the cold wall against their back these days, but that doesn't mean they give up. "We have certain expectations that they [the mentioned riders above] have the class to bring in results", Team Saxo Bank PR-manager Anders Damgaard tells me.

Navarro working hard on the climbs
for  team lader Contador last year.
No one expect a rider like Dani Navarro to win the Tour, of course not, but according to Navarro himself the chances of an overall top10 place isn't that far off. "If I don't have to help out Alberto I could try to go for a top10 spot myself, even though it would be hard", Dani Navarro told back in December last year. Especially the one-week stage races are a good chance for the strong Spaniard to show himself. "If I could get my own chance in those races, I could do top5 or top10", Navarro claims.

So far Dani Navarro already showed his class in Tour Méditerranéen where he ended 3rd overall after a good performance on the mountain stage where he took 2nd after season sensation Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. In the ongoing Paris-Nice, Navarro was in the first group on stage two, but got caught up in the crash. He lost the GC that day, but has been showing good signs, especially in the uphill section,s ever since. I wouldn't be surprised if he ends off with a great performance on Col d'Eze the last stage, even though time trialing isn't one of his strong suits.

Jesus Hernandez is a bit of a mystery. In training he is one of the absolute strongest uphill, just ask Lance Armstrong, but as soon as he gets that race number on, something changes. He is 100% dedicated to his captain, that often being his best friend Alberto Contador, and it seems difficult for him to change focus and try his own luck. Even with Contador sidelined Jesus Hernandez admits that he by instinct still looks for him in the peloton to see how he is and if he needs something.

Jesus Hernandez as always just
next to team mate and friend Contador.
In the past Jesus Hernandez has done top20 in the Vuelta España and the one day he tried to go in a breakaway he managed to take 8th on stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia last year. Jesus Hernandez has the potential of doing big things in the mountains, for himself, and if Bjarne Riis [and Alberto Contador for that matter] can get him to understand that and believe in that, I think he could take home a beautiful mountain stage win in the Tour de France.

Just yesterday Jesus Hernandez came back home from a mini training camp with Alberto Contador, who according to himself is doing better in tests than ever before, and it sounds like Jesus Hernandez is getting in pretty good condition for the up-coming races. "Training with him [Alberto Contador] is harder than the races", he wrote on Twitter.

Chris Anker Sørensen taking his first
Grand Tour stage win in the Giro 2010.
Chris Anker Sørensen has for a long time been a huge talent in the mountains and to be fair he has already taking great stage wins in races like Giro d'Italia and Dauphine Libéré, as well as coming very close in the Vuelta España. Still it never seems to work out for Chris Anker in the Tour de France. Now he has the chance to change that!

At the team presentation last year Chris Anker Sørensen said that he saw himself at the same level as Chris Froome [sensational 2nd overall in the Vuelta España last year] and if he can prove that on the road, the Danish climber could reach new highs this year.

Last up is Rafal Majka. According to Bjarne Riis the team has a plan for the young Polish rider in the Giro this year with hopes of a good place in the overall classification. Last time Riis had a similar plan was when Andy Schleck ended 2nd in the Giro d'Italia. Majka did very well last year in his first pro-season and at the team presentation he said that he think he has good time trial skills as well as strong climbing legs on the long steady climbs. It's difficult to know what to expect from Rafal Majka in the Giro this year, but don't be surprised if this Polish youngster ends up fighting for a spot in the top10.

It's time to pick up the rifle and shoot!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Favorites for Tirreno-Adriatico

The other big stage race in March, Tirreno-Adriatico, is ready for us now and we have a great fight between a handful or strong riders to look forward to.

Let’s get straight to it...

Vincenzo Nibali
My own personal favorite for the race. Nibali has been good all year long and showed his strong climbing legs in Tour of Oman when he won on Green Mountain. In Strade Bianche last weekend he was among the best riders as well and with a strong team to back him I think he has very good chances of finally winning Tirreno-Adriatico. Liquigas always perform well in the team time trials and with a real mountain stage on the menu this year (final climb of 15 km on stage5) and a short time trial to end the race, I can’t see anyone better than Vincenzo Nibali right now.

Roman Kreuziger
Kreuziger has only a few race days in the legs so far, but one of his big goals of the season is Tirreno-Adriatico. In Strade Bianche Kreuziger was very strong making the final group and working hard for Iglinskiy, so it seems like he is ready. Kreuziger is very good in the short time trials as well as in the mountains and the short, steep finishes with his powerful sprint. Astana may not have the best team for the team time trial on day 1, but they shouldn’t lose that much either. Kreuziger isn’t afraid of attacking when needed and I think he is a solid pick for the podium.

Peter Velits
Another solid podium pick is Peter Velits. Just like Kreuziger, Velits has red circled Tirreno on the calendar and with his overall win in Tour of Oman and great time trial abilities (strong team as well) he should be mentioned as one of favorites to win Tirreno-Adriatico. The steep finishes like the ones in Chieti and Offida suit Velits well and if he can hang on to the best riders on the final climb on stage5, he has a very good chance of overall success.

Cadel Evans
It would be a mistake not to mention Cadel Evans. He won the race last year, without having done much before, and is more or less in the same situation this year. I must admit I have my doubts though. BMC hasn’t been great so far this year, with all their big riders now knowing they don’t have to top too early. Last year Cadel Evans really needed an overall stage race win, but know he knows what he is capable of. He will be motivated, no doubt, and he has a great team to support him, but I’m not sure he is as strong as Vincenzo Nibali on the climbs just yet.

Michele Scarponi
With only one race day in 2012, Michele Scarponi is a big question mark on my paper for Tirreno-Adriatico. In good shape he could end up winning it, but to be honest I have my doubt with Lampre captain. Last year he took third place overall, 15 seconds behind Cadel Evans, but last year he had already shown great shape in Giro di Sardegna. The course is actually pretty good for Scarponi but like Evans I doubt he is good enough shape to win overall already. He can take a stage, sure, but for the long run I see Nibali and Velits as better contenders.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Favorites for Paris-Nice

This year's route for Paris-Nice.
The first big important stage race of the season is finally here. A lot of hilly stages and two time trials, the last one on Col d’Eze, make it difficult to pick out one grand favorite, simply because there are so many contenders this time.

One could argue that the course favors riders like Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins, but with steep stages finishes like the one on Mende, suddenly Alejandro Valverde becomes the favorite – or what? Here is my view on the favorites for Paris-Nice 2012.

Winner candidates
I’m changing the set-up for my usual “Favorites”-pieces a bit, so instead of picking out three guys I will let you know which riders I see have a possible change of winning the race. First of those is naturally Alejandro Valverde. He was super strong in Andalucía and even though the peloton is stronger in Paris-Nice, I still find three stages with a finish perfect for Valverde. Remember there are 10 bonus seconds for each stage win. Before his ban Valverde had developed some pretty good time trial skills and I know he has been working hard on improving in this discipline during his ban. Still I doubt he is back at his former level against the clock and compared to some of the other strong riders, I think he will lose valuable time on the last stage.

One of the guys Valverde will lose time to is Bradley Wiggins. The British champion did an outstanding job in Volta ao Algarve, working hard for Richie Porte on the mountain stage and beating Tony Martin while winning the time trial. In February Wiggins said he was feeling stronger than ever before this time at year and if he can keep track of Valverde and minimize the gap on Mende he has a very good change of taking his first big stage race win.

Tony Martin won the race last year, but that was mainly because of his class in the long time trial. This year the two time trials both count less than 10 km and the climbing part definitely doesn’t favor Tony Martin compared to Wiggins and the others. Tony Martin still did well in Volta ao Algarve and if a dog hadn’t crossed the road in the time trial, making Tony Martin hit the brakes, I’m sure he would have won that stage. That means the shape is good and even though he may not win Paris-Nice this year, you mustn’t count him out too early.

Now it’s getting interesting, because here is my joker for the overall win; Rein Taaramae! Everyone following me know I have high expectations for Taaramae this year, but so does he. “I’m here to win, nothing else. The course suits me very well and the short, hilly time trials are in my favor. The whole team is working for me and I think I can win” – that’s not Valverde, Wiggins or Martin saying this, but Estonian Rein Taaramae – look out for him! I will honestly be very surprised if Taaramae doesn’t end on the final podium and from there everything is possible!

Another outsider for the overall win is Janez Brajkovic. The Astana captain hasn’t many race kilometers in the legs so far this year but this is a course that really suits the Slovenian. Brajkovic is good against the clock and on his best days he can stay with the top-climbers as well. Anything but a spot on the final podium with Janez Brajkovic would be a lack of ambitions from the Astana team and if Brajkovic is ready, I think he could surprise quite a few with an early season win.

Last rider on my paper with the status “winner candidate” next to him is Andreas Klöden. It may be a conservative pick, but Klöden is always good in Paris-Nice and the two time trials are very good for him. He knows Col d’Eze extremely well and if he rides like last year, he will be difficult to shake off. My only concern is that Klöden wasn’t very good in Volta ao Algarve last month, but if he is back at his normal “early-season-level” he should be a strong contender for the overall win too.

Well, that was my 6 winner candidates. I could go on with guys like Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer, Richie Porte, Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel who all are great in the time trials and the uphill sections, but I had to stop somewhere. So to make a long story short, if possible at this point, here is how I think the final Top10 will be:

1. Rein Taaramae
2. Bradley Wiggins
3. Alejandro Valverde
4. Janez Brajkovic
5. Andreas Klöden
6. Tony Martin
7. Tejay Van Garderen
8. Jerome Coppel
9. Bauke Mollema
10. Richie Porte

I picked out Oscar Gatto as a surprising winner of Strade Bianche and I keep on with the surprises in taking Rein Taaramae to win Paris-Nice. Oscar Gatto almost pulled it off, hadn’t it been for an outstanding Fabian Cancellara. Let’s see if Rein Taaramae has more luck. Many pick Alejandro Valverde as their favorite, but as I said, I still doubt his time trial skills a little bit. One thing is training another is racing and Alejandro Valverde hasn’t really been racing many time trials recently. Still, if his old time trial abilities are intact, of course he is the number one favorite to win Paris-Nice.

It’s going be a very close race this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if only seconds separate the three riders on the final podium.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Favorites for Strade Bianche

On Saturday we swap out the cobblestones in Belgium with white gravel roads in Italy. Montepaschi Strade Bianche (former Eroica) is on the menu and I think that we for once will get an Italian winner. Let's take a look at the favorites:

Oscar Gatto
Gatto's stage win in the Giro last year.
This may come as a surprise for many, but in my opinion Oscar Gatto is one of the strongest riders, taking part in the race, right now. Over the years he has been going from being "just a sprinter" to being good on the small hills and also on these gravel roads. He showed that last year in the Giro d'Italia taking 5th place on the stage to Orvieto on gravel roads and winning in Tropea i front of Contador after attacking on the final steep hill. In Strade Bianche last year Gatto tried to attack with Greg Van Avermaet in the final, but got railed back in again. Despite been on the attack he still managed to take 7th after Gilbert. If you look at Oscar Gattos recently results you may not be impressed, but I think it was clear to all who watched Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last Sunday, that the little Italian is very strong right now. He also showed that in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad being in the group sprinting for 4th place. According to Oscar Gatto himself Strade Bianche is one of his top goals this season and without Gilbert in the same shape as last year, I honestly think Gatto can pull it off!

Alessandro Ballan
Ballan on gravel roads.
I said we would get an Italian winner and that is mainly because I see Alessandro Ballan as the second favorite for the race. Ballan took second place last year after messing up the last corner giving Gilbert a two meters gap. As I said, Gilbert is not as strong this early compared to last year, and therefore I think that Ballan very well could end up being the designated leader at BMC. Ballan started his season already in Tour Down Under and has been steadily improving ever since. In Omloop Het Nieuwsblad he worked hard in the peloton to catch the break away when team mate Thor Hushovd got dropped and in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne he was one of most active guys in the big break with Tom Boonen (and Oscar Gatto). Alessandro Ballan has been 2nd in Strade Bianche twice already and I expect him to be on the podium this year as well.

Vincenzo Nibali
Nibali in the rosa working for Basso
on the muddy gravel roads in the Giro.
Another Italian rider? Indeed. Even though Liquigas have Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss on the team as well, I think this race suits Nibali the best. If you remember the epic Giro-stage in 2010 on gravel roads (won by Cadel Evans), Vincenzo Nibali was the one keeping his team leader Ivan Basso in the race, by an outstanding amount of work to minimize the gap to the front group. Nibali was flying that day and last year, on the stage to Orvieto,he took 6th place (right after Gatto). Another important factor not to forget is that Strade Bianche ends with a 300 meters downhill section with a lot of tricky corners (where Ballan lost the race last year) and that is definitely something Vincenzo Nibali masters better than anyone else.

I could actually go on with Italian riders among the candidates to the win. Giovanni Visconti and Simone Ponzi come to mind, like Enrico Gasparotto and young Enrico Battaglin. If I should point out a few foreigners though I think I would go with Ryder Hesjedal who loves this race and the Spanish veteran Patxi Vila who is aiming big at Strade Bianche this season. Talking favorites it may be shameful to not mention Fabian Cancellara, but for Cancellara the goals are coming later in the season. I think Radioshack will try with youngster Tony Gallopin and sprinter Daniele Bennati.