Tadej Pogacar and Julian Alaphilippe will do battle on Saturday as a trio of Italian cycling races over the next two weeks begins with the Strade Bianche.
Tour de France champion Pogacar comes into the one-day race in Tuscany after retaining his UAE Tour title and will lead the pack in the absence of some high-profile previous winners.
The Slovenian has ridden the race each year since joining UAE Team Emirates in 2019 and is targeting the classics this year with Milan-San Remo, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders all on his schedule this spring.
Neither last year’s winner Mathieu van der Poel nor previous champion Wout van Aert are taking part in this year’s race, which starts and finishes in Siena and takes riders over 184 kilometres of hilly terrain in central Tuscany characterised by the white gravel roads of the Crete Senesi.
Van Aert won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on the same day as Pogacar claimed victory in the UAE, meaning the Slovenian has one less person to worry about.
Belgian Van Aert is taking part in Paris-Nice while Van der Poel is yet to return to competition after pulling out of January’s cyclo-cross world championships with a back problem.
Pogacar will be leading UAE in the Tirreno-Adriatico — which he won last year — when the seven-day race starts on Monday as the calendar runs towards the Milan-San Remo in two weeks’ time.
The 23-year-old told the Gazzetta Dello Sport in December that he was aiming “to be in good form” by the time the Italy’s major spring classic rolls around on March 19.
One of the other riders to watch is rising star Thomas Pidcock, who took advantage of Van Aert and Van der Poel’s absence to win the cyclo-cross worlds.
However Pogacar’s main rival will surely be reigning world champion Alaphilippe, winner of the Strade Bianche in 2019 and runner-up behind Van der Poel last year.
The Frenchman has experience on the dusty track and has shown over his long career to be a consistent threat in one-day races.
Quick-Step rider Alaphilippe won the points jersey at the recent Tour de la Provence, finishing second in the overall standings to Nairo Quintana.
Also lining up on Saturday are 2018 winner Tiesj Benoot, Romain Bardet, Alejandro Valverde, and Jakob Fuglsang, a former mountain bike racer who has the natural skills to take on a harsh, dusty course.
Israel–Premier Tech rider Fuglsang was in the mix in the 2020 edition but wilted in the August heat to finish fifth. However with cooler early conditions awaiting him in Siena the 36-year-old is a threat, even to Pogacar.