Cycling: Fabian Cancellara Wins at Strade Bianche as the Spring Classics Loom
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As the first race of the UCI WorldTour, January's Tour Down Under is the official beginning of the cycling year.
However it was Saturday's Strade Bianche, coming as it does on the eve of Paris-Nice and as the precursor to Tirreno-Adriatico later the following week, that felt more like the natural beginning of things.
It was an effect suitably enhanced by the late-winter glow warmly coloring Italy's romantic Tuscany region in the closing kilometres, the last whispers of a restful sleep before being sharply lurched into consciousness by the raucous enthusiasm of fans lining the historic streets of Siena.
The reality, of course, wasn't as poetically simple. By the time Fabian Cancellara was weaving his way to a solitary victory at Piazza Del Campo, he and his fellow riders had been going for over four hours.
Yet still, that transition from the quiet, picturesque surroundings to its sudden inhabiting by an anticipatory crowd feels as good a metaphor as any for a season that is about to get into full gear.
Cancellara was an apt victor from this perspective too. With the Swiss likely to feature prominently once more in the upcoming Spring Classics, his breakaway win was the first sign of his current form. It was a not too dissimilar replica of the style in which he won the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, the type of comprehensive performance he will be hopeful of repeating on a consistent basis in the coming months.
It certainly was a fine ride by the RadioShack-Nissan man. With about 10km to go, Cancellara made his move and sped away from a group consisting of Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan (both BMC), Farnese Vini's Oscar Gatto and Astana's Maxim Iglinsky, followed by teammate Roman Kreuziger.
The pursuers restored the gap to just 20 seconds at one point, but a comical wrong turn by Ballan saw the group's momentum dissipate, and Cancellara powered home unchallenged.
Cancellara's attentions now turn to the seven-stage Tirreno-Adriatico, beginning Wednesday. Joining him there will be big names like 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans, reigning World Champion Mark Cavendish and Philippe Gilbert.
Short and long-term objectives for the race will vary for these and the rest of the cyclists making up the peleton, but Gilbert will be of similar mindset to Cancellara in attempting to enjoy the best preparation possible for the several prestigious races looming ever closer in the distance.
The Belgian enjoyed a tremendous Spring last year, winning the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. It was the kind of success that eluded Cancellara in the same period, where despite going in as favourite for several races, he was unable to translate that into any victories for his then-new Leopard Trek outfit.
Running almost parallel to Tirreno-Adriatico this week is Paris-Nice, beginning Sunday with the first of eight stages.
The "Race to the Sun" boasts 10 of the top 15 in last year's Tour de France, including the newly crowned winner of the latter's 2010 edition, Andy Schleck.
Joining him are the likes of brother Fränk Schleck, Ivan Basso, Thomas Voeckler, Bradley Wiggins, Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen.
These are only a selection of the bigger names taking part and just a small indicator of the several interesting, prospective stories they and many others may be about to write in this race and across Europe in Italy.
The cycling season for 2012 is about to turn into full motion, and you would be smart to come along for the ride...
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