Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara were amongst those in the thick of things in Saturday's Strade Bianche.
The last major race to take place in Italy was the 2012 Giro Di Lombardia (won by Joaquim Rodriguez). The 'Race of the Falling Leaves' was contested in dreadfully dreary and wet conditions, that in hindsight, served as an ominous foreshadowing of a depressing few months cycling would soon suffer in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal.
Strade Bianche, the emerging classic of the European season, was Italy's first big event of 2013. Beautifully colored by the warmth of a Tuscan countryside's afternoon sunshine, Saturday's race felt like a world away from the gloom of months past. The timely recent thawing of the region's snowfall only served to further emphasize the escape from winter's pall.
Moreno Moser of the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team (up until last year, better known as Liquigas) proved victorious in the culmination of a compelling day's racing.
In its current form, the Strade Bianche only goes back as far as 2007 (though its roots as an amateur event begin a little earlier), but it has quickly established itself as a popular feature of the early spring calendar.
Although not backed by the history and tradition of the one-day classics that follow over the next couple of months, it possesses qualities that ensure it is not out of place in their company.
Not entirely dissimilar to the famous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, Strade Bianche's course includes several sections of sterrati. These gravelly white dirt roads (a well-traveled feature of the Italian countryside) are not as treacherous a feature as the "Hell of the North's" cobbled roads, but are to be ridden carefully nonetheless.
They become more difficult when coupled with the testing (and occasionally rather steep) climbs that play a predominant role in the last 25 kilometers of the race. It was here that Moser made his move, leaving an already-splintered main group behind to join Juan Antonio Flecha in his pursuit of the day's breakaway remnants.
Vacansoleil-DCM's brave Spaniard had plowed a lonely furrow in chase of the front riders but soon got left behind, unable to resist Moser's youthful aggression. Michael Schar of BMC had split the lead men with his efforts, but that only resulted in Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling) being dropped so far as to provide Moser with helpful pair of legs that ultimately helped claw back the gap between them.
Behind this, attempts were being made by two-time winner Fabian Cancellara to engineer some race-saving momentum as proceedings entered the slightly less picturesque outskirts of Siena.
The Radioshack-Leopard man, along with the likes of Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) had been attempting to make a move for the previous few kilometers. It did not work, partly thanks to the work of Moser's antagonistic Cannondale teammate Peter Sagan. The Slovakian was a menace they could not shake.
Moser made his final move within the 2km, using the steep incline within the walls of Siena's historic center to finally pull away as Cancellara and Co. were catching up. The man with one of Italian cycling's most famous names (his uncle was classics great Francesco Moser) had recorded his best victory in his fledgling professional career. Sagan finished second in a superb day's work for Cannondale.
Both will be among the names lining up in Tirreno-Adriatico, the week-long race beginning on Wednesday. Several others who took part in Strade Bianche will be competing including Cancellara and Cadel Evans (BMC).
Other big names on the start list include 2012 winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Chris Froome (Sky), as well as sprint stars Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma - Quick-Step) and Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol).
A few days prior to this, Sunday sees the beginning of Paris-Nice. The "Race to the Sun" will be without last year's winner Bradley Wiggins, but will not short of big names and exciting riders either—rainbow-jersey wearer Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and French national treasure Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) are among those lining up for the race-starting prologue.
The cycling season begins in earnest with these stage races. Strade Bianche was an entertaining, and most welcome, curtain-raiser.