World champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) is hoping to win his first race in the rainbow jersey on Saturday, at the spectacular Eroica race on the dirt roads of Tuscany.

The lanky classics rider has made the one-day Italian race his first goal of the 2009 season and it would be his first victory since winning the world title in Varese last September.

Ballan plans to carefully study the last 60km of the 190km race route on Friday morning in the hope of gaining an advantage on his biggest rivals.

Last year he finished second to Fabian Cancellara in the sprint in the centre of Siena after the two went clear on the steep penultimate section of dirt road. With Saxo Bank confirming to Cycling Weekly that Cancellara will not ride the Eroica due to a shoulder injury, Ballan?s biggest rival could be Tuscan rider Daniele Bennati (Liquigas).

?I was second last year but I want to do even better this time, Ballan told Italian web site Tuttobici.it.

?A lot will depend on the weather, if it rains things are going to get complicated. I?m going to mark Bennati, who I know pretty well and then Hincapie. I think they?re the favourites but the route makes it a wide open race.?

?I?ve started the season with some solid form. I almost won in Sardinia but I?ve been mainly working hard for my team mates. Hopefully they?ll help me in the Eroica.?

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SPILLS AND THRILLS ON THE DIRT ROADS
This year the Eroica is officially called the Montepaschi Strade Bianche Toscana, with 15 teams of eight riders set to line-up in the village of Gaiole in Chianti near Siena for the start of the race on Saturday morning.

The 190km route includes 60km (eight sections) of the white Tuscan dirt roads that separate the Chianti vineyards, olive groves and farm houses. The route heads towards Siena and then dives south for a loop in the hills. The dirt roads perhaps suit the classics riders who know how to ride on rough stuff but the constant climbing in the Tuscan hills will make it tough for everybody.

Several of the dirt roads also include climbs and descents that will test riders bike handling skills. Last year riders often ended up in the fields and ditches, with many taking their foot out of the pedals to make round sharp corners on off camber descents.

The weather in Tuscany has been wet all week but forecasts promise sun and 15 degrees for the race. Even if the sun does come out the dust of last year?s race will probably be replaced by mud, with riders likely to finish in the centre of Siena covered in white mask of pain and suffering.

BALLAN THE BIG FAVOURITE, CAVENDISH IN POWERFUL COLUMBIA TEAM
Ballan has the right mix of climbing ability, bike handling skills and fitness to win the Eroica. Also down to ride and definite contenders are Stuart O?Grady (Saxo Bank), Visconti Bennati (ISD), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Martijn Maaskant (Garmin), Gerald Ciolek (Milram) and perhaps recent winners in Italy Francesco Ginanni and Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre).

Mark Cavendish is part of a powerful Columbia team that also includes Edvald Boasson Hagen, George Hincapie and world time trial champion Bert Grabsch.

Roger Hammond (Cervelo) will get a taste of Italy?s rough roads after years of raving in Belgium. He will be joined by fellow Brit and team mate Daniel Lloyd, while Geraint Thomas rides for Barloworld and Ben Swift rides for Katusha.

There will be special coverage of the Eroica on cyclingweekly.co.uk on Saturday.

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