Cannondale took the Strade Bianche race apart piece by piece, deploying strong riders with intelligent tactics, and were rewarded with a one-two, with Moreno Moser winning ahead of Peter Sagan in Siena

Words by Edward Pickering

Saturday March 2, 2013

There was a moment, inside the last 10 kilometres of Strade Bianche which summed up how the balance of power in cycling has inexorably tipped against Fabian Cancellara.

The race situation at that point was that a leading quartet – Moreno Moser of Cannondale, Michael Schär of BMC, Aleksejs Saramotins of IAM and Maxim Belkov of Katusha – were half a minute clear of what remained of the peloton. As Cancellara, the two-times winner of this race, made a scything acceleration up a draggy road on the outskirts of Siena, he was immediately followed by Moser’s team-mate Peter Sagan, who sat on the Swiss rider’s wheel, riding along in an upright position, his hands on the brake hoods.

The two riders were reprising that instant at the end of stage one of last year’s Tour de France when Cancellara attacked hard up the final climb in Seraing, only for Peter Sagan to follow, sit in, then outsprint him and win the stage.

When Cancellara turned around, he would have known that Strade Bianche was over for him. And perhaps also his time as an automatic favourite for the Classics. Cannondale knew who their strongest rival was in Strade Bianche, but they also knew his Achilles’ heels: Cancellara’s weak Radioshack team, and his one-dimensional tactics.

The Italian team took responsibility for chasing the early break, an arrowhead of six lime green-clad riders pulling the peloton through stunning Tuscan scenery, then sent a strong decoy – Moreno Moser – up the road in the final phase of the race, knowing that all Sagan had to do was sit on any attempted pursuit, with the uphill finish suiting him perfectly. Either Moser would stay away, or he would be chased down, and Sagan could clean up on the final climb. In the end, both happened, for a one-two which was a warning shot over the bows of their rivals ahead of Milan-San Remo and the Classics.

But it wasn’t simple. Though Cannondale’s tactics were spot-on, the outcome of the race hung in the balance throughout an impossibly tense and absorbing finale. Moser’s three passengers, having been away for the whole day before the Italian caught them with his late attack, weren’t contributing, and the peloton, initially disorganised and lacking momentum following Cancellara’s surges, drew the lead quartet back into their sights as the race approached the finish.

But Moser was just strong enough to hold off the pursuit, and he rode into the famous square in Siena ahead of his fast-closing team-mate Sagan, who had ripped himself clear of his rivals in the final 500 metres. Rinaldo Nocentini outsprinted Cancellara for third, the Swiss rider’s misery complete.

Cancellara’s always been strong enough to impose himself on races, but his rivals have worked him out. In this case, Cannondale first made him lose the race, then got on with winning it themselves.

***

There can’t be many more beautiful settings for a bike race than the Tuscan backdrop of Strade Bianche. The countryside rolls, rises, swells and dips like the melody of a Vivaldi string quartet, with white ribbons of road meandering over the hills. More even than Milan-San Remo, La Primavera, Strade Bianche heralds springtime in European bike racing.

The blue skies and wonderful landscape inspired four riders – Saramotins, Schär, Belkov and Androni’s Giairo Ermeti – to set off on a day-long escape. Their lead stretched out above 10 minutes, then started to draw in again as an alliance of interested teams started to chase.

But it was Cannondale who started chasing in earnest, in the final two hours of the race. The chase of the lead quartet was complicated by an attack out of the bunch from Juan Antonio Flecha of Vacansoleil. With the leaders still four minutes clear, it was too early to be an effective pursuit, but too late to build a significant lead over the bunch. This kind of attack is known as a chasse-patates to French television commentators – its translation, ‘hunting potatoes’, underlining the futility of the enterprise. Vacansoleil, without top GC riders or sprinters, are committed to aggressive tactics, but there is a time and place, and this was neither. All it did was give Flecha tired legs for when the race really started, and provide an interim target for the bunch, between them and the four leaders.

With 17 kilometres to go, the leaders were still a minute clear, and Moser made his attack off one of the hardest stretches of gravel road, Sector Seven. Cancellara had forced the pace, stretching out the peloton, giving Moser the perfect springboard. Cannondale instantly switched to defensive mode, and by the time the peloton re-formed, Moser was streaking away to a 30 second advantage.

He caught Flecha, while ahead, on the final gravel sector, Schär and Belkov dropped Saramotins and Ermeti. Moser then dropped Flecha, passed Ermeti, and caught Saramotins, who had enough left to hang on to the Italian’s wheel as he pursued the final quarry, Schär and Belkov. He finally caught them with six kilometres to go.

Behind, Cancellara was shredding the peloton with a series of surges, but with Sagan glued to his wheel, there was no point in carrying them through. All they did was break up the momentum of the chase. And with too many neutrals in what was left of the peloton, there was little coherence in the chase. It was still close, however. The gap was perfect – large enough to encourage the escapees, and small enough to encourage the peloton.

As the race entered Siena, a tiring Moser led his three companions, none of whom would or could work with him, while the peloton continued to claw themselves back into contention. But it was too late. Wary of giving Sagan and Cancellara a free ride to the front, the bunch wasn’t committed enough, and Moser was able to ride away from his breakaway rivals and win. That Sagan took second showed how dominant Cannondale were.

Cannondale have worked out Cancellara. Now everybody else has to work out Cannondale. Sagan’s first Classic win edges ever closer.

A note about the television coverage
As a race, Strade Bianche cannot be faulted – the perfect antidote to the continuing machinations of Jonathan Price and his Gifted Group to organise an ersatz new race calendar of formulaic events on professional cycling. The landscape is beautiful, the terrain hard enough to erode the bunch, but straightforward enough to encourage tactical thinking. The stretches of white road add an extra layer of intrigue, character and uniqueness to the event – it’s a Classic-elect.

But the television coverage could have improved our understanding of the race. When Flecha embarked on his doomed enterprise to catch the break, we were given a time gap from the front to him, but not back to the peloton. It flashed up once or twice, showing he had somewhere between 40 seconds and a minute on the peloton, but in order to understand the momentum of the various elements of the bunch, we needed a constant time gap, shown on the screen. After the last time check gave Flecha a 40-second lead on his rivals, the next time we knew anything about it was when Moreno Moser caught him.

Secondly, the organisers must stretch out the budget a bit and install more fixed cameras on the final climb. The canyon-like streets interfered with the helicopter shots, and the motorbike camera was intermittent. A series of fixed cameras could have shown us more of the final action. It was impressive of Sagan to tear himself clear of the bunch to finish second, but I’ve no idea how he did it because it happened before he got to the fixed camera in the final 200 metres, and the motorbike camera was with Moser.

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  • Ian Farquharson

    oh Edward Pickering, you really must watch your screen and (specifically Eurosport) more closely instead of listening to the commentary. The cameras went to long shot just before Sagin made his move and it was like watching Phillipe Gilbert’s telling break at the 2012 Worlds Road Race! Sagin’s break was almost identical and was clearly visible in the background of the following shots. Cycling is a visual experience needing watchfulness across the whole picture as you well know. The result was absolute magic as was the Roma today.
    Best regards

  • richard braginton

    absolutely agree with your comments re cameras at finish would have been brilliant to see sagan break away,and did cancellara try to go with him alas we shall never know.

  • sm

    Great analysis of a bike race. Hard to find nowadays, keep up the good work.

  • stepho

    I enjoy reading these detailed analysise, Ed

  • jack

    Thoroughly agree on your comments regarding the tweeks to the tv coverage. If they listen, this race will get bigger and bigger each year.
    Fascinating to see Cannondale marching on. Who can stop them?