Stybar and Brambilla on the podium after epic Strade Bianche
Etixx – Quick-Step was again among the protagonists, in a race at the end of which the team placed three riders in the top 5.
Although a group of eight managed to get away early, the real racing began with 50 kilometers to go on Saturday's Strade Bianche, when the escapees were brought back and Gianluca Brambilla attacked, a move which sparked a response from four other riders: Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Maxime Monfort (Lotto-Soudal) and Salvatore Puccio (Sky). The 28-year-old Italian, already victorious this season at the Challenge Mallorca, was the strongest of the five and tried to get away on more than one occasion, before eventually managing to open a gap inside the final 25 kilometers.
From the severely reduced peloton, world champion Peter Sagan attacked on the strength sapping Colle Pinzuto – the penultimate dirt patch – and was quickly followed by Zdenek Stybar and Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo). The three made contact with Brambilla, while Petr Vakoč remained in the chasing group, making sure he'll give the team a third option if the leaders were to get caught. In aggressive mode all day long, Gianluca didn't give up and accelerated once again with 10 kilometers to go and built a good gap, which allowed him to enter alone in the last kilometer.
There, on the last uphill section, Cancellara attacked and was immediately marked by Stybar, the two of them catching Brambilla as they were approaching the last two bends of the 176 km-long course. With just 150 meters left to the finish in the center of Siena, the Swiss rider came at the front and edged out Zdenek, last year's winner, taking the victory. Gianluca Brambilla also climbed on the podium, while Petr finished 5th, thus confirming the progress he has made in the past months.
Although he missed on the chance of becoming the first rider to win Strade Bianche in consecutive years, Zdenek Stybar was upbeat at the finish in Piazza del Campo, where he showed himself satisfied with the form he has at this point of the season: "The last corner is a key of the race, and we had again of confirmation of this today. I tried to overtake Fabian, but he was too strong and didn't let me in. I'm not ashamed to lose to Cancellara."
What makes me proud is that the team did an excellent race, didn't do any mistakes and rode hard all day long.
"When Gianluca was at the front, I was hoping he will be victorious, but got caught. It's a pity for him, but we don't have any reason to blame ourselves. To climb again on the podium at Strade Bianche gives me a lot of confidence for the next races, because I'm where I want to be with my form."
In his fourth year with the team, Gianluca Brambilla displayed an impressive form since the start of the season, besides the win he scored in Trofeo Pollença-Port de Andratx notching four top 10 placings in the events he raced before the 10th edition of Strade Bianche. On Saturday, he attacked on countless times, worked for the team and had his shot at glory, but came up short in his home country race. Despite that, his impressive ride turned heads, as many discovered a reinvented Brambilla.
"On the fifth gravel road sector, a lot of riders were being dropped, so I decided to go to the front and get a small gap, which I did. Others joined in and we kept going until the final 20 kilometers. Then I distanced my breakaway companions and when Styby, Cancellara and Sagan bridged to me, I talked with my teammate and said I will play everything for him, so that he gets a free ride. I attacked relentlessly, went full gas, but eventually I got tired after being all day at the front and got caught with 200 meters to go", said Gianluca, who was greeted at the finish by his girlfriend.
The Italian – who later in the season hopes to ride the Giro – continued: "I can't say I lost the race, as Fabian was very strong. Of course I am sad because we didn't land the win, but I am happy for being at the front with such big champions. It's something that's happening more and more often since the beginning of the year, and it motivates me to get another victory sooner or later", concluded the Brambilla.
At the end of what proved to be one of the most epic races of 2016, also sport director Davide Bramati saw the positive side of an event in which Etixx – Quick-Step was again at the front all the time: "Tactically, we were perfect and we can't complain. Three of our riders came in the top 5, which is a big result. It's only the beginning of March and we already have 16 victories to our name. This makes us proud and gives us confidence to look forward to the next races."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele