Zdenek Stybar, Bob Jungels and Florian Senechal have given Deceuninck-QuickStep an all-winning start to the classics campaign ahead of this Saturday's thirteenth edition of Strade Bianche.
Czech powerhouse Stybar, who opened the QuickStep floodgates at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, is one of three former Strade Bianche winners who will take to the start on Saturday, the others being the Italian Nippo-Vini Fantini outsider Moreno Moser (a surprise winner in 2013 for Cannondale) and the Belgian defending champion Tiesj Benoot of Lotto Soudal.
Also runner-up in 2016, Stybar has never finished below seventh in his four appearances over the 'white roads' of Tuscany. And while the seemingly indomitable QuickStep team also boasts French livewire Julian Alaphilippe, Stybar's biggest challenge may come from the in-form Belgian Greg Van Avermaet: the CCC Team veteran has twice finished runner-up and has six top-10 finishes to his name.
The youngest of the spring classics, Strade Bianche may have been spawned from a gran fondo - tapping into the merino wool and steel frame craze of the panforte e vino-fuelled Eroica – but it has fast built up a quasi-legendary status.
Despite the race entering only its thirteenth year, many fans already consider Strade Bianche as the sixth Monument: high praise for an event which can't fall back on years of accrued history and tradition.
Named after the white dirt roads – or strade bianche – of Tuscany, Strade Bianche may not match its monumental colleagues in length (this year it's only 184km) but it sure packs a punch, and is usually won by a single rider soloing to glory in Siena's famous Piazza del Campo.
If you're unfamiliar with the race, or simply want some reminding, here's a little taster of what's in store…
If Roubaix has its cobbles, Flanders its bergs, Liège-Bastogne-Liège its côtes, Milan-Sanremo the Poggio, Cipressa and coastal capi, and Lombardia the glistening waters of Lake Como and the timeless ascent to Madonna del Ghisallo, then Strade Bianche's USP is the sterrati: Tuscany's answer to the Bréton farm track ribinoù of Tro-Bro Leon fame.
These leg-sapping stretches – 11 in total, amounting to 60km or one-third of the race – of unforgiving and at times cloying gravel sweep through farmland, weaving their way past umbrella pines and over rolling hills, having the same reducing effect on the peloton as the fiercest of crosswinds: they are the calling card of this bambina of a race already so universally adored.
The longest sector of dirt track is 11.9km long and comes at the 75km mark after the second climb of the day, the 4km ride up to the fortified town of Montalcino. The following sector, sector six, is a new addition to the race: at 8km in length, it runs over winding roads which both climb and drop, making it a real challenge.
Alejandro Valverde made his move on the uphill sector eight last year while eventual winner Tiesj Benoot left it until the penultimate sector before clawing his way back to the two leaders, Romain Bardet and Wout Van Aert, on the steep 15% ramp.
The final gravel road is only 1.1km long but culminates in a leg-sapping 18% gradient before the frantic final chase ahead of the uphill run into Siena. The photographer Jered Gruber views the finale as the 'best finishing kilometre ever' – the 16% flagstone climb of the via Santa Caterina which is far steeper than, say, the ramp into the Liège suburb of Ans (or even the Koppenberg, for that matter).
In the shadow of the magnificent Torre del Mangia, the race finishes in the square made famous by the twice-yearly Palio bareback horse race – the setting of perhaps the only decent scene in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.
Of the three former winners on start list – Benoot (2018), Stybar (2015) and Moser (2013) – only the in-form Czech looks to be in with a realistic chance of becoming the third double winner of Strade Bianche (after Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski and Swiss triple champion Fabian Cancellara).
Tiesj Benoot takes to the start despite injuring his knee in a crash during Omloop, which will put a severe dent in his chances of becoming the first rider to secure back-to-back editions of Strade Bianche. Moser, meanwhile, now rides at Pro-Continental level and has only two wins to his name since that unexpected victory in 2013.
So, Zdenek Stybar looks to be the man to watch – although his ridiculously strong QuickStep team can also bank on Julian Alaphilippe and Belgian duo Yves Lampaert and Pieter Serry.
Stybar's strongest challenge last Saturday at Omloop came from the 2017 Paris-Roubaix champion Greg Van Avermaet, who is looking for his first major win in the orange of his new CCC Team.
But keep an eye out for fellow Belgians Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) who both finished third here in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
If last year the race attracted a stellar assortment of Grand Tour riders in the shape of Valverde, Bardet, Tom Dumoulin, Steven Kruijswijk, Primoz Roglic an Vincenzo Nibali, then this year the big-name pull is the Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas.
But don't expect the Welshman to be anything but a foil for Team Sky's main man, Gianni Moscon. Vincenzo Nibali, meanwhile, will appear for Bahrain-Merida – but this is not a race the Italian veteran usually excels in, his best result (15th) coming in 2016.
Italy's strongest chance of only their second win in this race may come from the veteran Giovanni Visconti. The 36-year-old now rides for minnows Neri-Sottoli but he has a solid record over the sterrati.
A big dark horse to watch is the Kazakh powerhouse Alexey Lutsenko. The Astana rider was in fine form in the Tour of Oman, where he won three stages en route to securing a second successive overall win, plus finished just off the podium in Omloop. Lutsenko's former teammate Michael Valgren, now of Dimension Data, could be worth a punt – although the Dane is not firing on all cylinders.
For the second year running, there's no place at the start for the former triple world champion Peter Sagan, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider keeping his powder dry ahead of his assault on Milan-Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix later in the spring.
Sprinter Fernando Gaviria is a curious inclusion on the startlist although expect the Colombian to put in a shift for UAE teammate Tadej Pogacar, the youngster who won the Volta ao Algarve with promising panache last month.
One thing is certain: there'll be no repeat of last year's white stuff on the white roads…
The snow may have melted before the race got going, but its effect made for a dramatically muddy race, with winner Benoot crossing the line completely caked in brown dirt.
Sadly, for those sadomasochists out there, it's sunshine and clement temperatures on the cards for Saturday – although that will hardly make a demanding race as Strade Bianche easy.
Blazin' Saddles prediction
All eyes will be on QuickStep with Stybar, Alaphilippe, Serry and Lampaert all capable of taking the victory. But surely the Wolfpack can't keep this run going?
This could open the door to Van Avermaet – but while the sensible money seems to be on either GVA or Stybar, perhaps it's time for Lutsenko to pull one out of the bag. After all, if any team has been as successful as QuickStep this year, it's Astana.
So, here goes nothing: Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) to beat Belgians Van Avermaet, Van Aert, Benoot and Lampaert to the line.
Think that's ridiculous? Then send me your tips to @saddleblaze on Twitter.