Lцvkvist was able to outfox the likes of local favourites Giovanni Visconti and Daniele Bennati in the final stages of the 190km event over the tough and twisting roads of the Chianti region of Tuscany, leading home an all-foreign top five in Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo.
In a cycling world where tradition and history go hand in hand with what fans and riders come to know as Classics, after a very short period of time, this race around the Tuscan hills, with its sections of white gravel road, has endeared itself to the cycling public and looks set to rival some of the more recent additions to the ProTour calendar.
With 2008 winner Fabian Cancellara not yet recovered from his fall in Switzerland last week, Alessandro Ballan was set to be the pre-race favourite as he sought to take the World Champion’s stripes one step higher on the podium following his second place last year.
Yesterday, however, Ballan returned early from his reconnaissance of the course as a bout of vomiting forced him off the road and back into his hotel bed. His non participation was confirmed this morning with La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting that Ballan had headed home with a stomach bug and a fever of 38degrees.
The non-participation of last year’s top finishers meant that Pippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) would carry the expectations of local fans on the 190km course that included eight sections of unpaved white gravel road, known as strade bianche that added up to nearly 58km of dust inhalation for anyone riding further back than third wheel.
With an early break doing their best to steal the glory away from the pre-race favourites, it was three survivors, Andriy Grivko of ISD, Diego Caccia of Barloworld and Riccardo Chiarini of LPR who were still at the head of affairs at the business end of the bike race. With three sections of the strade bianche left to race and just 30km remaining to be pedalled, the main contenders left in the race were bearing down on the three leaders.
As the trio struggled on the climb of Section 7 at 20km from the finish, Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) put in an attack from the chase group as Grivko was dropped from the lead and by the time the respective groups had reached the top of the hill and the end of the second last section, it was Bennati, Giovanni Visconti (ISD), Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) who had joined Caccia and Chiarini in the lead.
With Barloworld and ISD monitoring the chase behind, Team Columbia weren’t about to let the group ride off up the road and despite Cervйlo having the numbers in the chasing bunch, it was Lцvkvist driving the bunch that kept them in contention into the final sector.
Sector 8 was only 1.1km long, but featured a brutal climb including slopes of 16-18%. The leaders were hitting this climb, just as the chasing group were making the first jarring descent that came at the start of the section and Team Columbia’s Mark Cavendish was the last man standing at the back of the group.
On the climb itself, Hesjedal was looking comfortable, Caccia and Chiarini were going out the back with nothing left in the tank, and just as they crested the top as a group of four, the main group was spreading itself all over the Tuscan countryside as the climb proved a ‘hill too far’ for many including Pozzato (who was grabbing his legs as if he had cramp) and Cavendish.
AG2R’s Martin Elmiger and Peter Wrolich of Milram tried their luck to get across to the front group, but 7km from the line, Visconti attacked at the base of a hill as the front of the race reformed with a group of 15.
One thing about the countryside in this race is there are hills everywhere you look. Even in the final few kilometres into the city of Siena, the roads are surrounded on all sides by those famous Tuscan hills seen on calendars (and the covers of romance novels) the world over.
The former Giro Maglia Rosa and Italian Pro champ, quickly opened a 100m lead on the short steep climb and then over the top of the hill, tucked up, slipped it into the big ring and set about trying to win himself the Montepaschi Strade Bianche Toscana.
The group looked to have their work cut out for them as Visconti was doing it easy, but with big Lцvkvist of Columbia at the head of affairs, it was all back together at 5km to go.
Bennati attacked in one of those classic ‘roll gently off the front’ moves but again Lцvkvist was having none of it and the group of 15 pedalled steadily (well, at the front of the group, anyway) on up the climb, looking and waiting for the next attack.
Linus Gerdemann of Team Milram was the man to try his luck and in a huge gear, rode it in the seat to quickly build a 10second lead over the bunch at 3km to go, as the renowned city of Siena appeared in view on top of the hill for the first time since this morning.
At just 2km to go, as the road dropped down to the lowest point before the final climb, it was Cervйlo who had the number with Hammond and Lloyd amongst the group, but it was ISD giving chase to try and set up a last attack for Visconti.
With a final look over his shoulder to see his 100m lead holding steady, Gerdemann started the final climb and as he hit the 1km to banner, the road rocketed upward and narrowed dramatically as he entered the old city, giving the chasing group a perfect view of the man in their sights.
On a road with barely enough room to stick out the elbows, Lцvkvist made his move from what was now a single file group and mounted the top of the hill ahead of Gerdemann for the series of corners into the finish.
The last right hand corner before entering the Campo was almost his undoing and with a grimace and a double handful of brakes the Columbia man made the turn, just, from where it was all down- hill and out into the open for the short trip across the piazza and a single hand salute at the finish.
Behind the Swede, came Germany’s Fabian Wegmann, giving Milram some reward for their work in the finale, and Ag2R’s Swiss rider, Martin Elmiger.
Speaking after the race, Lцvkvist said of the finish that, “It was a very strong final, very very hard, with two pieces of uphill. Linus [Gerdemann] was in front and when I caught him half way up climb then I had the gap and I knew I could win.”
From here, Lцvkvist is heading to Tirreno-Adriatico, which he says is his first objective of the year and based on the way he controlled and then dominated the final kilometres of the race today, he looks set to do something big.
3rd Montepaschi Strade Bianche Toscana
1. Thomas Lцvkvist, Team Columbia
2. F. Wegmann, Team Milram
3. M. Elmiger, AG2R
4. B. Hagen, Team Columbia
5. L. Gerdemann, Team Milram
6. G. Visconti, ISD
7. P. Velits, Team Milram
8. A. Schleck, Team Saxo Bank
9. D. Lloyd, Cervйlo
10. R. Hesjedal, Garmin.