Italians still waiting for first win in Tuscan race as Ballan and Cunego complete the podium

Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert today proved his form ahead of the Spring Classics by winning the fifth edition of the Montepaschi Strade Bianche race, the eight sections of sterrati, the white gravel Tuscan roads from which the race takes its name, earning it the reputation of Italy’s answer to Paris-Roubaix despite its relatively brief history.

The 30-year-old Belgian, who finished the 2010 season in sizzling form with two stages of the Vuelta plus wins in the Giro di Lombardia and Giro del Piemonte – his principal target, the World Championships in Geelong, would however elude him – proved to be the strongest of the 20 riders left to contest the finish in Siena’s Piazza del Campo.

That group was twice the number of the riders who on horseback, rather than bicycle, battle twice a year to win the Palio horse race run on the same historic piazza, which has a rather longer heritage, its origins dating back to medieval times.

Despite the different choice of steed, today’s race brought out big crowds in Siena, but hopes for a maiden home win were dashed with the Italians having to be content with the minor podium positions through former world champion Alessandro Ballan of BMC Racing, who came second, and Damiano Cunego of Lampre, third.

Gilbert, who next month defends his Amstel Gold title, becomes the fifth rider from five different countries have now won Strade Bianche, previously known as L’Eroica, joining a roll of honour that began with Alexande Kolobnev in 2007 and also includes Fabian Cancellara, Thomas Lövkvist and Maxim Iglinsky.

Earlier, it had been Leopard Trek’s evergreen road captain Stuart O’Grady who had blazed a trail at the front of the 190-kilometre race, which started this morning in the town of Gaiole in Chianti, accompanied by BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet, but they were caught 12 kilometres from the finish.

Mark Cavendish was the sole Briton to complete the race, coming home in 28th position

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.