After four long months in which, like so many of us, I have scarcely left the house, or at least the streets immediately surrounding it, I have just flown back to where it all began. I have done so with serious concerns, and a distinct unease. But also, if I am honest, with a sense of building joy. Since I cannot reconcile these two impulses, I literally don’t know what I feel.
Strade Bianche was due to take place on March 7th, and I was supposed to be there. As we now understand, its very late collapse was the beginning of the domino effect after which race after race was either cancelled or postponed. The rest is unsatisfactory history.
Strolling around the astonishing old city this afternoon in blazing midsummer, I was unable to avoid the absolute strangeness of our world by the sheer absence of life. Who’d ever have thought that massed ranks of tourists would be missed? And yet, you could feel the agony of all the hopeful café owners and shopkeepers gazing at flagstones instead of footfall. The vertiginous streets that so famously enclose the springtime cacophony of noise which has greeted the great roll call of winners in the race’s short history now echoed with little more than the occasional cough.
In the distant blue depth of the hot sky, somewhere out of sight, a TV helicopter was buzzing in rehearsal, and from the Il Campo square, the sound of scaffolders’ hammers putting up the finishing line. In air-conditioned hotel rooms dotted around the Tuscan hillsides surrounding Siena, a couple of hundred riders were dozing the afternoon away, and hoping like hell that the next swab, and the next one after that will carry on retuning no signs of the virus. That the whole adventure wouldn’t fall apart like a house of cards.
Tuscany was not ravaged by COVID-19 as northern neighbour Lombardy was during those frightening March months. But Italy has a quiet, reflective feel to it this summer. Its people are doing their duty by their fellow citizens, by their country. They have taken COVID-19 with all the seriousness it demands. Omnipresent masks conceal, to some extent, the depth of the hurt and worry. But the eyes still smile in welcome to the few, like me, who have come for work and play.
So, suspend your disbelief, and share in their fragile optimism. Siena has accepted its fabulous race back, wants us to celebrate with it, from a distance, and it deserves our attention and our support. To that end, I have resolved, for the next 24 hours to put all thoughts of pandemic to one side and to relish instead the August running of a March Classic, the unofficial sixth monument. So, back to the cycling:
The women will race first. Obviously Annamiek van Vleuten will win. That’s about it.
But, supposing she doesn’t (and, frankly, even if she does) there is a great deal of intrigue to be played out throughout the peloton. I am looking forward to the contributions of young riders Marta Cavalli and Spanish climber Eider Merino. From a British perspective, how will Lizzie Deignan fare, inching her way still back to best form? She won the race in 2016 – but then again every former winner who hasn’t yet retired from the sport will also start the race tomorrow. Watch out too for 2019 Giro stage winner Lizzie Banks, whose pre-lockdown 6th place at Het Nieuwsblad was more than worthy of note.
But the showdown will come most keenly from the combined threats to van Vleuten posed by Boels-Doelmans (complete with former world champions Anna van der Breggen and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak), Trek Segafredo (not just with Deignan, but with 2017 Strade Bianche winner Elisa Longo-Borghini), Floortje Mackaij’s Sunweb and of course CCC-Liv, the team of Marianne Vos. How the GOAT has never finished better than 7th in this race is a total mystery. She needs to buck her ideas up (joking). And there are potential winners lurking in the pack in the shape of Cecilie Uttrup and, more pertinently Katazyna Niewiadoma who with a hattrick of second places to her name is comfortably the most consistent contender in the field.
By the time the men race, the sun will be even more fierce. It’ll bounce off the white roads with such venom they’ll get sunburnt chins. The wind could well get up tomorrow at around about crunch time in the race – it certainly did today. That could be fun, too. The dust clouds will be seen from the moon.
Strade Bianche does, historically, seem to be a race mostly won by ex-MTB of cyclo-cross specialists. So to that end, Wout van Aert, Zdenek Stybar and of course first-timer Matieu van der Poel are big favourites. Chuck two time winner Michal Kwiatkowski and last year’s winning debutant Julian Alaphilippe into the mix as well as newly-Sunwebbed Tiesj Benoot (who won in 2018), then your winner probably comes from that selection. But, just for the sake of something else to look for, I will be curious to see how two well-matched Strade Bianche debutants in Giulio Ciccone and Dylan Teuns fare – the same couple who duelled all the way to the top of La Planche des Belles Filles at the Tour last year if you remember. I like Ciccone. Come to that, I like Teuns.
I’ve missed loads out of course; top contenders like Jakob Fuglsang and former winners (just past their best now?) Greg van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert. It’s going to be gobsmacking for those of us who’ve followed his progress to see the great Gilbert supported by Britain’s Matt Holmes, already a World Tour winner in 2020; but this is another huge step for him.
And then there’s Peter Sagan. I feel duty bound to stand by my frankly actionable prediction that he’s done winning bike races, however blind it may be to the likely truth. But, here’s an interesting thing: Bora-Hansgrohe have so far recorded 13 victories in 2020, by 5 different riders, none of whom have been called either Peter or Sagan.
So there you have it. Lump on Sagan for the win.
And if none, or all of this comes to pass, sit back and enjoy the view. There are few finer.