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The Road Book's Strade Bianche Preview

The Road Book's Strade Bianche Preview

The first weekend of march sees the first of the Italian Classics, and one of the most hotly anticipated races of the season in Strade Bianche. A young race in the cycling scheme of things, brought into existence in 2007 and gaining WorldTour status in 2017, but quickly becoming a staple of the calendar for riders and fans alike thanks to its unbeatable backdrop and the retro style of racing its unique course encourages.

This visually stunning race takes place in the hills of Tuscany, and is characterised by a number of long climbs, with a scintillating finish in the narrow streets of Siena up to the Piazza del Campo and some of the most exciting and spectacular racing of the year.

That’s all before we mention the iconic white gravel roads which each year provide us with beautiful shots of the peloton shrouded in dust, and the sweat stained winners cacked head to toe in a Tony Montana moment as they cross the finish line.

With over 1/3 of the overall route on these gravel roads, the men’s and women’s pelotons will ride a combined total of 111.9km over this unpredictable surface, encompassing some steep, sharp climbs; longer gruelling climbs and very technical descents all of which rewards a very particular style of racing.

The last two editions of the men’s race have been won by solo attackers in Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and were characterised by riders arriving in small groups. Whilst SD Worx’s dominance last season took a bizarre turn as their two stars, Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering went head-to-head in a fiercely competitive sprint a deux which the latter won by a hair’s breadth.

 

The New Course

It is an extended course this year for both the women’s and the men’s races. The men will breach the 200km mark for the first time, adding weight to the already substantial argument that Strade Bianche should be considered one of cycling’s ‘Monuments’.

The 215km route will encompass more gravel roads and has added in a 30km long loop before the final ride up to the Piazza del Campo. An additional four gravelled sections will bring the total number to 15 covering 71.5km of the race, a change which could fundamentally alter the structure of the day’s racing.

Strade Bianche’s 8th sector, the Monte Sante Maria, has played host to race winning moves in the previous two editions of the men’s race with Tadej Pogačar and Tom Pidcock breaking away from the bunch on its 11.5km gravelled stretch with gradients soaring to 15% at points with almost 400m of total elevation gain. The long and undulating climb certainly plays into the skillset of these GC riders, and those who can launch a sustained attack here have historically been able to put some serious distance between them and their competitors.

However, this year the climb comes with 70km of racing and plenty of punchy climbs still to come, meaning that whilst we fully expect a select group of riders to form here, the top talent may choose to keep their powder dry and their energy levels up and target a later sector for their decisive attack.

The loop which has been added to the course this year, includes the 2.4km Colle Pinzuto and 1.1km Le Tolfe, both of which are gravelled, steep and have to be attempted twice by riders before the final climb back into Siena. The latter of these two, Le Tolfe, has gradients reaching 18% at points and these successive punches will provide an opening for a different kind of rider, with more power and less endurance, to take on the competition and should throw a cat amongst the cyclists.

Once the last of the dust, grit and small white stones have been shaken from their spokes, the riders will face a selection rolling paved climbs and uphill ramps before the Via Santa Caterina’s punishing 16% slopes as they enter the beautiful medieval town of Siena. Some iconic photographs of the leading group, or solo leader, will certainly surface from these tight streets and the gradient will be tough to contend with after the rough and tumble of the gravel earlier in the day.

Finally, the Piazza del Campo will be filled with hordes of adulating fans to welcome the exhausted peloton across the line into a square dappled by the sparkling spring sunshine. The fundamentally altered course will make for fascinating watching as even previous winners may have to re-think their tactics, unable to rely entirely on their experience.

Hopefully, we will get an exciting race full of tension, mistimed or perfectly executed attacks and gallant attempts to breakaway on a solo drive to the finish. Indeed, the Strade Bianche’s longest route yet may even provide a surprise victor and given the calibre of talent expected to be in attendance, we are guaranteed at least a modicum of excitement.

 

Riders to Watch

A race which always attracts the very best talent on offer, there’s no lack of names to be excited about. Previous winners include Philippe Gilbert, Tiesj Benoot, Julian Alaphalippe, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Pogačar and Pidcock, a list of riders you certainly wouldn’t want setting the pace for your cycling club’s Saturday morning training lap.

The two favourites to take the top podium spot for the men are undoubtedly Tom Pidcock and Tadej Pogačar. Pidcock soloed to victory in emphatic fashion last year, with passion and exertion etched onto his visage and the former Road Book contributor will be confident of victory again. Despite a disappointing cyclo-cross season, Pidcock looked in fine fettle last weekend, finishing 8th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and being the only INEOS rider to stay with the select group which broke away. More gravel and steeper climbs only plays increasingly to the young Brit’s strengths, as he’s proved over his years in cyclo-cross and on the Alpe d’Huez in 2022? Ineos Grenadiers have clearly targeted this early season race and are fielding a strong team in support of Pidcock, including two-time winner Michał Kwiatkowski (2014 and 2017) American rider Magnus Sheffield and Welsh legend Geraint Thomas. Although Thomas has a less than stellar classics record, he will offer valuable assistance, perhaps as a variation of a super-domestique and the British team will hope to make the headlines ahead of INEOS’ current football related side-project.

The only rider you might get shorter odds on than Pidcock this weekend is Pogačar who is making his first appearance of the season. The Slovenian superstar proved last season that coming in cold doesn’t slow him down in the slightest, and with the race already under his belt from 2022, he will be supremely confident. With a lighter calendar of races this season in preparation for his attempt at a Giro-Tour double, Pogačar will be more determined to secure a victory than ever. For a man who tackles every race like its his last, that added determination makes him the out and out favourite. Furthermore, he has proven time and time again that he can tackle any course out there, and his explosiveness will be well suited to the steep climbs late in the race, whilst his classics pedigree will force the other teams to watch him every step of the way, partial as he is, to a surprise tactic. UAE Team Emirates have also decided to field a stacked roster of riders, including Marc Hirschi, Tim Wellens (both of whom have already performed admirably this season) and their rising Mexican star Isaac del Toro. We here at the Road Book will be keeping our eye on his performance in particular as he looks like a record breaker in waiting.

Team Visma-Lease a bike are fielding mainly a squad of climbers after their unparalleled dominance of the Opening Weekend. Only Christophe Laporte will be making the journey south from Belgium, and the Frenchman looked to be in good shape on the cobbles. He will be joined by Ben Tullett and last year’s Road Book Society Rider of the Year Sepp Kuss (he also won some piddling Spanish race, but we all know which he’s most proud of). The Dutch bumble-bees find themselves in the slightly alien position of being underdogs compared with UAE and INEOS’ line-ups. Whilst not their strongest line-up, the super-team of the moment is stacked with talent and only a fool would write them off entirely.

The rest of the peloton doesn’t lack for stars either, Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) is the current gravel World Champion, and is amongst the best riders in the world even on a bad day despite historically underperforming at Strade Bianche. Soudal-Quickstep are a team in transition, moving away from focusing on the classics, and the public criticism of Julian Alaphilippe by the team’s general manager Patrick Lefevere seems to indicate a state of chaos within the squad. We would love to see the Frenchman launch a domineering performance, and despite crashing heavily at the race in 2022 and twice last weekend, we expect this former Strade Bianche champion (2019) to ride with a chip on his shoulder and with something to prove.

Alberto Bettiol, Ben Healy and Nielson Powless will ride for EF Education Easypost who’s strong roster of climbers will be hoping to take advantage of any slip-ups by the super-teams. Whilst Powless’ compatriot Quinn Simmons (now at Lidl-Trek) has a punchy style which could suit the re-vamped course and young Belgian Lennert van Eetvelt (Lotto Dstny) proved at the UAE Tour that he has the nous to triumph when least expected. Whilst personally, I’ll be looking out for Magnus Cort and the red and yellow jersey of Uno-X Mobility, after their endearing performance at last season’s Tour de France. The Norwegian team’s ethos and unique approach to the sport was covered masterfully by Callum Devereux in The Road Book 2023, and his article is certainly recommended reading. Whichever rider triumphs in the end, we can’t wait to watch it all unfold.

 

 

Strade Bianche Donne

The women’s edition of Strade Bianche was first run in 2015, and like the men’s edition has quickly cemented itself as a top race on the calendar and its list of winners is fittingly legendary. Lizzie Deignan won the inaugural race as World Champion, followed by Elisa Longo Borghini, Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten (2019 and 2020), Chantel van den Broek-Blaak, Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering.

Last year’s edition was gripping, if bizarre. Kristen Faulkner (Team Jayco-AlUla) made a valiant effort of denying SD-Worx, spending much of the race out ahead of the peloton on her own. She was eventually caught on the Via Santa Caterina with a kilometre to go by the dynamic duo of Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering, after their chase attempts had been slightly delayed by a loose horse. Equine involvement failed to take the title of ‘Most Bizarre Moment’ however, as the two teammates fought a hotly contested sprint finish, won by Vollering with an excellently timed bike-throw. In the aftermath it seemed to be just another example of the lethally driven attitude of top professional cyclists, but perhaps it was an indication that the pressures of having two superstars who would be leaders in their own right in any other team, are starting to weigh on SD-Worx.

 

The Course

This year’s course has also been extended to a total of 137km, with 12 sections of gravel forming 40.4km of this total alongside a series of climbs, some with gradients well into the double-digits and the same 30km long finishing circuit as the men.

One of the most challenging classics on the calendar will be, like the men’s version, shaken up by its extension to include a further 4 gravel sections which should create more chaos in the peloton and encourage larger time gaps. The last four editions of the race have been won on the 16% climb of the Via Santa Caterina, but we expect the decisive attack to come earlier with riders taking advantage of the series of punchy, short climbs with vicious gradients to launch long attacks that bite deep into their competitors reserves of strength.

 

Riders to Watch

Of course, SD-Worx have won the last three editions of Strade Bianche and intend to make it a fourth. Last year Demi Vollering finished in the top two for all 6 of her Classics appearances and has the skill set to dominate the steep climbs. Lotte Kopecky will either support, or take her right to the line once again and has already proved her fine form this season winning on Jabel Hafeet at the UAE Tour, finishing second at Omloop and quietly developing her climbing skills to match even Vollering’s power.

The other big names to watch include Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon//SRAM) who took podium spots in the race from 2016 till 2019 and, after a few years struggling with various injuries, we would back to launch a comeback. The Polish star is also the women’s Gravel World Champion which, with a little over 40 kilometres of the stuff in the course, you would think could be an advantage.

Lidl-Trek will be fielding a strong selection, including Amanda Spratt, Shirijn van Anrooij (who performed admirably at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week and is also Cyclo-cross World Champion), long-time friend of The Road Book Lizzie Deignan and, of course, Elisa Longo Borghini. The Italian rider is one of the best around, and after becoming the first Italian (man or woman) to win this race in 2017, will be hoping to build on her 3rd place finish at Omloop last weekend.

Young Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) got people talking with her hugely impressive performance at the race last season, before focusing on Cyclo-Cross and mountain biking. The gravel will suit her style of riding perfectly, and she has clearly selected Strade Bianche as a focus of her road racing season. Kristen Faulkner (EF Education-Cannondale) is also returning, and may well try a similar gambit to that which so nearly paid off last time around whilst Katia Ragusa (Human Powered Health) is always a force to be reconned with.

Ashliegh Moolman (AG Insurance-Soudal Team) will ride this course for the last time before retirement and we always love to see a fairytale ending so will be crossing our fingers for a strong showing. Last, but certainly not least, Marianne Vos concocted another brilliant victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, not overstretching herself before devastating some of the world’s best in a sprint finish to win her first victory at the opening classic, in her first appearance. Vos has never won Strade Bianche, but as last week demonstrated, you right her off at your own peril.

 

Whoever triumphs, we will enjoy every moment of Strade Bianche. The race which began as an amateur offering intended to relive a bygone age of cycling before technology began to dominate the experience; has become a fixture of the calendar. It remains true to this ideal, and there is something truly beautiful about the grit required to win this monumental race.

 

Read all about Strade Bianche by picking up a copy of The Road Book at our online book shop: https://theroadbook.co.uk/collections/all-products

Use the code: RETRO20 to get 20% off any edition from 2018 through till 2021.

 

Written by Henrik Bassett

Images courtesy of Russ Ellis.

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