The cycling spring is upon us with its many challenges. General Classification (GC) riders are about to chase the sun on their way to the French Riviera (Paris-Nice, March 7-14) or race from one sea to the other in Italy (Tirreno-Adriatico, March 10-16).
The cobbles season opened when Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) and UCI World Champion Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) found success in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Classics specialists will soon seek glory at Milan-Sanremo – la
Primavera – and on Flemish roads as well as up and down the Ardennes hills.
These varied sceneries will present unpredictable scenarios, favouring different kinds of riders, with their different specialisms. But many types of champions are gathering this Saturday around Siena, Italy, as they face the mighty roads of the Strade
Bianche (March 6), the second one-day race of the 2021 UCI WorldTour and the first event of the 2021 UCI Women’s WorldTour.
Whatever their specialty, they’re all ready to take on the gravel sectors, in predicted humid conditions, leading to the spectacular Piazza del Campo. They all have a shot at shining in one of the most open one-day races of the year and one
of the greatest showdowns of the early season.
“A superior race”
A week after the season opener in Belgium and just ahead of the most prestigious spring events, there is no hiding in the Strade Bianche. Riders have had time to tune their shape in the first races of the year and those who are lagging behind will pay
dearly on the way to Siena.
The women will tackle eight “white roads”, adding up to more than 30km, over 136km of racing. The men’s route is 48km longer and features roughly 63km of gravel. Throw in some hilly challenges, set free a bunch of riders eager to fight
on a course they love, and you can be sure only the strongest will survive at the front of a race that usually opens up far from the finish and can only crown a champion in form.
“It is a superior race,” says Bahrain-Victorious’ Sport Director Alberto Volpi as he vows to ask his team to be “proactive and aggressive right from the beginning” to favour his two leaders: Classics expert Matej Mohorič
and GC rider Pello Bilbao.
“Strade Bianche is my favourite race of the year,” Mohorič said ahead of his fourth participation (his best finish to date being 11th in 2018).
Tour de France winners and UCI World Champions jump into the mix
UAE Team Emirates goes for a similar two-man approach with Davide Formolo, runner-up in the 2020 edition, and Tadej Pogačar, winner of the 2020 Tour de France. The Slovenian wonderkid is renowned above all for his ability in stage races but he also has
a knack for the Classics, and the “white roads” are specially dear to him as he explained right after his recent victory in the UAE Tour: “Strade Bianche is difficult, but I enjoy racing there. It’s one of the best for me.”
The start list for the men’s race features another Tour de France winner, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), reigning UCI Road World Champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) and a strong cohort of puncheur-climbers including Bauke Mollema
(Trek-Segafredo), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech) and Romain Bardet (Team DSM) to challenge Classics experts led by Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and last year’s winner Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). Some participants such as Simon
Yates (Team BikeExchange) also want to challenge themselves on this unique ground ahead of the next Giro d’Italia, which features a “Strade Bianche” stage en route to Montalcino, on day 11.
The women’s peloton will be similarly star-studded, with a handful of current and former UCI Road World Champions (Annemiek van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Elizabeth Deignan and Marianne Vos), some of the fiercest Classics riders, such as Elisa
Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo Women), and superb climbing talents with the likes formers UCI Women’s WorldTour Youth leader of Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon//SRAM Racing) and Liane Lippert (Team DSM).
Van Vleuten, Kwiato, Gilbert: follow the leaders
They all know very well how much of an indicator Strade Bianche can be for the rest of the season. Last year, Van Vleuten and Van Aert flew to solo victories in Siena and they proved to be the strongest riders for the return of competitive racing in the
summer, with the 2020 events being held in early August, thanks to the racing calendar reshuffle triggered by the COVID pandemic.
Van Aert notably claimed his first Monument victory a week later in Sanremo, becoming the fourth rider to win both the Strade Bianche and La Primavera in the same season after Fabian Cancellara (2008), Michal Kwiatkowski (2017) and Julian Alaphilippe
Elizabeth Deignan, 2020 UCI Women’s WorldTour winner, achieved a similar double in 2016, when she won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda - Comune di Cittiglio a couple of weeks after her success in the Strade Bianche. She had already won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
that same year and went on to add victories in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Boels Rental Hills Classic and the Aviva Women’s Tour to complete her successful spring.
Stars like Van der Breggen or Philippe Gilbert offer more great examples of how a success in the Strade Bianche can set the tone for a superb spring campaign, as it distinguishes the strongest riders of the moment, regardless of their specialty. So whose
turn is it to take the reins in Siena?