Cycling along the chalky roads that wind through Italy’s Senese region is like "racing through a painting" according to Britain's Lizzie Deignan.
Such is the artistic charm of Strade Bianche, a race against time, rock and dust, which marks the return of the WorldTour on Saturday. It is one which Deignan is particularly good at: she won the event in 2016 while wearing the world champion’s jersey and has enjoyed a podium finish in all three editions she has raced.
This time round, owing to coronavirus, she is determined to make the most of every treacherous climb and insidious descent of the women’s 136-kilometre route.
“I swing between being positive and pessimistic,” Deignan told Telegraph Sport. “I think it’s wise to race every race as if it’s your last and I don’t want to take any schedule for granted. I don’t think any race is a given.”
Her words were echoed earlier this week by David Lappartient, the president of the UCI, world cycling’s governing body, who admitted every rescheduled WorldTour race is at risk of cancellation due to Covid-19.
For the world's best female riders, however, there is an extra incentive to remain optimistic. When the UCI factored an inaugural Paris-Roubaix women’s race for October 25 into an already compact calendar, one did not anticipate the announcement to come in the throes of a global health crisis.
“I never expected things like a surprise Paris-Roubaix, that’s a massive move for women’s cycling and it’s really important,” she said.
“It’s one of the most iconic races on the men’s calendar and one of the most watched, so if we can draw those fans from men’s cycling over to the women’s side, it would be a massive turning point for us.”
The way in which women’s cycling has fared during the pandemic — considering how much of elite women’s sport has been sidelined — has in fact exceeded Deigan’s expectations.
“If anyone was going to suffer you would have expected it to have been women’s cycling and for coronavirus to be used as an excuse,” she said.
“But it’s been a pleasant surprise at how well women’s cycling has come out of the pandemic. I don’t feel like we’ve been a last resort at all, it’s been fairly even handed in terms of the priority being given to just racing — whether that’s men’s or women’s.”
The UCI had initially intended to keep 18 of the 22 events in its revised version of the Women’s WorldTour, although that number has since slipped to 14 as second spikes of the virus threaten to punch more holes in an already rejigged season.
Deigan insisted she felt safe while competing at two of three one-day races in the Basque Country last weekend, where over a third of women’s teams were forced to drop out due to delays in coronavirus testing. “It’s a logistical nightmare for everyone involved, but the more we do it, the more we’ll get used to it,” she said.
The disruption meant the Otley rider was unable to defend the Women’s Tour title she won in June last year, but she found some normality in riding familiar routes around Harrogate, where she spent the lockdown with her husband, Phillip, and daughter Orla.
“That made a huge difference, I would have struggled a lot more if I was like my Italian and French team-mates, who literally couldn’t leave the house,” said Deignan, who has spent the past five weeks acclimatising in Malaga ahead of leading Trek-Segafredo, alongside Italian Elisa Longo Borghini at Strade Bianche.
“They’re looking at 38 degrees on Saturday. That’s going to be a huge challenge, so I’m pleased I haven’t come straight from Yorkshire rain.”
Lizzie is an ambassador for the specialist cycle insurance provider, Cycleplan. They are currently offering 50% of policies for all NHS workers. For more information and advice on how to keep you and your bike safe visit Cycleplan.