It was billed as a battle between the giants of cyclo-cross and defending champion Julian Alaphilippe — himself a former cross specialist — but in the end just one rider was crowned king of the Piazza del Campo: Wout Van Aert.
Almost five hours after setting off from Siena in a peloton of 167 riders, Van Aert, 25, returned into the beautiful old city having ridden the final 13 kilometres of the 184km route solo to claim the greatest one-day win of his career.
Originally scheduled to have been raced on March 7 before the coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold, the eyes of the cycling world on Saturday focused on Strade Bianche, the first WorldTour race of both the men's and women's revised calendars following an easing of lockdown.
Although the form of the returning peloton was unknown going into the 14th edition of Strade Bianche, many had assumed reining world cyclo-cross champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) or Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) would prevail, the bookmakers who had given another cross specialist Van Aert rather generous odds of 14/1 certainly thought so.
A combination of crashes and punctures, however, put paid to Van der Poel and Alaphilippe's ambitions. Not so Van Aert, who made the decisive move once all 63km of gravel white roads that lace through the surrounding Tuscan hills like an over-sized bowl of pici — a local dish of white pasta, similar to spaghetti — had been eaten up.
Before Saturday, the Jumbo-Visma rider had competed on the road just once, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, since sustaining a muscle tear in crash at last year's Tour de France. He had shown some impressive form throughout the cyclo-cross season over the winter months, suggesting recovery was going well. Baked in dust thrown up from the white roads — strade bianche — that give one of the most evocative race's in the calendar its name, Van Aert admitted afterwards it had been worth the wait.
“Over the last two editions of Strade Bianche, I gained a lot of confidence. It's never easy to win and it was harder than usual in today's circumstances. It makes the win even better," the Belgian said. "This is proof that I'm at the highest level now. To have won Strade Bianche at the age of only 25, with a cyclo-cross background is a huge achievement.”
And it was an achievement. Having tackled the most gruelling section of gravel in the race — Monte Sante Marie — Van Aert formed part of a select group of riders capable of winning the race that some refer to as the 'sixth monument'. Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), who all have bona fide monuments on their palmarès having won respectively at Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Italian and German national champions Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), Maximilian Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), all appeared to have brought their A-games to the race.
Schachmann was the first to attack, though Van Aert was the only one quick enough and sharp enough to mark him. Though the move was short-lived, the increase in pace did go some way to causing a shake-up. Soon after Van Avermaet blew, leaving just five protagonists.
Having suffered the agony of finishing third for the last two years and knowing what he needed to do — the time trial of his life — once the final stretch of strade bianche had been navigated, Van Aert attacked and, more-or-less, never looked back.
“It’s a great source of satisfaction to win Strade Bianche," Van Aert added later. "It’s really nice to say after the first race back that my season is already a success. I didn't want to waste any chances. I really focused on this race and it paid off.
"It was a very hard edition of Strade Bianche, especially at the beginning as it was quite difficult for me to ride in a peloton after a long time away from racing. I felt like myself again a bit later and I was able to make the most of my chances in the finale.”
Formolo finished 30secs after Van Aert, Schachmann took the final podium spot two seconds later.
Van Vleuten the flying Dutchwoman does it again
Earlier in the day, reigning world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, 37, became to first rider to win back-to-back titles in either the men's or women's races.
Although the Mitchelton-Scott rider arrived as the outstanding favourite having not lost a single race she has started since winning the women's road world championships in Harrogate last September, Van Vleuten was nowhere to be seen with 20km to go.
After Mavi Garcia (Alé BTC Ljubljana) had attacked the leading group from some way out, the Spaniard appeared on course for the biggest win of her career while in the process causing a huge upset. Van Vleuten, however, had other ideas. Despite trailing the chasing group, the Dutchwoman turned in a Herculean ride that saw her gain over four minutes on Garcia.
Though riding into Siena together, once on the final climb up towards Piazza del Campo there was only ever going to be one winner. The flyweight Van Vleuten who is a huge exponent of altitude training, and a rider that regularly trains with her male team-mates from the Mitchelton-Scott squad, simply danced away from Garcia before claiming her fifth one-day race of the year.
Speaking afterwards, Van Vleuten said: “Piazza del Campo is the most beautiful place for me to win a race. I had a lot of emotions today. I didn't think I would catch Mavi Garcia and I believe the whole scenario has made it a very spectacular race.
“90km in, I thought my race was over. At the time, I was a bit disappointed about not being able to use my legs but I was very happy that my team-mate Amanda Spratt was in a position to win. Then the speed of my group went up and my directeur sportif said: 'Annemiek it’s time'.
"I made my move during the second to last gravel sector, heading uphill. It was the moment I had planned to attack from the group. I had to close the gap. I couldn’t see anything because of the dust, it was quite different from the racing conditions in March but still beautiful, and super hard."
Garcia may have made a name for herself and won the hearts of many, but the 36-year-old had to settle for second best, finishing 22secs behind arguably the best cyclist in the world right now. American Leah Thomas (Équipe Paule Ka) was third at 1min 53sec.
Van Aert wins Strade Bianche!
He's done it. After two successive years of heartache, Wout Van Aert has finally won this most beautiful of races in the searing Sienese heat. Bravo young man, bravo.
Davide Formolo rolled over the line a few seconds after Van Aert, while Maximilian Schachmann completed the podium.
1km to go
And Wout Van Aert is about to ride beneath the Fontebranda Gate and onto the large paving slabs that are seen all across the city of Siena. Once within the city walls the Belgian will have just 800 metres or so to ride before he is crowned the new king of the Piazza del Campo.
3km to go
Wout Van Aert is, surely, now riding towards the biggest one-day race of his career. The three-time world cyclo-cross champion has put a few more seconds into the chasing duo of Davide Formolo and Maximilian Schachmann who must now be starting to think about the second and third spots.
5km to go
Davide Formolo and Maximilian Schachmann are taking turns at staring at each other, perhaps wasting vital time. All that will do, though, is play into the hands of Wout Van Aert who is coasting ever nearer to the walled city of Siena. There are still a few small climbs, before the final nasty climb into the Piazza del Campo, and then a sure, sure win for the 25-year-old who just over a year ago suffered a horrible crash at the Tour de France. What a way to underline his comeback this would be.
7km to go
With his face encrusted in thick dust, Wout Van Aert is ploughing on. The Italian national champion Davide Formolo has just Maximilian Schachmann for company after Alberto Bettiol was dropped. The Belgian is holding on, his lead though is now down to a measly 10sec.
9km to go
Maximilian Schachmann, Alberto Bettiol and Davide Formolo are in pursuit of Wout Van Aert who is a decent time trial rider. The Belgian has increased his lead to 15sec.
10km to go
Apologies, we have had some major technical difficulties — just as the race started to reach boiling point. Typical!
Anyway, since we last spoke Maximilian Schachmann and Wout Van Aert were reined back in before Greg Van Avermaet was dropped. Stybar did well to close the gap and the Czech managed to catch Van Avermaet but it was a case of too little, too late.
With the strade bianche done for the day, Van Aert who remember finished third here in both 2018 and 2019, put in one almighty dig and he is looking strong, holding an advantage of around 7secs on those chasers.
Maximilian Schachmann has just put in a huge attack. The German eased his way to the rear of the six-man group before jumping them down the left-hand side. Wout Van Aert wasted no time in closing the Bors-Hansgrohe rider down.
22km to go
Interestingly, no one rider put in any digs on that little climb.
24km to go
The race leaders have hit section nine, the horrible 800-metre stretch with extremely steel ramps. The group featuring Zdenk Stybar has gained a few more seconds, now trailing by 51sec. By the way, it's an utterly glorious looking day out in Tuscany today. Plenty of roadside supporters, but behaving respectively as I always find Italian cycling fans do. Much more so than some that are seen at the Tour de France most Julys.
26km to go
Former winner Zdenk Stybar appears to be driving the chase. The Czech rider may be the only throw of the dice left here today for Deceuninck-Quick Step, a team that exists for the one-day races.
30km to go
Riders are taking their turns in dropping back to their respective team cars to load up on fluids, in the heat here today they will stay hydrated. Nobody in the leading group will be wanting to cramp up once they reach the next gravel section which, once again, has some gnarly little ramps.
32km to go
Hearing that Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), Zdenk Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Brent Bookwalter (Mitchelton-Scott) and Michaeel Gogl (NTT) are all in the chasing group that trails the race leaders by 1min 27sec. Alberto Bettiol, who was a 175/1 outsider with some bookmakers earlier this week, is looking relaxed and assured.
35km to go
This strong six-man group are each taking their turns riding on the front. They remain on the smooth asphalt and, as it stands, all fairly relaxed. The chasers have eaten away into their lead, but only by a few seconds. Maximilian Schachmann, by the way, dropped back to his team car a few moments ago — it looked like he was getting ice packs to help cool himself down.
38km to go
Jakob Fuglsang (Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner), Wout Van Aert (three-time world cyclo-cross champion), Greg Van Avermaet (Paris-Roubaix winner), Maximilian Schachmann (German national champion), Alberto Bettiol (Tour of Flanders winner) and Davide Formolo (former Italian national champion) have a lead of around 1min 50sec on the chasers.
42km to go
That nasty Monte Sante Marie section has been completed and Jakob Fuglsang has been caught. The leading group is now having a little bit of a breather — it's all relative! — on the smooth asphalt.
46.5km to go
Jakob Fuglsang's lead has been whittled down to 17sec now. Surely he is going to have to sit up and let those chasers catch him.
47km to go
Jakob Fuglsang is looking supreme, but as we saw in the women's race earlier you can never rule anything out in this race. The Dane has around 30sec on the chasing group which features Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) and Maximilian Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) and Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates). Unless something dramatic happens, one would imagine the winner will come from one of these riders. There is some real talent in there.
48km to go
Jakob Fuglsang is flying. The Dane who was out-muscled here last year by Julian Alaphilippe has ridden off the front and has put around 40sec into a group featuring Maximilian Schachman, Michal Kwiatkowski, Michael Gogl . There are an awful lot of riders who look like they are suffering in this heat today.
52km to go
Chaotic scenes out on the roads right now. There are riders littered along these chalky white roads, with the hopes and dreams of many of them having turned to dust. Jakob Fuglsang and Maximilian Schachmann are looking strong and ploughing on through clouds of dust, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) is not too far behind the pair. Fuglsang, meanwhile, appears to be losing his temper with the tv motorbike which is throwing up plumes of nasty white dust into his line.
53km to go
Julian Alaphilippe is pedalling squares somewhere between the team cars that trail the race leaders.
55km to go
Ok, I have a feed now on my tiny mobile. This is a sub-optimal service being provided today by the host broadcaster. Anyway, Gorka Izagirre (Astana), Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe), Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott) and Michael Gogl (NTT Pro Cycling) have clipped off the front, as they tackle section eight which is the famous Monte Sante Marie sector.
Siena, we have a problem . . .
Apologies for the staccato nature of this live blog right now, but the television feed has gone down. The broadcasters are having a bit of a nightmare today, but hopefully pictures will return soon.
Benoot and Kragh Andersen abandon
Yes, it sounds as if not only has Tiesj Benoot abandoned, but his team-mate and Soren Kragh Andersen has also got off the bike.
Whittling down game
Marcus Burghardt and Lawson Craddock have managed to bridge over to race leader Simon Pellaud, while the peloton has been vastly reduced to around 25 riders. I'm hearing that 2018 champion Tiesj Benoot (Sunweb) has abandoned, but as yet have no confirmation of that.
Van der Poel and Alaphilippe delayed
There's been a couple of crashes in the peloton, First Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) hit the deck, before a few moments later a bigger crash took place with Mathieu van der Poel and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) both appearing to go down.
Julian Alaphilippe was briefly delayed, too, with a puncture. So the pre-race favourite are not not having the best of spells.
77km to go: Jungels et al make their move
Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe), Lawson Craddock (EF Pro Cycling) and Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick Step) have put in an attack. Interesting to see Jungels making that move so early.
His team Deceuninck-Quick Step has three or four potential winners here today — himself, defending champion Julian Alaphilippe, another former winner Zdenek Stybar and youngster Kasper Asgreen. Having a rider with the ability of Jungels in any small group, may help determine the tactics later on.
Men's race: 85km to go . . .
Meanwhile, back in the men's race Simon Pellaud continues to lead, though the Swiss'a advantage is minimal. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) are all positioned near the front of the peloton, keeping themselves and their team-mates —particularly Oss who will be on domestique duties for Peter Sagan and Maximilian Schachmann here today — out of harm's way.
Garcia trails in in second
Mavi Garcia finished in second spot 22sec behind Annemiek van Vleuten, while US rider Leah Thomas took the third step on the podium a further 1min 31sec back.
Speaking immediately afterwards, Van Vleuten said: “Piazza del Campo is the most beautiful place for me to win a race. I had a lot of emotions today. I didn't think I would catch Mavi Garcia and I believe the whole scenario has made it a very spectacular race.”
Van Vleuten defends her title!
So fatigued is Annemiek van Vleuten, that she misses a couple of pedal strokes, but she has a big enough gap on Mavi Garcia that it doesn't matter. The brilliant world champion becomes the first rider to retain the women's edition of a quite memorable Strade Bianche!
700 metres to go.
Mavi Garcia take it to Annemiek van Vleuten, but the Dutchwoman responds on the steep road into the narrow streets of Siena.
1'5km to go: Garcia holding on
Just 600 metres from the city walls.
2km to go
Toing-and-froing, the pair are toying with each other like track riders. Annemiek van Vleuten is on the front and keeps testing her rival with short little attacks. The elastic has yet to snap. Garcia is a tough cookie and will not snap. Not yet, at least.
3km to go
This leading pair are edging their way towards the walled city of Siena. Remember, there's one final kicker up into the old city. I fully expect defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten to hold on and take the race, but who knows — she has not managed to shake off Mavi Garcia
6.5km to go: The catch is made
Defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten has caught Mavi Garcia, but the Spaniard managed to hold onto the wheel of the Dutchwoman. Was expecting van Vleuten to just ride through Garcia.
7km to go
Unfortunately the television pictures are no longer showing the distance to the finishing line — useful! — but Mavi Garcia is using her body weight on the descent to try and gain an advantage on Annemiek van Vleuten. Garcia is struggling, but refuse to give up.
Under 10km to go: Van Vleuten in control
Mavi Garcia is now constantly looking over her shoulder, knowing full well that the steam engine that is Annemiek van Vleuten is looming.
13km to go: Heartbreak for Garcia?
Annemiek van Vleuten, who really is a quite brilliant bike racer, is looking cool and composed here, down on her drops and eating up the road. Mavi Garcia's advantage, which remember was at over five minutes on Van Vleuten a short while ago, is down to below a minute.
14.5km to go: Van Vleuten is in pursuit
With the road pitching up to 15 per cent now, the latest gravel section appears to be biting. Mavi Garcia is losing time with her lead down to 2min 35sec, while Annemiek van Vleuten — a rider who can put huge power through her cranks while sat in the saddle — has attacked off the front of the chasing group.
15km to go: Here we go . . .
Quite unbelievably, the phenomenal Annemiek van Vleuten has bridged over to the chasing group and that will not have helped the motivation of anybody. Can the world champion reel Garcia back in and claim an incredible result, or will Mavi Garcia hold on to her dwindling lead?
16.5km to go: Garcia going big
Mavi Garcia appears to be pushing a fairly big gear and, perhaps a little worryingly, is looks to be labouring a little.
Men's race: 108km to go
Back in the men's race... well, Simon Pellaud continues to lead, but don't think anybody is too bothered just yet.
20km to go: Garcia on course for huge win
This is some ride from Mavi Garcia. Such is her dominance here that she appears to have broken to resolve of the chasing group which has now split up. Just six riders remain in pursuit — Karol-Ann Canuel, Amanda Spratt, Soraya Paladin, Lisa Brennauer, Ellen van Dijk and Leah Thomas — but they're a quite sizable 3min 25sec down on the Spaniard. You have to wonder if these hot conditions suit her better than those from northern Europe. Either way, it is an incredible performance here.
Garcia increases her lead
It feels way too early to be saying this, but Mavi Garcia appears to be doing what Annemiek van Vleuten ordinarily does for fun, ride her rivals off the wheel and time trial it to the line. The Spaniard has increased her lead on the peloton to almost six minutes — yes, you read that correctly — while Ellen van Dijk has given up in her pursuit of the Alé BTC Ljubljana rider and is back in the chasing group, 4min down. As mentioned earlier, Garcia has only ever won race in her Spanish homeland and both were national titles, so this would be huge for her if she manages to hold on all the way back to Siena without being caught.
Men's race hit section four
Back in the men's edition, race leader Simon Pellaud has a narrow advantage on the chasers while Van Kessel is around a minute down as they pass over their fourth section of gravel today which, as I said earlier, is a relatively straightforward gravel section. Nothing to see here.
Van Dijk in hot pursuit of Garcia
Ellen van Dijk, who is apparently riding on Trek-Segafredo team-mate from the men's squad Koen de Kort's bike today, has had enough and has attacked the chasing group, the Dutchwoman off in pursuit of Mavi Garcia.
Garcia is flying in the women's race
Mavi Garcia has extended her advantage on that 10-rider group to two minutes, while the peloton — featuring Annemiek van Vleuten — is a further 1min 30 down the road. That is a seriously impressive injection of pace from the Alé BTC Ljubljana rider. Incidentally, Garcia has never won an elite women's race outside of Spain.
Mavi Garcia (Alé BTC Ljubljana), who arrived here in fine form having finished second behind Annemiek van Vleuten at the recent one-day Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa and ninth in the Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, has attacked off the front of that 11-rider leading group. This could be interesting.
The 36-year-old Spaniard has a handful of seconds on Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott), Rasa Leleivyte (Aramoitalia-Basso Bikes-Vaiano), Karol-Ann Canuel (Boels-Dolmans), Soraya Paladin (CCC-Liv), Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo), Elisa Balsamo (Valcar-Travel&Service), Brodie Chapman (FDJ), Leah Thomas (Equipe Paule Ka), Lisa Brennauer and Omer Shapira.
Astana riding on the front foot
Back in the men's race, Astana — who have two possible winners here today in Jakob Fuglsang and Alexey Lutsenko — has taken control on the front of the peloton as it tackles the third section of gravel in the men's edition. The team in sky blue and the rest of the pack trail the breakaway by 1min 10sec.
Van Vleuten not in leading group
With just under 48km of very tough racing to go in the women's race, and the lead group has grown to 11 riders. The big news is that Annemiek van Vleuten is not in that group, though her Mitchelton-Scott team-mate Amanda Spratt is. Such is the strength and form of Van Vleuten — she has won every race she has started since the world championships in Harrogate last year — that one would imagine she will find a way of getting back on.
Bewley abandons men's race
Sam Bewley (Mitchelton-Scott), the 33-year-old Kiwi, has abandoned the race. Not entirely sure why, but can only assume he was caught up in the earlier crash that also involved riders from Trek-Segafredo and Israel Start-Up Nation.
Women's race is heating up
Shortly after the riders completed the tough San Martino in Grania section of gravel, and the chasers latched back on. Only for further attacks to go off the front, a seven-rider group featuring Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling), who spoke before the race about her desire to pull off a big win here today, has gone off up the road.
Nicola Bagioli (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec), Quentin Pacher (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), Iuri Filosi (Bardiani-CSF-Faizane), Benjamin Declercq (Arkéa-Samsic) and Van Kessel — all riders from Pro-Continental squads — have bridged over to Pellaud, with the group now leading by around two minutes.
Select group forming in women's race
Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), a former winner at Strade Bianche, is well-positioned on the wheel of one of her old team-mates Anna van der Breggen ( Boels-Dolmans). Both know each other's strengths inside out, but neither will be wanting to gift the other anything today.
That leading group has now reduced to just 20 riders. As predicted, the San Martino in Grania section did some real damage. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) is is this group, as is the great Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) who has yet to win here at Strade Bianche — one of the few races the Dutchwoman has not won.
Crash in the men's race
There has been a crash in the men's race involving riders from Mitchelton-Scott, Trek-Segafredo and Israel Start-Up Nation, but it doesn't sound like it was too serious. It will act as an early warning to riders, however, who will need to keep their wits about them today.
Pellaud has been joined at the front of the race by another five riders.
Women's race reach the halfway point
The women's peloton has reached the fifth of eight gravel sectors in their race — San Martino in Grania, 9.5km — which features a number of short, steep climbs. Already the bunch has started to split, lining out with many of the pre-race favourites at the right end of proceedings.
🏁68 km: Half time of the race and we enter the infamous Sector 5, San Martino in Grania. 9.5km of gravel, mostly uphill.— UCI_WWT (@UCI_WWT) August 1, 2020
There the peloton will fall in pieces for sure! #StradeBianche #UCIWWT pic.twitter.com/bum2mCHDBQ
Early attack in the men's race
The duo of Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) and Corne Van Kessel (Circus-Wanty Gobert) wasted little time today and clipped off the front fairly swiftly after the flag dropped before gaining an advantage of around 20sec. However, Van Kessel was soon reeled back in by the bunch leaving the 27-year-old Swiss hanging out in the front all on his lonesome.
And they're off . . .
The men's race is under way. In fact it started a few minutes ago but I somehow missed it. As mentioned earlier in the — quite long-winded — description of the route, the opening 18km of the course is on nice smooth asphalt and we're not expecting the real action to kick off for sometime yet.
Calm before the storm
This will not be the last picture we see today of the dust clouds that will cause all sorts of issues for riders and their support teams.
The peloton is making its way towards section five, while the men are in Siena minutes away from the start of their race.
The heat is on . . .
By the way, it is extremely hot out in Tuscany today. As you would expect at the beginning of August. At the moment it is around 34°, but forecasts suggest the mercury may rise further and nudge that up to a sweltering 37°. The extreme heat is likely to play a huge part in the outcome of both races today.
Not only will riders need to hydrate, which can be difficult when team cars are way behind you as they, too, navigate the tricky and at time treacherous course, but the dry chalky roads will cause dust to to riders' lungs which can be unbearably uncomfortable.
Some riders, of course, naturally cope better in the heat than others which, to be totally honest, I had not even considered when I made a few selections for the men's race. But who did I pick? Find below a few riders to watch out for, but here's the full list. Just want to add the caveat that in reality I could have selected any one of 30 riders for today's race, especially given that we have no idea about the form of anybody. Oh, and the betting odds — for thoase that care about these things — were correct when the article was originally published.
And the women's race? Oh that's easy: Annemiek van Vleuten.
Mathieu van der Poel (Hol)
Age: 25 | Team: Alpecin-Fenix
Best result at Strade Bianche: Van der Poel will make his debut in 2020
It will surprise few to discover that Mathieu van der Poel is the overriding favourite to win on his Strade Bianche debut on Saturday. The three-time world cyclo-cross champion has the power, bike handling skills and the ability to quickly recover between efforts required to prevail on the white roads of Tuscany. Little wonder the bookmakers's extremely short odds.
Best odds to win: 43/10
Julian Alaphilippe (Fra)
Age: 28 | Team: Deceuninck-Quick Step
Best result at Strade Bianche: First — 2019
The defending champion had originally planned on skipping the race, but here is. Coming just a week before Milan-Sanremo — another race he won in 2019 — the race may yet again provide the launchpad for what was an unforgettable season for the Frenchman. Team-mate Zdenek Stybar (14/1) is another possible winner, as is youngster Kasper Asgreen (66/1).
Best odds to win: 4/1
Wout Van Aert (Bel)
Age: 25 | Team: Jumbo-Visma
Best result at Strade Bianche: Third — 2018, 2019
The talented all-rounder, and another three-time world cyclo-cross champion, has finished third in his two previous appearances and will be desperate to improve on that. Endured a terrible crash at last year's Tour de France, but appeared to be recovering well during the cyclo-cross campaign. Odds of 14/1 are too generous for a rider of Van Aert's ability. Best odds to win: 14/1
Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol)
Age: 30 | Team: Ineos
Best result at Strade Bianche: First — 2014, 2017
By his standards, endured a disappointing season in 2019. Will be hoping the race he has won twice can provide the perfect platform on which to build a foundation for the coming season. Is out of contract at the end of the year which could give the Pole added motivation going into the restart. The race may also suit Italian team-mate Gianni Moscon (80/1).
Best odds to win: 18/1
Jakob Fuglsang (Den)
Age: 35 | Team: Astana
Best result at Strade Bianche: Second — 2019
Lost out to Alaphilippe in Tuscany last year, but the Dane went on to enjoy his best season yet with victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a maiden grand tour stage win at the Vuelta a España. May be too much to expect the 35-year-old to repeat last year's efforts, but in Alexey Lutsenko (20/1) has a team-mate who may slip beneath the radar and challenge.
Best odds to win: 9/1
Trek-Segafredo Women: We was robbed
Incidentally, the women's Trek-Segafredo riders here today are all using their spare bikes after there was an overnight operation from some thieves. A short and brief missive from the team this morning, read thus: "Six Trek Émonda of the women's team were stolen in the night. The thieves broke through the roof of the truck and took the bikes. The riders will still start the Strade Bianche on spare bikes."
And that leading group has increased to around 40 riders.
Lucy, or unlucky strike out?
After passing through the village of Lupompesi, Omer Shapira was caught on sector three of gravel before a group of 13 riders counter-attacked and put some space between themselves and the bunch.
Shapira takes early lead in women's race
Omer Shapira (Canyon-Sram), the three-time Israel national champion, has taken the lead in the women's race as the peloton approaches the third gravel section of the day. The 25-year-old has managed to gain around 30sec on the peloton, but there's a long way to go yet.
So, what does the course look like?
At just 184 kilometres long — the women's course is 136km — Strade Bianche is far from the longest one-day race in the calendar, that honour befalls next weekend's Milan-Sanremo which clocks in at a massive 299km, however it bites.
Profile of the men's race
Featuring 63km of gravel roads that are raced on undulating — and at times viciously steep — terrain, Strade Bianche is deceptively tough. There may be no long climbs, but in places reach gradients of up to 18 per cent. I've previously said to understand this race you must imagine Paris-Roubaix crossed with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with a bit of a cyclo-cross course thrown in for good measure. Do that and you are somewhere close to understanding Strade Bianche.
Anyway, the 63km of gravel road — slightly fewer in the women's race — are made up of 11 sectors, (eight for the women) all of differing lengths and levels of difficulty.
After setting out from Siena, the riders will be treated to 18km of lovely smooth asphalt before reaching the race's first sector of gravel which is relatively benign at just over 2km long. This dead straight road which is slightly downhill should not test the riders too much, but will give the debutants at this race their first taste of the white roads in racing conditions.
Map of the men's race
Following a brief return to the asphalt, a slightly tougher stretch of gravel awaits the peloton. At just below 6km — 5.8km, to be precise — section two will provide the riders their first challenge as the road ramps up towards Ville di Corsano at gradients that go above 10 per cent.
Two further sections follow at 32.4km and 42.7km respectively, clocking in at 4.4km (section three) and section four that is named La Piana which is 5.5km long. Neither feature any climbs that appear too tricky, but will play their part in softening up anybody that has not brought their best legs to the party.
The second climb of the day, the Montalcino — 4km long at five per cent average gradient — precedes section five which is 11.9km in length. A short 1,000-metre stretch of asphalt punctuates the course, before section six which is slightly shorter at 8km. Both sections are relatively tough, but are not expected to cause too many issues.
By this point in the race, it is widely expected that if they have not already done so the key players will start to position themselves in preparation for what follows just beyond the feed zone at the 100km mark.
Section seven, which begins in San Martino in Grania and is 9.5km in length is where the race, traditionally, really starts to take shape. With numerous little kickers, there are plenty of opportunities here for those feeling strong to press hard and apply the pressure. Towards the end of the long stretch of gravel there is a further twisty climb before the descent, on asphalt, towards section eight. Positioning here may be key, and while you or I — probably — would take advantage of the smooth surface and freewheel for a couple of kilometres, the stronger riders will do nothing of the kind. Similarly to Paris-Roubaix, attacks can often follow immediately after gravel sections.
Next up is the most famous, and feared, section of the race. With 130km of racing in the legs, section eight which is 11.5km begins in Ponte del Garbo before heading towards Monte Sante Marie. It may look beguiling in photographs and on television, but trust me this rolling stretch of road is really, really, hard to ride. With numerous short and steep climbs — and descents — this is widely regarded as the hardest gravel section of the race.
The following 20km may all be on asphalt, but the road continues to rise and fall, just as riders’ ambitions may do as their exertions start to take their toll. There’s a further 300 metres of gravel, though not long or decisive enough to be considered an official ‘section’. Next up is a horrible 800-metre stretch — section nine — that will feel like riding up a wall as the road’s gradient goes well into double digits. With just over 30km of the race to go, the selection will either have been made, or is very much in the post.
Final 20km of the men's race
The penultimate sector of gravel — section 10 — may only be 2.4km long, but the Colle Pinzuto climb tops out at 15 per cent in gradient, before the final gravel section of the day follows a few kilometres later. Again, it is a short one but section 11 features a vicious climb at 18 per cent. That’s going to hurt, but the race is far from over yet.
With 12km of the race remaining, those still in with a chance of winning Strade Bianche will have to keep their cool in the August heat. Numerous short climbs pepper the run-in back towards Siena before they arrive at the old walled city.
Final 3km of the route
On entering the city beneath the Fontebranda Gate, the leading riders will hit the large paving slabs that are seen all across the city of Siena. Now within the city walls, riding along the narrow streets and under a kilometre from the finishing line in the famous old Piazza del Campo — where the medieval Palio di Siena horse race ordinarily takes place each July and August — the road rises one last time.
Twisting finale into Piazza del Campo
At around 500 metres from the line the steepest stretch of road along Via Santa Caterina cruelly tops out at 16 per cent — it was here that did for Wout Van Aert in 2018 when the young Belgian cramped up — before the road takes a sharp right. A left-hand turn is followed by a right hander before the riders, finally, arrive in Piazza del Campo.
Providing the riders have any horse-power left in their legs, once they have navigated a short descent they can gallop one last time for the line on one of the few pan-flat stretches of the entire course, which is a measly 30 metres long.
Coronavirus strikes again
Speaking of absentee riders, it was reported on Friday night that Silvan Dillier had tested positive for coronavirus and so the classics and time trial specialist that finished second to Peter Sagan at the 2018 edition of Paris-Roubaix was pulled, leaving his Ag2r-La Mondiale team a rider short on the start line in Siena.
"I feel really s----- mentally," the 29-year-old Swiss told publication Blick. "I am the healthiest person on earth. I've had more tests in the past few days and they have all been negative.
"The whole health system is a damn joke. In my opinion, it is borderline to simply imprison healthy people," Dillier added.
The news will have come as a huge blow to Ag2r-La Mondiale who claimed a second place at the race through Romain Bardet in 2018, with Dillier expected to lead the French team here today.
Just to let you know, I shall endeavour to do my best to keep you up to speed with the women's race, but seeing as I cannot see live images just yet those posts will be intermittent at best. Hopefully once the race reaches the business part of the day — when Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) rides the pack off her wheel to claim a second successive Strade Bianche title — I will be on hand to let you know.
One rider that will not be contesting the race, however, is Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv). The South African crashed heavily during her reconnaissance ride of the course and needed 60 — yes, sixty — stitches.
"I've been looking forward to this day for many months, but Strade Bianche 2020 is just not meant to be for me," Moolman-Pasio tweeted this morning. "Bad crash in training yesterday, and 60 stitches later means I'm out of today's race. Wishing my CCC Liv team the best of luck and strong legs! Thanks for all well wishes."
Another rider that has not started the women's race today is Ella Harris. The 22-year-old New Zealand rider was another to crash during a training ride on Friday. Her Canyon-Sram team tweeted:
Unfortunately Ella Harris won’t start @StradeBianche today after breaking her hip in a training crash yesterday. Ella will soon undergo surgery. We‘re sending her the best wishes for a full and speedy recovery. 💐 #UCIWWT pic.twitter.com/gbWfO5mV6F— CANYON//SRAM Racing (@WMNcycling) August 1, 2020
Germany's Clara Koppenberg (Équipe Paule Ka) also failed to make the start line following a crash yesterday.
Ciao, buongiorno and welcome to our live rolling blog from the 14th edition of Strade Bianche, the first WorldTour race of the campaign following the restart of the cycling calendar.
As you are here, you probably already know a little bit about cycling and the history of Strade Bianche which for me is the most beautiful one-day race in the calendar. However, for those unfamiliar with this Italian race that defending champion Julian Alaphilippe described as a “piccolo [small] monument” during an interview at a pre-season training camp, let us fill in a few gaps.
Strade Bianche is a unique race in the professional calendar that has its earned place in the hearts of cycling fans, despite only being in existence for 13 years. While amateurs are often found aping their heroes at cyclosportives or granfondos, the first Italian race of the WorldTour season — both in the original and revised calendar — in fact reverses the paradigm.
Taking its lead from the huge popularity of L'Eroica, the non-competitive amateur event that traverses the chalky white roads of Tuscany and requires riders to complete the event on retro steel bicycles, RCS Sport, organisers of the Giro d'Italia, launched Strade Bianche — then called Monte Paschi Eroica — in October 2007 when Alexandr Kolobnev won the inaugural edition of the race.
After moving the race to March the following year, Swiss classics specialist Fabian Cancellara won the first of the three Strade Bianche titles he claimed before retiring in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the race has become a particular favourite with the classics riders, particularly since its move to the earlier part of the calendar. Previous winners include Philippe Gilbert, Michal Kwiatkowski, Zdenek Stybar and Julian Alaphilippe, while Moreno Moser is the sole Italian to have the race on his palmarès.
Strade Bianche earned itself WorldTour status in 2016. In addition to the men's race, there is also a women's event which today will be the sixth edition. That race, too, of the women's is part of the Women's WorldTour and it got under way a little over 15 minutes ago.