The weekly spin: Strade Bianche, princess of the classics

In just 13 years, Strade Bianche has become one of the most anticipated races in professional cycling.

Originally a spinoff of L’Eroica Strade Bianche, the popular vintage-bike gran fondo event held in the Chianti region of Tuscany, the inaugural pro race was held in 2007; it was first titled Monte Paschi Eroica, so named for title sponsor Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, one of the world’s oldest banks.

In 2009, owners RCS — the group behind the Giro d’Italia, Milan-San Remo, and Il Lombardia — changed the race’s name to the far-too-long Monte Paschi Strade Bianche-Eroica Toscana, and then, in 2010, simply to Strade Bianche. The women’s event was launched in 2015, and in 2017 Strade Bianche became a UCI WorldTour event.

In just this short period of time there’s been persistent and growing discussion around the idea of Strade Bianche joining the ranks of Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia to become pro cycling’s sixth Monument — a somewhat shocking suggestion for a sport so steeped in tradition.

But what Strade Bianche lacks in history (and distance), it makes up for with its unique setting and demanding course that lends itself to classics-style racing. While Paris-Roubaix travels across the barren farmland of Northern France, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen works its way through a series of villages in East Flanders, Strade Bianche traverses rolling hills littered with Tuscan vineyards and Renaissance architecture, starting and finishing in the medieval city of Siena. The wine in the Chianti region is pretty good, too.

All told, Strade Bianche has all the makings of an instant classic. If Paris-Roubaix is the Queen of the Classics, and Liège is La Doyenne (“The Elder Lady”), then Strade Bianche has quickly become the Princess of the Classics, a fresh young face with an ageless quality.

And with its early spot on the calendar, 63km of gravel roads, and 3,000 meters of climbing, it’s also perhaps the hardest to classify — a race that can be won by a Grand Tour champion or a cobblestone crusher. Just look at the 2018 edition, won by a Belgian classics man ahead of a Tour de France podium finisher and the world cyclocross champion.

Across 13 editions of the men’s race, and five editions of the women’s race, no rider has taken consecutive victories. Two men, Fabian Cancellara and Michal Kwiatkowski, have won more than once, while no woman has won it twice. Though she’s never finished first, Polish rider Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) has been most consistent, finishing in the top six all five years it’s been held, with four podium finishes.

A pair of first-time champions emerged Saturday, though neither could be considered a surprise winner.

After 184km of racing, including 63km across white gravel roads, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) got the better of Dane Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) to take the victory in the historic Piazza del Campo in Siena. Former world cyclocross champion Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) finished third, for the second consecutive year.

It was Alaphilippe’s first attempt at Strade Bianche, and his team’s fourth consecutive win in one-day events in the span of eight days.

The win was yet another feather in the cap for the 26-year-old Alaphilippe, winner of Flèche Wallonne and Clásica San Sebastián last year who also lit up the Tour de France in July, taking two mountain stages and the KOM jersey.

“It’s unbelievable that I win Strade Bianche at my first participation,” Alaphilippe said. “I was focused all day on the finale. I was lucky to never crash nor have a flat tire. My team did a great job in protecting me. Fuglsang was very strong, but I made no mistakes. However I wasn’t confident in winning until the last corner. This is a wonderful victory.”

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceunick-Quick Step) out-sprinted Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) to win Strade Bianche in his first attempt.

Two and a half hours earlier, Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) soloed to victory in just her second race since breaking her knee at the 2018 road world championship in Innsbruck.

The two-time world time trial champion went clear with 12km to go in the 136km race, finishing 37 seconds ahead of Danish rider Annika Langvad (Boels-Dolmans), the 2016 XC world champion and current marathon world champion who is competing in select road events this season.

Winner of La Course, Boels Ladies Tour, and the Giro Rosa last year, Van Vleuten opened a sizable gap and never looked back, proving that on her day, she is the most formidable rider in women’s cycling.

“I just waited for a good moment [to attack],” Van Vleuten said. ‘There was only one teammate with me, Lucy Kennedy. It was really good for us to be there together with two, but we were a bit outnumbered. We were only two in a big group so we had to [play] poker a bit, then I thought I had to put the hammer down on the uphill.”

Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) soloed to victory, while Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) finished on the podium for a fourth consecutive season.

Covered in dust, rather than mud

In stark contrast to last year’s race, run through cold and rain, Saturday’s race was held in sunny and warm conditions; riders would be covered in dust, rather than mud. The men’s peloton faced 11 sectors of gravel roads, for a total of 63km — over one-third of the 184km race.

Coming off the third sector, with 145km still remaining, four riders had opened a gap of one minute.

The composition of the daylong breakaway was Alexandre Geniez and Nico Denz (Ag2r La Mondiale), Diego Rosa (Team Sky), and Leo Vincent (Groupama-FDJ). Their gap stretched out over four minutes, but the high pace in the peloton, and the lack of numbers in the breakaway, spelled doom for the leaders.

After Geniez punctured and Vincent was dropped, only Rosa and Denz remained. The time gap at the feed zone, with 80km and four gravel sectors to go, was over three minutes to the chasing peloton. The German was unable to keep pace with his Italian breakaway companion, and with 50km to go, Rosa was the sole rider remaining at the front, his gap at 1:30.

Behind, Van Avermaet attacked the peloton on Monte Sante Marie, the eighth gravel sector; that move was countered by Fuglsang, causing a major split, with a group of 15 riders forming.

In the group chasing Rosa: Tiesj Benoot, last year’s winner, and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal); Fuglsang and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana); Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe); Greg Van Avermaet (CCC); Zdenek Stybar, Alaphilippe and Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step); Alberto Bettiol and Simon Clarke (EF Education First); Romain Seigle (Groupama-FDJ); Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma); Robert Power (Sunweb); and Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo).

Marquee riders in the second chase group included Geraint Thomas and Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida),

Rosa was caught with 36km and three gravel sectors left; the chase group sat more than one minute behind what was became a 16-rider front group, though that gap began to shrink  as the leaders hit Sector 9 at Monteaperti — a steep 800m stretch of gravel at 23km remaining.

Given the gradient and proximity to the finish, it was a certainty that the group would split apart, and once again it was Fuglsang on the attack, drawing out Alaphilippe, and then Van Aert. Skujins jumped away on the paved descent in a failed attempt to bridge across.

“When Fuglsang went, I knew that it might be the winning move,” Alaphilippe said. He was right.

The winning move: Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), and Julian Alaphilippe Deceuninck-Quick Step) went clear on Sector 9 at Monteaperti with 23km remaining.

Benoot also tried unsuccessfully to bridge across, but the three leaders held a 27-second lead as they approached the Colle Pinzuto, the 2.4km long penultimate section of gravel with gradients up to 15%.

“During the decisive moment, I chose the wheel of Lutsenko, who was then riding at the front, because he seemed very strong,” Benoot said. “When they attacked, it was difficult to react.”

Fuglsang was again on the attack on the steep gravel climb, quickly putting Van Aert into difficulty. And then there were two at the front— a former U23 mountain-bike world champion and a silver medalist from the junior cyclocross world championship representing the two most successful team of the nascent 2019 road season.

As Fuglsang and Alaphilippe pushed ahead, Lotto-Soudal was forced to take up the chase as Lutsenko, Stybar, and Lampaert sat on.

“When three riders escape and they have with Lampaert, Stybar and Lutsenko still three teammates in the chasing group, it is an almost impossible task to still organize the chase,” Wellens said. “We consistently lost time.”

With 16km to go, the two riders had opened a gap of 50 seconds — it appeared the race win would be decided between them.

Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) alone at the front.

Alaphilippe, a punchy climber who can sprint, had already won stages at Vuelta a San Juan and Tour Colombia this year. Fuglsang, a powerful climber with a strong time trial, took the overall victory at the Ruta del Sol. Who would take the win?

Fuglsang looked to be the strongest on the climbs, but given Alaphilippe’s explosiveness, it was anyone’s guess what might happen on the final wall, Via Santa Caterina, into the hilltop city of Siena.

The final gravel sector was just 1.1km, marked by a series of descents followed by a short, steep climb. Once again Fuglsang gave it a go, but the Dane could not drop the Frenchman, and over the top it was just 12km to the finish in Piazza del Campo, the leaders holding a 34-second gap over Van Aert and 1:37 over the chase group.

As they approached Siena, the cat-and-mouse games began, allowing Van Aert to close to within 13 seconds inside 2km to go; with 1,100 meters remaining, Van Aert was back on. The young Belgian then rode right through them, forcing Alaphilippe to react.

“On the penultimate gravel section the pace was a bit too high for me and I had to let them go,” Van Aert said. “It was still a long way to the finish, but I continued to pull and I didn’t give up. I was able to return to the front when we went on to the final climb, but I had already given too much to be able to attack. When I came across to them, I was already on the limit and all I had in mind was to keep my pace to prevent anyone taking the third place from me. I never thought I could win.”

When Fuglsang attacked with 500 meters remaining, Van Aert quickly lost contact.

Onto the Santa Caterina climb, Van Aert set the pace while Fuglsang sat back, marking Alaphilippe. Van Aert quickly lost contact, and at 500 meters to go, Fuglsang attacked. Alaphilippe swiftly reacted, then jumped away with 250 to go to raise his arms in victory, the first French rider to take victory in Piazza del Campo.

“Strade Bianche was my first big goal of the season,” Alaphilippe said. “I started pretty well in South America but I wanted to win here. I was very motivated with a strong team. It wasn’t easy to be the favorite of a race I never took part in previously, but I’m quite used to the pressure now and I handle the situation pretty well. I felt heavy legs in the finale, and Fuglsang was fresher than me. I had to arrive with him at the bottom of the San Caterina. I’m super happy that I made it.”

Fuglsang, whose 18 career wins have most often come at stage races, couldn’t hide his disappointment in coming so close to victory at a prestigious one-day race.

“I’m happy to be on the podium of such a nice race, but I felt really strong today, and I wanted to win,” he said. “I rode well, but I lost, so it’s a little bittersweet. I was thinking about how to beat Alaphilippe, but he was not so keen on working too hard, so I knew that I had to somehow try to surprise him or to drop him in the last part of the last climb before the finish. In a sprint finish, he was always going to be stronger than me. I tried a few times, but nothing worked out.”

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) admitted he had heavy legs on the final climb, but he proved quickest when it mattered most.

For the second year in a row, Van Aert suffered on the steep ramps of Via Santa Caterina in order to secure the final podium spot, finishing 33 seconds ahead of Stybar.

“I really rode at my limit in the last kilometres,” Van Aert said. “The last half hour was really tough. I am glad that I survived and that I finished on the podium again. The third place was the highest possible today. But I’ll definitely come back to try to win Strade Bianche. This is my second podium in two participations. I hope one day everything will come together. This is a race where you get the reward when you dare to attack. That’s what I did for the second time in a row. I’m happy with the podium place I got, but I want the top spot in the future.”

With the win, Deceuninck-Quick-Step has won four one-day races in four starts over the span of one week — Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Le Samyn, and Strade Bianche — with four different riders.

“In every race, others are looking at us to take the responsibility, and that’s what we did today,” Alaphilippe said. “We were with three riders in the main selection, controlled every move and did a really smart race in all the key moments. A cycling season is not only about the Flèche Wallonne and the Tour de France for me. I needed something new to motivate me, and that was Strade Bianche.”

Van Vleuten in a league of her own

In the women’s 136km race — which was televised for the final hour of racing — Van Vleuten went clear with 12km to go to win the first event of the 2019 UCI Women’s WorldTour. After several small groups broke away only to be reeled back in, she attacked on the final sector of gravel and quickly opened a gap of 30 seconds. From there, it was time trial mode for the queen of the discipline, and she would not be beaten.

The Mitchelton-Scott rider crossed the line 37 seconds ahead of Langvad (Boels-Dolmans), with Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) in third. The win was the Dutch rider’s first since breaking her knee at the 2018 UCI Road World Championships, just days of winning the rainbow jersey in the time trial.

“This victory at Strade Bianche stands in the top five of all the races I’ve won in my career,” Van Vleuten said. “The finish in Siena is beautiful. I like to race in Italy but it’s really special to win on the Piazza del Campo at the end of a hectic and very hard race.

“After my crash last year, I thought it would be difficult to get back into the level I had last year and I usually struggle to get into shape in Spring. I was not supposed to race Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche, but those two races were added to my calendar after I realized I was at a higher level than I had thought. I’m very happy with this victory. It gives me the confidence that I can be in good shape in spring also. The Ardennes classics are my next big target and later, the Giro d’Italia.”

Langvad and Niewiadoma battled up the Via Santa Caterina climb, with Langvad getting the better of the Polish rider. Langvad said she was “in shock” to finish second at the opening round of the Women’s WorldTour.

“This is my first ever race on this level, except for the world championship I did last year,” Langvad said. “I can’t believe it. It’s just insane.

:It was such a tough race. At Sector 4, I was wondering how I would make it until the end. I have very little experience with this. But I started to try and ride smarter and save myself. In the end, my teammates just worked like heroes. They sacrificed themselves for me. I felt it was such a big responsibility on my shoulders for my first road race with the team. When I went up the last climb neck to neck with Kasia [Niewiadoma], I thought of all the work my teammates produced to put me up there, so I just gave everything.”

Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) soloed to her first victory at Strade Bianche.

Niewiadoma acknowledged that a fourth consecutive podium finish, without a victory, was bittersweet.

“I’m both happy and frustrated with being on the podium of Strade Bianche once again,” she said. “I’m happy because I know that I gave everything. I’m frustrated because I didn’t win. But Annemiek was extremely strong and she’s a well-deserved winner. I wasn’t surprised when she attacked. The last 25km were very brutal. There were plenty of different attacks. Her move was definitely the strongest. I was going very deep.”

Niewiadoma finished four seconds ahead of Italian Marta Bastianelli (Virtu Cycling) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Bigla). In all, there were five Dutch women in the top 10, with Marianne Vos (CCC) finishing seventh, world champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) in ninth, and Dutch champion Chantal Blaak, also Boels-Dolmans, in 10th.

While most of the women’s peloton will head to the Ronde van Denthe next weekend, Langvad and Van der Breggen head to South Africa to compete together at the Absa Cape Epic mountain-bike stage race.

The podium of the 2019 Strade Bianche, from left: Annika Langvad (Boels Dolmans), Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM).

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