The tentative return of World Tour racing
This Saturday, a whole 149 days after becoming the first high-profile race to be cancelled as a result of the spread of coronavirus, a rescheduled Strade Bianche is set to take place, marking the beginning of an uncertain new era of racing.
When an outbreak of cases in Italy all the way back in March prompted that cancellation, few would have predicted just how much the world was about to change, and that it would cause racing to stop altogether for such a prolonged period of time. Only now, with cases across Europe having lowered to relatively manageable levels, has a return to racing been deemed safe.
While small events like the Romanian Sibiu Tour and some Spanish women’s one-day races have been held recently, and the Vuelta a Burgos got going earlier this week with some big names involved, the Strade Bianche men's and women's races are the first World Tour events scheduled in the UCI’s revised 2020 season calendar. It will provide a revealing litmus test as to how well equipped the cycling world is to cope with the new circumstances.
In accordance with the UCI’s safety protocols, social distancing measures will be in place in order to minimise contact between the various attendees of the race, such as riders, the press and fans. We can expect plenty of masks to be worn, and the use of sanitising materials to keep things like bidons and all the other objects that come in contact with various different people as clean and as disinfected as possible.
Such measures have helped make the return of other sports like football a success, but cycling faces its own unique challenges. Held on open roads, there’s no way to prevent crowds from congregating and getting close to the riders, and the races are of course not confined to a single, controlled location.
How well Strade Bianche goes could have a significant impact on the feasibility of the new calendar going ahead as planned. With other major Italian classics like Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia due to follow in upcoming August weekends, and a packed schedule planned over the coming months, the cycling world will be watching anxiously.
Dusty dirt roads and hot weather
The defining characteristic of Strade Bianche are the dirt roads (eleven sections in the men’s race, eight in the women’s) that account for just over one third of the men’s 184km route, and around a quarter of the 136km that makes up the women’s race. Combined with the undulating terrain of the Tuscany landscape, these roads make for a very selective race that has become a distinctive fans’ favourite, and that, despite having only been in existence since 2007, is already held in as high esteem as any one-day classic outside of the five monuments.
The weather and its effect on these roads plays a major role in how the race shapes up.If rainy, these roads become muddy and very difficult to navigate, turning the race into a war of attrition with many casualties - take the 2018 edition won by Tiesj Benoot, when only 53 riders finished. If sunny, by contrast, the surfaces are dry and dusty, making for a whole different visual spectacle as clouds of dust follow the peloton as it weaves through the green Tuscany countryside.
The rescheduling of this year’s edition from its usual spot in March to August 1 is, therefore, significant, as the race sheds its familiar label of a ‘spring classic’ to instead be a ‘summer classic’. Whereas the average temperature in Siena (where the race starts and finishes) is approximately ten degrees in March, it’s closer to the mid-twenties in August, while the likelihood of rain is also much lower.
The forecast ahead of Saturday is even hotter, with scorching temperatures of over 30 degrees on the cards, which would make this an unprecedentedly hot Strade Bianche, posing a new challenge for the riders of dealing with the heat over the especially dry roads. The first of many events set to be held in unusual places on the calendar, this will be a unique edition of Strade Bianche.
Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Annemiek Van Vleuten favourites in a very unpredictable race
Following an absence in racing even longer than a normal off-season, during which time they wont have been able to preferred training schedules and locations, the riders’ form heading into Saturday is impossible to know (notwithstanding any Strava date from the pros).
Even under normal circumstances Strade Bianche is an open, unpredictable race. It rarely produces repeat winners, and different riders seem to excel each year — in fact, seven of the thirteen mens editions to date have been won by riders making their debut.
The most high-profile debutant this year will be Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Felix), and has been tipped by the bookies as favourite for the win. The 25-year-old had been hyped to take the peloton by storm during his first full program of spring classics before the season interruption. The postponement of the Olympics means the road will this summer take priority over mountain biking (which he had planned to compete in at Tokyo), and his cyclocross skills should make him a natural fit for the dirt roads of Strade Bianche.
Strade Bianche has never been a race to be dominated by one single rider, illustrated by the fact that no-one (male or female) has ever won successive editions. However, both Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) could become the first this year. Alaphilippe was prolific in the classics last year and will again be backed up by an extremely strong Deceuninck-QuickStep line-up, while Van Vleuten has been literally unbeatable since being crowned World Champion last year, claiming victory in her only appearance pre-lockdown at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and claiming a hat-trick of Spanish Classics wins last week upon her return to racing.
An illustrious startlist
One consequence of Strade Bianche being the first World Tour race of the season’s return is that it has attracted even more big names than usual, as those who had always planned on targeting it are joined by those now using it to test their legs, and others whose schedules no longer conflict with the race.
Among those who had their sights on victory back in March, and who have great pedigree in this race, are Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos) and Greg van Avermaet (CCC). Van Aert has been one of the top performers in recent years, making the podium on both his debut in 2018 and follow-up attempt in 2019; Strade Bianche is one of the few races missing from prolific veteran Van Avermaet’s palmarès, although he does have a couple of runner-up finishes from 2015 and 2017; and Kwiatkowski is one win away from equalling Fabian Cancellara’s record of three Strade Bianche titles.
Thrown into the mix will be Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), who had both initially planned on skipping the race in order to ride Paris-Nice. Both are potential winners, with Gilbert having won on one of the three occasions he has chosen to ride in the past, and Sagan a two-time runner-up, but both will be more concerned with next weekend’s Milan-San Remo.
Elsewhere, Deceuninck - Quick-Step have a multitude of alternative options to Alaphilippe, including 2015 victor Zdenek Štybar and winner of March’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Kasper Asgreen; Astana’a Jakob Fuglsang returns having finished second last year on just his second appearance; Tiesj Benoot (Sunweb) returns to the race that provided him his first ever professional win two years ago; and Grand Tour specialists Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Emirates) try their luck over the dirt roads.
Van Vleuten faces stiff competition
As defending champion, world champion, and with three wins to her name in just this past week, Annemiek van Vleuten will be the rider to beat in the women’s race.
As ever, her Dutch compatriot Anna van der Breggen will be a major adversary. The Boels-Dolmans rider has already had to twice settle for podium finishes behind Van Vleuten since the return to racing at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa and Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria last week, and will be eager to return to winning ways having won the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana stage race prior to lockdown.
Two riders who regularly feature at the business end of Strade Bianche are Elisa Longo Borghni (Trek-Segafredo) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), and will again be among the top favourites. Both boast exceptional records here, with Borghini having won in 2017, and Niewiadoma currently on an impressive albeit frustrating run of four successive podium finishes without a win.
Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) can’t lay claim for a similar record in Strade Bianche, having only finished seventh and seventeenth on her two previous appearances, but will be eager to add one of the very few races missing from her peerless palmares.
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