Esteemed start-lists confirms prestige of the race
Whether or not Strade Bianche is still just a Classic or should now have its status upgraded to a Monument is a question that’s being debated more and more in the cycling world.
Although it certainly appears as great a physical challenge as pretty much any single-day race on the calendar, and is always hotly contested by many of the very best riders in the sport, having only first been raced in 2007 it does not have anything like the history of the Monuments, each of which has been in existence for over a century. It’s important to remember that those five races we now think of as the ‘Monuments’ were not granted that status upon inception, but gradually grew in prestige organically over many decades.
In terms of prestige, though, and how badly the top riders want to win it, there can be no denying Strade Bianche’s importance. Tellingly, this is one of only three Classics (along with Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders) that each of the fearsome trio of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) are all confirmed to ride, while everyone who’s anyone in the women’s peloton will also compete, including Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar).
Whichever riders win on Saturday may not be able to trace the lineage of their achievements back to the legendary cyclists of yore the way the winners of the Monuments can, but maybe one day we’ll think of them and the battles they fought Strade Bianche with the same sense of awe.
Will it rain or stay dry?
With the exception of Paris-Roubaix, no other race has us excitedly checking the weather forecast than Strade Bianche.
The race’s USP is of course the beautiful, rough white roads that weave through the rolling terrain of Tuscany and give the race its name, and the weather has the potential to drastically alter the nature of these dirt roads — and therefore also how the race will unfold.
In 2018, for instance, the race was an absolute mud bath, after snow had fallen earlier in the week and left the roads wet; that edition has perhaps done more than any other to capture the public’s imagination and cement the race’s status as one of the season’s best races.
By contrast, last year’s race threw up an entirely different challenge, as a pandemic-enforced postponement saw the race held in mid-summer, with achingly hot temperatures and dust road surfaces instead characterising the race.
It hasn’t rained in Siena so far in the week building up to this year’s edition, and most forecasts predict a dry weekend too, albeit with a tantalisingly possibility of rain. Riders will no doubt be anxiously checking the updated forecasts in the days to come.
Almighty battles expected between the world’s best
For the first time since last year’s Tour of Flanders, when all three of them rode away from the rest of the field together, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe will meet again to do battle at Strade Bianche.
Not only is this trio the three best Classics riders in the world, they’re also among the most fun to watch too, and the prospect of watching them exchange blows over the white roads is mouth-watering.
In terms of form, Alaphilippe and Van der Poel appear to have the advantage after the former’s second overall at Tour de Provence and the latter’s stage win at the UAE Tour and powerful long-range attack at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
In terms of pedigree in this race, however, it’s advantage Van Aert, who won last year and finished on the podium on each of his other two appearances. He says he hasn’t yet reached top form, but might that just be a ploy to deflect pressure?
The women’s race will be similarly hotly contested, with Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen inevitably the favourites. The former has had the upper-hand in this race recently, winning in both 2019 and 2020, and her performance last year to work her way up the field from behind to win by a huge margin was arguably among the greatest of her career.
Van der Breggen has started 2021 on fire, however, with a resounding win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where Van Vleuten was caught out in a split.
Unique route attracts diverse range of riders
One of the secrets to the success of Strade Bianche so quickly becoming one of the world’s most prestigious races is the wide range of types of rider it attracts.
The white roads favour those with great technique and big rouleur engines; the rolling terrain and steep rises require strong climbing legs, and the uphill finish to the Piazza del Campo favours puncheurs with a sharp kick if a small group make it together to the finish.
Consequently, the race always attracts a diverse range of riders to compete for victory — perhaps the only kind of rider who categorically can’t win here are pure sprints.
This year, for instance, former Tour de France champion Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) will make his Strade Bianche debut, while his successor to the yellow jersey, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), will return having finished a very respectable 13th last year.
They’d no doubt prefer it if the rain held off, but one rider who would probably benefit from a muddy race would be Bernal’s team-mate Tom Pidcock. We know from his cyclocross experience how well he can handle himself on muddy roads, and with its difficult climbing and steep rise to the finish also playing to his strengths, this might just be the ideal race for the young Brit.
Strade Bianche is also a great test for riders primarily known for their sprint to see how many more strings they have to their bow. One such rider making her debut this year is Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal), who is in great form on the cobbles having won Le Samyn earlier this week, and now will see if she can continue her recent rapid rate of improvement and compete for victory here.
Other contenders in with a shot of winning
In the men’s race, the superior climbing of Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech) makes him a top contender, as he seeks to better his second and fifth-place finishes in 2019 and 2020, while on-form Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) also looks a good shot off the back of his wins at Trofeo Laigueglia and at the Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var.
As another former cyclocross world champion, Zdeněk Štybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) is always up there at Strade Bianche, making the top seven in all six of his previous appearances, while it will be fascinating to see how his in-form team-mate Davide Ballerini handles the white roads.
The likes of in-form Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), the ever-consistent Greg Van Avermaet (Agr2r Citroën) and last year’s runner-up Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) all pack a fierce enough punch to make them contenders, while climbing specialists Simon Yates (BikeExchange), João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Emmanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) hope to follow in the footsteps of Romain Bardet (DSM), who will ride for the first time since finishing second on debut in 2018.
In the women’s race, Trek-Segafredo will lead the attempt to break the Van der Breggen-Van Vleuten duopoly, with their star trio of Lizzie Deignan, Ellen van Dijk and home favourite Elisa Longo Borghini all set to start.
The rider most likely to end the Dutchwomen’s three-year stranglehold, however, might be Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), who has a remarkable record of finishing on the podium four times without yet having won.
The climbing skills of Liane Lippert (DSM) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) also make them especially well-suited to this race, while Marianne Vos will make her debut for Jumbo-Visma with an eye on adding one of the very few races still missing from her palmarès.