Julian Alaphilippe proved his class as he took victory in the 2019 Strade Bianche at his first attempt.
The Frenchman held his place as the race split to pieces and followed the decisive move over the Tuscan gravel on a warm and dusty day of racing.
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Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) was part of an elite trio, consisting of Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) who made it to the short and brutal final climb at the front.
After Fuglsang burnt his last match in the last metres Alaphilippe, apparently bluffing his way through the last 20km, blasted past to take glory.
Van Aert took third, repeating his breakthrough performance of 2018.
How it happened
The 2019 edition of the race, which has rapidly reached iconic status, covered 184km starting in Siena and finishing in the Piazza del Campo in the centre of the city.
Along the route, 11 sectors of untarmacked roads awaited the peloton, totalling 63km of gravel racing before the final climb.
After a day of fast and dusty racing, riders faced one last test to the line – the road rising 2km from the line, gently at first before hitting nine per cent on the Esterna di Fontebranda.
The now-famous stone surfaces then started with 900m left to ride, as the climb hit maximum gradients of 16 per cent, before levelling out and descending slightly with 300m left to ride before the picturesque finish in the piazza.
In the early stages of racing, four riders opened up a gap and formed the early breakaway – Nico Denz, Alexandre Geniez (Ag2r La Mondiale), Leo Vincent (Groupama-FDJ) and Team Sky’s Diego Rosa going clear.
Their gap extended out to 4-40, but the peloton were awake to the strength at the front and started closing down the advantage as the race approached 100km from the line.
The peloton rapidly closed in on the escapees, but the pace on the white roads was too much for many as the race began to split on the fifth gravel stretch.
A puncture for Geniez in the breakaway left him alone, while Vincent slipped out of the front group and was absorbed by the peloton.
This left Denz and Rosa at the head, but the Sky rider opted not to work with his companion and attacked on the seventh sector, around 70km from the line.
Rosa’s attack sparked a two-rider move from the peloton that was quickly closed down, as the Italian Rosa gained time over Denz who was caught by the peloton.
A big injection of pace from some favourites including Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) caused further splits as a group of 15 went clear from the peloton.
Other significant names present in that move included Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Zdenek Stybar and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), as well as 2018 Strade Bianche winner Tiesj Benoot and his ever-dangerous team-mate Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal). Wout van Aert also made the cut.
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) were amongst those caught out in the third group on the road.
Rosa was closed down in the closing 40km but held back enough to hold onto the group of 15.
Fuglsang was the first to show his hand, attacking from the front group with Van Aert and Alaphilippe the only riders able to move with him.
With 20km left to race the trio hit a 25 second advantage, but Van Aert lost the wheel, and was left to ride alone ahead of the chasing group.
Fuglsang and Alaphilippe, riding his first Strade Bianche, combined well to pulled out a one-minute advantage on the chasers in the closing 15km, as it began to look like one of these men might claim the crown.
Van Aert dangled 30 seconds behind, seemingly destined to repeat his third-spot finish from 2018.
Alaphilippe and Fuglsang looked uncatchable, extending their advantage to 1-35 on the final gravel sector, leaving them a comfortable buffer on the run to the final climb.
The chasers were reduced to a group of seven, including Van Avermaet, Alaphilippe’s team-mate Stybar, Wellens and Benoot, but they struggled to take any time back.
Fuglsang looked the stronger man on the approach to the final test, with Alaphillippe looking fatigued after more than 170km in the saddle.
The Dane opened up on a slight rise in the final 6km, but Alaphillippe was strong enough to respond, but the duo had slowed as Van Aert closed the gap down to 20 seconds, with the chasers one minute down.
Van Aert caught the front pair as soon as they reached the final rise 1,500 metres from the line, with a 50-second gap back to the chasers.
The former cyclocross world champion went straight past with Alaphilippe latching on and Fuglsang holding the wheel.
With 500 metres to ride Fuglsang slipped past Van Aert to launch his final attack, Alaphilippe again following as the Belgian was left behind.
The Frenchman waited on Fuglsang’s wheel and hit out in the dying metres to cross the line first.
Wout Van Aert finished third for the second consecutive year.
Strade Bianche 2019: Siena to Siena (184km)
1. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, in 4-47-14
2. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 2 seconds
3. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at 27 secs
4. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, at 1-00
5. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, at same time
6. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) CCC Team, at 1-01
7. Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana, at 1-04
8. Simon Clarke (Aus) EF Education First, at 1-08
9. Toms Skujinš (Lat) Trek-Segafredo, at 1-12
10. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, at 1-21