Mathieu van der Poel ticked off another big one-day race with an explosive attack in the final kilometre to take victory at Strade Bianche 2021.
The Dutchman made his initial race-winning move in the closing kilometres to drag Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) clear, before riding the last of his rivals off his wheel as he powered up to the Piazza del Campo alone, punching the air in victory.
Alaphilippe looked composed heading into the final, marking an initial Van der Poel move as the three riders headed towards the finish, but the French world champion couldn't match the Alpecin-Fenix rider's power in the final kick, settling for second as Bernal took third.
The trio had jumped clear after Van der Poel attacked on the final climb 12km to the finish, with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) leading the chase behind, but the selection had been made.
The defending champion Van Aert eventually came across the line in fourth in his first road race of the season, while Pidcock was next in fifth, the young Brit continuing his impressive form in what is his debut WorldTour season.
How it happened
Philipp Walsleben (Alpecin-Fenix), Kévin Ledanois (Arkéa-Samsic) and Simone Bevilacqua (Vini Zabù) clipped off the front at the start of the second gravel sector to get the day's action going, soon taking out a 30-second gap.
After Giovanni Visconti (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) failed to bridge across, two riders did manage it, Simone Petilli (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) and Samuele Zoccarato (Bardiani-CSF), before three more, including Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal), jumped from the bunch to get involved as well.
After being kept reasonably close, the peloton relented, letting the gap go out to around the four-minute mark as a pair of gravel sections totalling 20km loomed ahead.
The advantage of the escapees then crumbled to around the one-minute mark after Jumbo-Visma picked up the pace on the longest section of gravel of the race before television cameras snapped to the unwanted image of Alex Howes and an EF Education - Nippo team-mate sitting by the side of the road after a nasty-looking crash.
Onto the next, 8km-long sector the breakaway splintered as Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) looked to make a move behind. Back onto tarmac and the effect was that the gap to the escapees was now only half a minute and the peloton much reduced in number.
The pace crept back up on the approach to the seventh sector at San Martino in Grania, riders jostling for position with just over 70km to go, the neutral service car being pulled out as the gap kept tumbling, Vliegen then eventually left as the sole man out front.
Gianni Vermeersch (Alpecin-Fenix) and Gonzalo Serrano (Movistar) then made a move from the bunch as the race came back together, always an ideal time to strike, who were then joined by Lotto-Soudal's Andreas Kron.
Meanwhile, Tadej Pogačar had to chase back on after a mechanical, as Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) also suffered a puncture.
Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) then forced the pace which momentarily fractured the peloton, the Italian tracked by Asgreen, before Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) then made his move, dragging riders clear and catching the three riders up the road.
Asgreen, Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) and Owain Doull (Ineos) were among those who'd forced their way into this front group, Alaphilippe and Van der Poel among the favourites behind.
Van Aert then accelerated from behind to close the gap before stringing things out on the Monte Sante Marie, Alaphilippe then taking over as a new selection formed at the front.
Van Aert, Van der Poel, Pidcock, Pogačar, Simmons, Alaphilippe, Bernal, Kevin Geniets (Groupama-FDJ) and Michael Gogl (Qhubeka-Assos) were the eight riders now off the front into the final 50km.
Jakob Fuglsang and Tim Wellens led the chase behind, with Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Simon Carr (EF Education-Nippo) also involved.
Quinn Simmons then suffered a puncture, his disc brakes proving time-consuming for the neutral service, the American now in the chase group, 10 seconds behind.
The seven up front worked together well, the winner looking like it would come from this selection of talented riders.
Van der Poel then kicked with 24km to go up the steep sector 9, dropping Van Aert and Pidcock, who had to fight to get back on terms. Quinn Simmons then crashed, the American unlucky in his first WorldTour race back after suspension.
Alaphilippe and Van der Poel were looking the strongest up the Colle Pinzuto, the pace then dropping as the riders readied themselves for the final gravel sector at Le Tolfe.
Van Aert led from the front this time, as Pogačar dropped back, but with 12km to go Van der Poel decided it was time, jumping from the front of the group.
Alaphilippe was the first to respond, dragging himself back up to the Dutchman, as Bernal also got back on terms.
The trio worked well together and soon the race was theirs to settle between them, as Van Aert continued to chase 16 seconds back down the road.
The gap held as they sped towards Siena, Van der Poel putting in another dig with under 4km to go, but Alaphilippe kept the Dutchman in check.
Into the final kilometre and the road began to ramp up, and then Van der Poel commenced lift off.
An explosive attack that will live long in the memory, the Dutchman skipped away from Julian Alaphilippe, Bernal a blur in the distance by now, as Van der Poel sailed in the Piazza del Campo alone, punching the air, thrilled at another spectacular ride.
Strade Bianche 2021, Siena to Siena (184km)
1. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix, in 4-40-29
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at five seconds
3. Egan Bernal (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, at 20s
4. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at 51s
5. Tom Pidcock (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 54s
6. Michael Gogl (Aut) Qhubeka-Assos
7. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, both at same time
8. Simon Clarke (Aus) Qhubeka-Assos, at 2-25
9. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana-Premier Tech, at same time
10. Pello Bilbao (Esp) Bahrain-Victorious, at 2-39
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