Mathieu van der Poel has played down his chances at Strade Bianche, which at the very least should strike fear into the hearts of his rivals, saying real climbers stand a much better prospect of victory.
“I agree to a certain extent that people see me as one of the favourites,” Van der Poel said the day before the race in Siena. “Although I believe that the parcours fits slightly better to the real climbers. On the other hand, Van Aert, for example, has already proven that a classics rider can also win this race. But there will be a lot of strong competitors at the start. I expect an open battle.”
The Dutchman, who looks to have carried his imperious form over from cyclocross straight to the road season, taking the first stage of the UAE Tour, is favourite alongside the two most recent winners, neither of whom would be classed as ‘real climbers’ – Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step).
Last year, Van der Poel was left to rue a puncture that cost him the chance to contest the win, having to settle for 15th, which the 26-year-old says didn’t reflect the race he rode.
“I don’t feel like I have unfinished business here after last year. My Italian program in general was a bit disappointing, but it’s not that I came back here to settle a score. I came here to perform well, and of course I hope to do better than in 2020,” Van der Poel said.
“The course is a bit easier compared to the previous edition, less gravel, a bit less technical. But it’s still a very demanding parcours. The strongest riders will remain at the front.”
Van Aert has said the focus on potential victors should be wider than the highlighted trio, the likes of Jakob Fuglsang (Astana – Premier Tech) and Tour de France champions Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) set to provide quite spectacle on the gravel roads of Tuscany, while Alaphilippe isn’t buying Van der Poel’s poker face, saying the parcours suit the Dutchman perfectly.
Deceuninck – Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere believes the only way to stop Van der Poel and Van Aert is to isolate them, the Belgian team taking a strong squad containing Joâo Almeida, Kasper Asgreen and Zdenek Štybar in support of the French world champion.