It was love at first sight for Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Wout van Aert (Veranda's Willems-Crelan), second and third in Strade Bianche on Saturday in Siena, Italy.
The duo shaped the 184-kilometre race with an attack over the Sante Marie gravel sector at 45 kilometres to race. It seemed as though they – one a Tour de France podium placer and one a three-time cyclocross champion – were going to succeed in their debut on Tuscany's gravel roads.
Only Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) could overhaul them, but they left hooked on the thrill of the race.
"I always love the Classics and the Flemish Classics for me are the great races but I don't have the physically ability for that, but I guess I could be suited to the Tour of Flanders," said Bardet, second once and third last year behind Chris Froome (Sky) in the Tour de France.
"But if I can try to do both, it's good for me and the love of cycling I have. For sure, I'll be back. It's pure cycling here, and I really like this feeling to go full from the start to finish."
Bardet appeared to be getting the better of van Aert, who just finished a cyclocross campaign that he capped off with a third world title.
Van Aert rode as far as he could, until the steep pitches leading into Piazza del Campo to take an important podium spot on his debut. A debut that happened when the organiser issued the team a last-minute invitation so they could bring their 'cross star.
"I have nothing to lose, I came out of the cyclocross season and I came in wanting to learn, sometimes you learn more by trying then not trying at all. That was my mindset," van Aert explained.
"It was a really tough race, fast from the beginning, the gravel sections were in bad shape, much worse than I thought, really muddy in some points.
"For me it was good fun. I could use some of my skills to get in front on the gravel sections."
Benoot already raced twice on Siena's 'Strade Bianche' or white gravel roads. Bardet tried to make up for it by coming down, renting an apartment and training through the snow and rain.
"I really like the Italian culture and food, and some good wine here like Montalcino. It was prefect opportunity to buy some good bottles, some good Brunello," Bardet said.
"I was 100 per cent in the course because the last few days felt like tourism for me, and today I was in really good shape.
"Wine and pasta? But when you taste it, it's good energy for the mind and you have to be strong in the head for days like this."
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