SDWorx once again flexed their muscles with former world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak winning a hugely entertaining Strade Bianche on Saturday.
The Dutch rider attacked her fellow escapee, Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), on the steep climb of Via Santa Caterina into the city of Siena. With the Italian champion dropped Van den Broek-Blaak was able to savour her ride into Piazza Il Campo, finishing seven seconds ahead of Longo Borghini.
SDWorx had dominated the race, with four women in a final group of 12, and it was world champion Anna van der Breggen who came in third, backing up last week’s win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
With Demi Vollering in sixth, the team placed three women in the top ten.
Van den Broek-Blaak had launched the winning move from that group of 12 six kilometres from the line, taking Longo Borghini with her. However, as Longo Borghini is by far the better climber of the pair once a small gap was established the Dutchwoman refused to help set the pace.
Instead, as the kilometres ticked down, SDWorx sent first Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio then Demi Vollering off in pursuit from the chasing group, but they were unable to get across without taking others with them.
FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope’s new Italian signing, Marta Cavalli did clear the group, but was later swallowed up on the final climb, finishing eighth.
A mark of the race’s quality was that the 2021 edition was the first time the top 10 finishers had finished within one minute of the winner. Indeed, even 12th place managed to cross the line only 46 seconds back.
How it happened
After the cancellation of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean race, the Women’s WorldTour finally kicked off in Siena with Strade Bianche.
The peloton faced a constantly undulating 136km in the Tuscan hills, with eight sectors of the eponymous white gravel roads totalling 31.6km. Though some had forecast rain, the day was bright and cool, with an easterly breeze blowing across the route, which largely headed north to south then north again.
The moment the flag dropped attacks began, but even on the first gravel sector nothing could get away. Even on the second, uphill sector, where a selection often happens, no-one escaped, though there were a number of crashes, with Brit Lizzy Banks (Ceratizit-WNT) one victim.
It was only on the approach to sector three, with 35km behind them, that Elena Pirrone (Valcar Travel and Service) got away on her own, building a 45-second advantage after the third sector at Radi.
As the bunch turned north for the run back to Siena, heading for the testing 9km fifth sector at San Martino in Grania, the pace eased and Pirrone’s lead slipped out to 1.10.
But that sector is always key, and by the time she hit the gravel that lead had halved as the big players headed to the front and pace rocketed. As the gradient on the 9.5km sector steepened she was caught and the race began to split.
As it did SDWorx’s, Niamh Fisher-Black attacked the leaders, the New Zealand climber soon establishing a gap before being joined by Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing), the duo building a lead of 45 seconds as they completed the sector.
As the peloton split behind Kopecky’s move proved her promise and versatility, climbing with Fisher-Black after winning a bunch kick to take Le Samyn earlier in the week.
Over the top though, the pace settled and the peloton swelled as the leaders’ advantage held at around 30 seconds with 50km remaining.
A stretch of 40km of tarmacked roads followed, and the race settled briefly, before the two leaders were caught and, with 36km to go eight riders launched a counter-attack.
Van den Broek-Blaak was among that group who gained a 40-second lead, but when they splintered on an uphill gravel section it caused attacks from what was left of the peloton.
First Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Kopecky once again bridged, before Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) countered and the group of 15 formed.
Van Vleuten’s card seemed marked when she was unable to follow another short-lived attack by Van den Broek-Blaak, however, shortly after, the European champion split the group on the final sector and its 18% gradient, with only Vos able to go with her.
But Vos sat on, and as the road descended towards Siena their lead of what had been 15 seconds melted away and the final group of 12 came together.
Here SDWorx played their cards. First Ashleigh Moolman Pasio took to the front before finally Van den Broek-Blaak launched her winning move.
The television coverage was disappointing, with only 55 minutes allocated by organisers, RCS the cameras only joined the race with 22km to go, missing much of the action.
In a normal year the Women’s WorldTour would move to the Netherlands for the Ronde van Drenthe, but this has been postponed to an as yet unallocated date in autumn, and the top tier of women’s racing remains in Italy for Trofeo Alfredo Binda, held on the shores of Lake Maggiore, north of Milan on March 21st.
Strade Bianche Women Elite, Siena – Siena (136km)
1. Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (Ned) SDWorx in 3-54-40
2. Elisa Longo Borghini (Ita) trek-Segafredo at 7 seconds
3. Anna van der Breggen (Ned) SDWorx at 9s
4. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Movistar at 11s
5. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope
6. Demi Vollering (Ned) SDWorx all at same time
7. Marianne Vos (Ned) Jumbo Visma at 23s
8. Marta Cavalli (Ita) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope at 27s
9. Kasia Niewiadoma (Pol) Cannyon-SRAM at 30s
10. Ellen van Dijk (Ned) Trek-Segafredo at 32s