Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) put in an impressive show of strength to take victory in a wet and muddy edition of Strade Bianche.
The Belgian won the 2018 edition after breaking away from Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and world cyclocross champion Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willems Crelan) with 12.3km to go on the final gravel covered climb.
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Benoot was then able to quickly put 20 seconds into the chasing pair before stretching that lead out to over 40 seconds as he navigated the final climbs of the route towards Siena.
The 23-year-old was then able to measure his pace up the final steep ramps towards Piazza del Campo, before he safely took on the final corners to glide to victory.
Bardet reached the final climb along with Van Aert, but the Tour de France runner-up’s power on the climb was too much for the young Belgian, and he was able to claim second place 39 seconds back on Benoot with Van Aert taking third a further 20 seconds back.
The Strade Bianche victory is Benoot’s first in the UCI WorldTour, while Bardet and Van Aert both put in imposing performances on their respective debuts at the Italian Classic.
How it happened
An early break was able to get away on a miserable day in Tuscany which saw the riders caked in dirt thrown up by the gravel sections.
The 10-man group never looked in danger of contesting victory though, with the peloton keeping them within reach as the early parts of the 184km route were taken on.
The race really only got going on the eighth sector, with the break getting reeled in at 60km to go. Almost instantaneously a reduced group began to get away with likes of defending champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Valverde getting in the 10-man leading group.
The lead group then to-and-froed with riders making it in and trying to get away, with Bardet one of the last to make it across after a big effort to bridge to the group.
The Frenchman then instilled the race’s first decisive move, as he and Van Aert got away with 42.5km to go and were allowed to gain 42 seconds after riding well together.
Benoot and Pieter Serry (Quick-Step) counter attacked to try and bridge to the pair after a lack of decisive action from the chasing group, with many of the favourites including Kwiatkowski slipping into a further group behind.
Benoot, who looked much stronger than Serry, eventually moved to chase the leading pair at 18km to go and closed the gap to Bardet and Van Aert with 16km to go.
Behind, Rob Power (Mitchelton-Scott) and Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain-Merida) were able to bridge to Serry, now at 1-11 behind the front three.
That trio would become the main chasing group after a further few kilometres, with Valverde and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step) also making over before Sagan eventually made it across with the gap lingering at 1-20 and the chasers not working well together.
Benoot, who had looked super strong having bridged between groups so well, then looked to make the most of his fine form with an attack at 12.3km to go on the final gravel climb.
He quickly dropped Bardet and Van Aert and pushed on, creating a 20 second gap almost immediately before extending it to 40 seconds ahead of the final kilometre, allowing him to push on for victory.
Bardet was able to claim second after dropping Van Aert on the climb, while a frustrated Valverde was able to continue his fine from in the early part of the season by beating the other riders in the third group to the line for fourth.
Strade Bianche 2018 (184km)
1 Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal, in 5-03-33
2 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, at 39
3 Wout Van Aert (Bel) Veranda’s Willems Crelan, at 58
4 Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar Team, at 1-25
5 Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Bahrain-Merida, at 1-27
6 Robert Power (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott, at 1-29
7 Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Quick-Step Floors, at 1-42
8 Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2-08
9 Pieter Serry (Bel) Quick-Step Floors, at 2-11
10 Gregor Mühlberger (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2-18