After breaking her knee at last year’s World Championships, Annemiek van Vleuten won Saturday’s Strade Bianche women’s race.
The victory, in only her second race since the incident in Austria, sees the Mitchelton-Scott rider return to the top of the Women’s WorldTour after winning the series last season.
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The Dutchwoman crossed the line alone ahead of Danish mountain bike star Anika Langvad (Boels-Dolmans), with Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) – who placed second in the three previous editions – in third.
Outnumbered on the seventh of eight gravel sectors, double world time trial champion Van Vleuten took the initiative, attacking the 11 riders remaining at the front of the race.
Though compatriot Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) and European champion Marta Bastianelli (Virtu Cycling) tried to follow, they were unable to hold the wheel on the sector’s 15 per cent slopes and were soon caught.
Langvad’s world road champion team mate, Anna van der Breggen led the chasing group for the vast majority of the remaining kilometres, but was unable to close the gap and finished ninth, 1-28 behind her compatriot.
How it happened
The 136km began under blue skies, with little wind to upset the riders, and after a brief lull in the opening kilometres where both Boels-Dolmans and Mitchelton-Scott took the lead, attacks eventually came.
First Anja Longyka (BTC City Lubljana) escaped and over the ensuing kilometres she was joined by Chirara Perini (BePink), Jelena Eric (Alé-Cipollini) and Ilaria Sanguineti (Valcar-Cylance), the four women allowed a lead of only 35 seconds.
On the climb which closed the second gravel sector the bunch accelerated and the break was brought back, with Team Sunweb and CCC-Liv leading and 105km remaining.
This is how the race progressed, with a gradual thinning from the rear, the high pace and attritional terrain taking their toll, each sterrato sector bringing a fracturing of the peloton before it partially reformed.
The regrouping was helped by an easing in hostilities on the approach to the fifth and longest sector of gravel road. However, the peace was short-lived with the race being forced to react as a strong group of five, including Vos escaped.
On the climb closing that sector European champion Marta Bastianelli (Virtu) pushed the pace further and selection was made from the back.
As the race entered its closing 50km a further very strong group of 12 riders escaped, and despite having had a puncture on the fifth gravel sector, with most other major teams represented, it was left Bigla’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig to close the gap.
With 39km to go despite continued high pace in the peloton, five riders attacked, gaining a few seconds, then with them caught, a further three escaped entering the final 30km.
However, Tayler Wiles (Trek-Segafredo), Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) and Karol-Ann Canuel (Boels-Dolmans) were only allowed around 15 seconds as the race entered what is traditionally the most decisive sections.
Leaving the short, sixth gravel sector, they were caught, though that did not calm the race in any way, with numerous attacks coming one after the other, and it was on the next sector where Van Vleuten made her move.
Strade Bianche Women: Siena to Siena (136km)
1. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Mitchelton-Scott, in 3-48-49
2. Anika Langvad (Den) Boels-Dolmans, at 37 seconds
3. Kasia Niewiadoma (Pol) Canyon-SRAM, at 40 secs
4. Marta Bastianelli (Ita) Virtu, at 44 secs
5. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den) Bigla, at same time
6. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (RSA) CCC-Liv, at 51 secs
7. Marianne Vos (Ned) CCC-Liv, at 52 secs
8. Janneke Ensing (Ned) Sunweb, at 54 secs
9. Anna van der Breggen (Ned), at 1-28
10. Chantal Blaak (Ned) Boels-Dolmans, at 1-50