The heat was expected to have as much of an impact on the race as the gravel paths themselves, as temperatures hit 37 degrees in Tuscany.
The break consisted of Corné Van Kessel (Circus-Wanty Gobert), Benjamin Declerq (Arkéa-Samsic), Iuri Filosi (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè), Simon Pellaud, Nicola Bagiolo (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) and Quentin Pacher (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept).
Fuglsang was finally picked up with just over 40km to race bringing the front group to just six riders, with Max Schachmann, Van Avermaet, Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling(, Van Aert and Davide Formolo completing the elite group, 90 seconds ahead of a chasing trio.
Van Aert committed on the gravel ascents and threw himself into the descents in the final 10km, with his advantage over the chasers fluttering between 10 and 15 seconds.
Inside 15km, Van Avermaet and Štybar partnered up to try and catch the leaders but with 12km to race Van Aert launched the decisive move of the final and vanished up the road.
He raised his hand across the line, taking his first win since a nasty crash suffered on the time trial stage of the 2019 Tour de France.
The Jumbo-Visma rider was ruthless in his delivery of the victory on the white roads of Tuscany, comfortably holding his place in the front group of favourites in the final 50km before launching the hammer blow 12km from the line.
Despite an honourable chase from climbers Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates)) and Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Van Aert climbed the ramp to Siena alone to win a thrilling day.
The 25-year-old debuted in Strade Bianche in 2018 and finished third in both his previous efforts, but this time the glory was all his.
This year’s edition followed the same 184km course of the previous two years, starting in Siena and finishing in the iconic Piazza del Camp in the centre of the city.
The race also featured 11 of the white roads that give it both its name and unique character, the last segment of which came 6km from the finish, before the leaders would fight for victory on the 1km, 4.8 per cent climb back up into Siena.
Strade Bianche 2020: Siena to Siena (184km)
Wout van Aert has finally taken his deserved Strade Bianche title in the 2020 edition, having finished third in his first two attempts.
Strade Bianche unexpectedly found itself as one of the most important races of 2020.
Reigning champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck- Quick-Step) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) both sparked the move, which was met by a flurry of accelerations within the peloton and helped establish a group of around 20 favourites.
Formolo outsprinted Schachammn in the final 100m to take second, 30 seconds behind the winner.
After being the first Classic cancelled when the coronavirus pandemic hit Italy earlier this year, it was given the prestigious spot as the first WorldTour race of the new season.
As pace-setters for the day, a breakaway of six riders managed to get clear of the bunch, pulling out a two-minute lead in the opening 20km.
How it happened
After a respectable solo ride away from the peloton, Pellaud’s advantage rapidly fell away when some of the race favourites put in an attack just under 100km from the line.
Alaphilippe and Van der Poel were both dropped like a stone on the brutal sector however as Fuglsang, spurred on by his near miss last year, attacked just inside the 50km mark and pulled out a 30-second advantage over the rapidly thinning group of favourites.
But Formolo and Schachmann lost their motivation inside the final 5km and by the foot of the final climb to Siena victory was Aert’s for the taking.
1. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, in 4-56-58
2. Davide Formolo (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, at 30 seconds
3. Max Schachmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 32s
4. Alberto Bettiol (Ita) EF Pro Cycling, at 1-31
5. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 2-55
6. Zdenek Štybar (Cze) Deceuninck - Quick-step, at 3-59
7. Brent Bookwalter (USA) Mitchelton-Scott, at 4-25
8. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) CCC Team, at 4-27
9. Michael Gogl (Pol) NTT Pro Cycling, at 6-47
10. Diego Rosa (Ita) Arkéa-Samsic, at 7-45
At the 20km mark it was Formolo who launched a huge attack as he grew concerned about Zdenek Štybar (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) who was single-handedly pulling the chasing trio back within range.
But the peloton was determined to keep the escapees on a tight leash, bringing them back under a minute which prompted Pellaud into an attack.
That group included Alaphilippe, Van der Poel, Van Aert, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos), as they hit the toughest of the gravel stretches, sector eight, with 50km to the line.
Van Aert was quickest to follow and the rest of the favourites upped the pace too, but Van Avermaet fell casualty to the acceleration and lost touch.
Bettiol, Formolo and Schachmann were also willing to set off in pursuit but Fuglsang had burnt all his matches and was left behind.
Giant Defy Advanced 1
Giant's Defy moves into more versatile territory with an updated frame and bigger tyre volume
By James Bracey •
‘He has that no nonsense attitude’: Sir Bradley Wiggins backs Simon Yates to win the Giro d’Italia 2021
Will Yates become the third Brit to win the Italian Grand Tour?
By Alex Ballinger •
Sam Bennett sprints to stage one victory at Volta ao Algarve 2021 after yet another perfect lead-out
Sam Bennett took the opening stage of the Volta ao Algarve 2021 after his team nailed the timing of the lead-out yet again for their star fast man beating Danny Van Poppel and Jon Aberasturi.
By Tim Bonville-Ginn •
UAE Team Emirates sign another promising young talent
After discovering Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and signing Marc Hirschi, the squad are banking on another young rider for the future
By Tim Bonville-Ginn •
'What is most important is that he's happy in what he's doing': Jumbo-Visma still unsure if Tom Dumoulin will return to pro cycling
The Dutchman has been on an indefinite break from cycling since January
By Shane Stokes •
Five things we learned from the Tour de Romandie 2021
Geraint Thomas takes a yellow jersey en route to the one he really wants to win this summer
By Stephen Puddicombe •
What separates the best...from the rest?
Winners at WorldTour level are truly exceptional, but what makes them so? Chris Sidwells investigates what sets apart the best cyclists from the merely excellent
By Chris Sidwells •
'It's not like I haven't performed since I won the Tour,' says Geraint Thomas, who reaffirms his form with Romandie win
The Welshman took the overall at the 2021 Tour de Romandie as he continues to build towards this summer's French Grand Tour
By Jonny Long •
Geraint Thomas makes up for slip with time trial performance to seal Tour de Romandie overall
Remi Cavagna won the fifth and final time trial stage for Deceuninck - Quick-Step
By Jonny Long •
Movistar's Davide Villella fined €180 for crossing finish line twice at Tour de Romandie
The Italian fell foul of one of the UCI's more peculiar regulations at the Swiss stage race
By Jonny Long •