Many of the greatest male Spring Classics contenders will be heading to Italy in the coming days ahead of Strade Bianche on Saturday. All eyes will be on the likes of 2021 champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), two of the biggest favourites in the absence of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) who is sitting out the race due to illness and defending champion Tadej Pogačar.
Van Aert was originally due to start his 2023 season at Strade Bianche, but will now delay entering the fray until Tirreno-Adriatico which begins a few days later. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), the defending champion after his 2022 victory, also won’t be present this year due to racing Paris-Nice which also begins in early March.
Strade Bianche is famous for its 11 gravel sectors, or sterrato, which make for 63 kilometres of spectacular racing in the 184 kilometre long event. During the last few years the race has been packed full of drama sparked by stunning and brutal attacks from both Van der Poel and Pogačar on the way to both of their wins.
Along with the gravel, the riders face a series of short, steep hills through the breathtaking scenery featuring rolling fields and vineyards meaning the course suits puncheur style riders who have the explosiveness to launch attacks across the varying terrain, and the power to make them last.
We’ve picked eight of the best to keep an eye on, who are all equally capable of landing the 2023 Strade Bianche title on Saturday.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck)
After taking one of the most memorable Strade Bianche victories in recent years, Mathieu van der Poel needs very little introduction to fans of the Italian Classic.
Back in 2021, Van der Poel simply tore his rivals to shreds while wearing the Dutch National Champions jersey, launching a violent attack on the final gravel sector which only Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) could follow. However, an even more savage attack was still to come.
Once the trio had entered the streets of Siena, Van der Poel launched a blistering final move on the iconic Via Santa Caterina climb producing 1,300 watts in the process. Alaphilippe, who is normally capable of similar moves, was left stunned as the Dutchman sailed into the distance to take a resounding win.
Van der Poel will be making his 2023 road debut on Saturday and will no doubt want to start with a bang.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
Tom Pidcock has begun the 2023 road season in excellent form, and was right in the thick of the action at the recent Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where he finished in fifth place. Prior to the Classics getting underway, Pidcock rode an impressive race at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal taking the win on stage four, beating João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) on a punchy climb in the process.
On paper, there isn’t a Classic more better suited to Pidcock’s attributes than Strade Bianche. The Ineos man possesses the technical ability to survive the various gravel sectors where his cyclo-cross and mountain bike background will shine through. Pidcock also has the speed, acceleration and tenacity to get away from his rivals on the climbs.
If a bunch featuring Pidcock arrives at the foot of the Via Santa Caterina all together, the Leeds-born rider will be extremely tough to beat on an uphill dash for the line.
Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step)
The two-time former World Champion got his Spring campaign off to a flying start with victory at the Faun-Ardèche Classic in France last weekend. Alaphilippe out-sprinted fellow Frenchman, David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) after they distanced themselves from a smaller group of riders with just under 30 kilometres remaining.
Alaphilippe is yet another former winner of Strade Bianche, and is exactly the type of rider who thrives here. His bike handling skills are superb, and he possesses a phenomenal ability to launch violent attacks when the road goes uphill that leave other riders trailing in his wake. As well as winning in 2019, Alaphilippe also finished as runner up to Van der Poel in 2021.
He also has a score to settle with Strade Bianche after spectacularly crashing out last year on the longest gravel sector of the race. With the burden of the Rainbow Jersey no longer on his shoulders, watch out for the Soudal Quick-Step puncheur on Saturday.
Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma)
Without the presence of Wout Van Aert in his team, all eyes will be on Benoot for Jumbo-Visma in Italy this weekend. After winning Strade Bianche in 2018, Benoot knows exactly what it takes to get the job done on the white gravel roads.
The Belgian has started the Spring Classics in excellent form, winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Opening Weekend and was in the heart of the action when his teammate, Dylan van Baarle, took the victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Benoot is an out and out Classics rider. The man from Ghent may lack the raw power of the likes of Van Aert, but his lighter build and climbing ability means that if he’s kept out of trouble, he should be able to contest the victory once more.
Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates)
Belgian Tim Wellens has moved to pastures new with UAE Team Emirates for 2023, and briefly got up the road at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad during Opening Weekend.
Wellens is always ready to go on the offensive, and has finished inside the top 20 on three separate occasions at Strade Bianche with his best result being a third place finish in 2017. The Belgian possesses a varied skill set as a bike rider, and typically thrives on punchy terrain featuring short but sharp climbs, typical of the route of the Italian Classic.
While the likes of Pidcock, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe watch each other on Saturday, Wellens is exactly the type of rider capable of capitalising and catching them all unawares, making him very much a dark horse for victory.
Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo)
Not every team has the fortune of possessing a race winning star in their squad, although Trek-Segafredo will hope they have one in the form of young American Quinn Simmons.
Simmons also has past form at Strade Bianche, finishing in seventh last year behind a rampant Pogacar. The 21-year-old has all the required bike handling skills you need to get around on the dirt roads and is a real livewire on two wheels.
While Simmons doesn’t possess the same raw power as the likes of Van der Poel, he isn’t afraid to attack from distance, and if he’s allowed to slip up the road in a breakaway, he’ll be immensely difficult to reel back in.
Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious)
It’s likely that Bahrain Victorious will arrive in Siena with Pello Bilbao as their leader, although Matej Mohorič will provide an outstanding alternative on the sterrato if Bilbao finds himself in difficulty.
Mohorič is fast becoming a proven Classics star, and grabbed his first Monument title with a sensational ride at Milan-San Remo last year. Unlike his team mate Bilbao, the Slovenian hasn’t yet recorded a top ten finish in Siena, but he has all the ability you need in order to do the business here with the parcours suiting him to perfection.
Mohorič isn’t known for his climbing prowess, but he has a huge engine and will be able to stick to the all out favourites like glue. If he gets the jump from distance on his rivals, he has the power and tenacity to then see a huge attack through to the end. His two Tour de France stage wins are solid proof of that.
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost)
Like Mohorič, Alberto Bettiol is another decent outside bet capable of outfoxing the big three favourites of Alaphilippe, Pidcock and Van der Poel here.
The Italian is an all out powerhouse, and won the Tour of Flanders back in 2019 so has all that it takes for another big result. He also finished fourth at Strade Bianche in 2020 behind Wout van Aert. Not only that, but these are the EF Education-Easy Post rider’s home roads. Bettiol grew up in the region, riding on Tuscany’s gravel tracks on a regular basis before turning professional.
He relishes short, punchy climbs and can pack a fast finish. If anyone can upset the favourites in Siena, then it certainly could be him.
Aleksey Lutsenko (Astana Qazaqstan), Greg van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën Team), Rui Costa (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), Aleksandr Vlasov (BORA-Hansgrohe), Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), Ruben Guerreiro (Movistar) can all lay claim to a decent shot if things go their way. But often at Strade it's the big guns that contest the finish, such is the selectiveness of the course.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1