Pogačar produces yet another masterpiece
Even by the ludicrously high standards Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has set over the past few years, this was a particularly special ride.
Prior to today, no rider had won Strade Bianche with an attack longer than 20km; but Pogačar, dismissive of any established racing custom, set off on a remarkable 50km solo ride to take victory.
It didn’t look as though attacking this far out was part of the plan. Although he moved to the front of the peloton on the eighth gravel sector, he appeared to be vying for control of and the best spot in the peloton with Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), and opened up a small gap ahead of Alaphilippe and the rest apparently by accident.
Upon getting this gap, he kept looking over his shoulder, perhaps puzzled as to why no other rider was bridging up to him. The truth was that no-one could follow even before he committed fully to the attack, and once he did, there was no catching him.
Thirty seconds grew to a minute, and a minute grew to a minute and a half, and we could only look in awe as Pogačar completed yet another masterclass.
As a result, he adds Strade Bianche to the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia titles he claimed last year, all before turning 24 — depending on your stance towards the status of Strade Bianche, you could say he’s well on the way to becoming the first ever rider to win all six monuments. These are Merckx-esque statistics, and this was a Merckx-esque performance.
Kopecky comes of age with first ever World Tour classic
Lotte Kopecky has been recognised as one of the major new talents in cycling for several years now, but this felt like the day she at last came fully of age.
Strade Bianche is easily the biggest win of her career so far, and her first ever classic at World Tour level following several podium finishes in races including Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.
It’s also her first win for new team SD Worx, where she has settled in immediately and already looks like a capable successor to the retired Anna van der Breggen.
SD Worx did their usual ploy of outnumbering and working over the other teams, with Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, Demi Vollering and defending champion Chantal van den Broek Blaak all softening their rivals by attacking in tandem throughout the race. But it was clear that Kopecky was their strongest ride, from the moment she was the only rider able to follow Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) on the final gravel sector, to the final showdown in Siena.
Considering that this is a race that arguably doesn’t suit Kopecky as much as other classics, especially those with flat finishes where she can potentially utilise her sprint, this was a real statement-making performance. If she builds upon it to establish herself as SD Worx’s new talisman, she could be in for a huge season.
Wind and crashes adds to the drama
Strade Bianche has seen all sorts of different conditions over the years, from slippery mud to dusty dry roads in the heat, and this year the riders were faced with yet a new challenge: strong winds.
The conditions added to the spectacle to a race that is always so visually striking, with the gusts blowing the dust in the air, forming an ominous cloud over the race.
The most dramatic moment occurred early in the race, when a large gust of wind caused a huge crash in the peloton. It was carnage, and many riders had to abandon in the aftermath, including former winner Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma), Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Victorious), the on-form Victor Campanaerts (Lotto-Soudal) and Michael Matthews (BikeExchange), who got a real taste for how hard this race can be on debut.
The most high-profile victim though was Julian Alaphilippe, who dramatically went over his handlebars right in front of the TV camera. Thankfully he was able to continue, and even looked like he might get himself back into contention to compete for victory after his group of stragglers managed to close a large deficit of over two minutes, just before the business end of the race, 75km from the finish.
But either the crash or the chase, or a bit of both, apparently took a lot out of him, and he instead played a domestique role for teammate Kasper Asgreen, before dropping out the group of favourites.
Asgreen himself rode very impressively to finish third, but there was nothing he or anyone else could do stop of Pogacar.
Unique finish to the Strade Bianche Donne
While Pogačar won the men’s race with an unprecedented long-range attack, the women’s edition was unique for the opposite reason, as an unusually high number of riders made it to Siena together.
Although Van Vleuten and Kopecky went clear on the final gravel sector, they were joined gradually by more and more riders, and by the foot of the Via Santa Caterina there were twelve riders still in contention.
This was a highly unusual situation for Strade Bianche, which is usually such a selective race that riders are by this point strewn all across the road with sizable gaps between them.
A marque showdown had therefore been set up, and it did not disappoint. Van Vleuten once again accelerated, and Kopecky once again was the only rider to follow, and the tension was agonising as the latter clung on for dear life. It seemed like she might lose the meal at any moment during the steep slopes, yet had survived by the time the gradient eased.
The two then rode side-by-side with the winner still not decided, until Kopecky launched her final sprint.
It was arguably the most exciting finish yet, of a race that every year finds new ways to excite and entertain us.
Other great rides that shouldn't be overshadowed by Pogačar
Although Pogačar was the star of the show, further down the road there were plenty of other excellent performances that shouldn’t go unmentioned.
He might now be 41-years-old, and riding (supposedly) his last season, but Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) still has it in him to not only to match is past performances, but better them: by outsprinting Kasper Asgreen up the Via Santa Caterina to finish second, he registers a career-high finish at Strade Bianche.
There was a youthful look to the group of chasers behind, with Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ) the revelation of the day, finishing fourth in the country where he wore the pink jersey for a spell last May. With him was Jonathan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers), who continued his good start to the season with a sixth-place finish, and Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) making up for the crash that scuppered his promising start here last year to finish seventh.
Behind Kopecky and Van Vleuten in the women’s race were many of the usual suspects, including Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) with another near finish in fourth, and Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) in seventh, for whom Strade Bianche continues to be a race she hasn’t quite mastered.
One less familiar name in the mix was Shrin van Anrooij (Trek-Segafredo), although on the basis of how she kept up with the favourites on the dirt roads to ultimately finish ninth, we’ll be seeing plenty of the 20-year-old in the future.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.
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