Big-name absentees make Alaphilippe the favourite
The first thing to note about the men’s Strade Bianche this year is the riders who won't be participating. Despite (or perhaps because of) winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend with such a dominant ride, the 2020 winner Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has chosen not to ride, having earlier expressed his fear of peaking too early prior to his main targets later this spring.
Neither will defending champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), who is still a few weeks away from racing, or of course third-place finisher Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), whose own long return back to cycling is only just beginning.
That leaves Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) as the only one of the three riders to make it to the bottom of the climactic Via Santa Caterina climb together at the front of the race to return this year, and is therefore the obvious favourite for victory this time
This race, and especially that final steep climb, suits him down to the ground, as proven by the way he won it on debut in 2019. As ever he’ll have a strong Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team to support him, most notably Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen, and Mauro Schmid, who won the Giro stage last year that featured these roads.
Alaphilippe’s main targets aren’t until even later in the spring than Van Aert, as he’s prioritising the Ardennes Classics this year, so he too is measuring his efforts at this stage. But second overall at the Tour de la Provence in what was his first race of the season indicates he’s already riding at a high level, and even an Alaphilippe short of top form takes some beating.
Van Vleuten and SD Worx to do battle once again
With all due respect to all the other riders taking part, the women’s Strade Bianche looks most likely to once again boil down to a battle between the individual might of Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) versus the collective might of team SD Worx.
That was the case at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where Van Vleuten came out on top to leave SD Worx’s Demi Vollering having to settle for second, and on a race as attritional as Strade Bianche, where the trying road surfaces and relentless climbing leaves little room for luck and other variables to shape the race, we can expect the same.
In fact, on only one occasion since the race’s inaugural edition seven years ago has the outcome been different, with Van Vleuten triumphing two years in a row between 2019-2020, and SD Worx winning four of the other editions, including last year’s courtesy of Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
Van den Broek-Blaak will be present to defend her title, though she’ll need to improve upon her performance last week at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where she was a little off the pace. Of that line-up, Marlen Reusser misses out this time, but in her place comes quality climbers Niamh Fisher-Black and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, more suitable for this more climber-friendly race.
Once again though, the new partnership of Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky will likely be the main riders tasked with defeating Van Vleuten and claiming the victory. Both are similar in that they can win races both from strong attacks and in small group sprints, and how well they gel together will be crucial to SD Worx’s fortunes in this new post-Van der Breggen era.
Pogačar looks to conquer yet another cycling frontier
Is there anything Tadej Pogačar can’t do? In just three years as a pro the UAE Team Emirates rider has already proven himself to be the best climber in the world, who can time trial with the very best, and win the most prestigious hilly Classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia.
He’s yet to quite reach those world-class levels on the unique gravel roads of Strade Bianche, however. He’s ridden the race every year, but hasn’t quite been in the mix, finishing 30th in 2019 and 13th in 2020. And although he was much improved last year, making the key selection of seven, he couldn’t follow when Van der Poel went clear with Bernal and Alaphilippe.
It seems likely that Pogačar will be improved this time around. The Slovenian is making a conscious effort to target more Classics this spring, with half an eye on the cobblestone stage of the Tour France, and is already in flying form having won the UAE Tour.
The steep climbs on the Strade Bianche route will be his bread and butter — it’s how he copes with the road surface, be it muddy and wet or (as forecasted) dry and dusty, that will be the real test, and a real point of intrigue for us wondering just how many cycling frontiers he has the potential to conquer.
Vos begins another season with expectations as high a ever
Fresh from winning a record-extending eighth career world cyclocross title, Marianne Vos returns to the road for yet another season.
Somehow, after all these years racing at such a high level, the 34-year-old begins 2022 on the ascendency rather than in decline. With the retirement of Anna van der Breggen, and the pregnancy-induced time off for Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), there are now very few riders who can currently claim to be at her level.
Vos had already conquered women’s cycling and won most of the big races before Van der Breggen had even turned pro in 2012, and though Van der Breggen would eventually usurp her as the world’s best rider, it’s Vos who rides on in 2022, still hungry for more.
Annemiek van Vleuten now clearly holds the outright title of world number one, but the way Vos ended last season, with runner-up finishes at both the World Championships and Paris-Roubaix, suggests she’s capable of challenging.
Strade Bianche is a race that Vos has never won — in fact, she’s yet to ever make the top five. Claiming a career-first victory on Saturday would be a statement of intent ahead of the rest of the season.
Borghini amongst key challengers; Pidcock out of 2022 edition
Having made a very impressive debut last year to finish fifth, Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) misses this year’s edition, having been touted as one of the very top favourites for the race. Pidcock was pulled from the line-up by his Ineos Grenadiers team after suffering this week with a stomach virus, meaning the British team will have to look elsewhere for a potential victory in Italy.
Amongst that Ineos line-up will be Richard Carapaz, one of several climbers making a rare foray into Classics racing, along with Miguel Ángel López (Astana-PremierTech), and Supp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). Watching such riders duke it out with the Classics specialists is always one of Strade Bianche’s great pleasures.
Given the way he’s started the season, 2018 winner Tiesj Benoot will be one to watch as he takes up leadership of Jumbo-Visma in the absence of Wout van Aert, while Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-PremierTech), Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) also typically go very well here.
The only edition of the women’s Strade Bianche not to have been won either by Van Vleuten or an SD Worx rider was instead won by Elisa Longo Borghini, and she’ll again be one of the favourites this year. In the absence of Lizzie Deignan, she’ll have a more exclusive leadership role, what with the parcours likely to be too tough for world champion Elsa Balsamo.
Past performances also indicate that FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (who hasn’t been out of the top 10 for the last four editions), three-time runner-up Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and 2020 runner-up Mavi Garcia will be ones to watch, while the latter’s UAE Team ADQ team-mate is on red hot form having won both Omloop van het Hageland and Vuelta CV Feminas last month.
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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.