Roundtable: Why is Strade Bianche such a thriller?
After a string of early season Belgian classics, pro cycling takes a brief detour to Italy, but don’t worry. Saturday’s Strade Bianche is one of the most thrilling one-day races on the calendar. Held on the white dirt roads of Tuscany, this race has plenty of rough terrain to favor a classics specialist, such as Fabian Cancellara, who won three editions of the race. Yet it is also hilly enough to allow the climbers to shine, with Philippe Gilbert and Michal Kwiatkowski among the other previous champions.
What do we make of this young, upstart event that is vying to be a “classic?” Who might surprise us in the 2019 edition? Let’s roundtable!
While the 13-year-old Strade Bianche doesn’t have the heritage of most classics, it’s usually a thriller. Give us your one-sentence sales pitch on what this Italian classic is all about.
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: The world’s best one-day riders throw haymakers at each other on a series of painfully steep dirt roads, while the TV cameras show off a postcard-worthy landscape that will absolutely make you Google airfare to (and hotel rates in) Tuscany.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: Classics wattage monsters smash the white dirt roads, climbers get their kicks on the brutal hilltop finish in Siena — this classic is a throwback to the days before hyper-specialization and obsessive marginal gains chasing.
Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: A classic that’s coming of age sooner than expected — cycling’s sixth monument.
Having won Omloop, Kuurne, and Le Samyn, Deceuninck-Quick-Step riders are on a streak. What do they need to do to take victory in this next one-day on the WorldTour calendar?
Fred: Deceuninck definitely has the numbers for Strade Bianche with three potential winners in Zdenek Stybar, Julian Alaphilippe, and even Yves Lampaert in the lineup. They need to make sure that at least one of these guys is present in every move that goes inside 60km to go. My assumption is Lampaert is the long-range attacker, Stybar is the mid-range guy, and Alaphilippe is the weapon for the finale. If a diminished group comes into the final 25km together, my guess is Stybar will attack the Ponta del Garbo. If that move doesn’t go, then Alaphilippe is the man for the uphill sprint to the finish in Siena.
Spencer: For starters, I think Deceuninck needs to pray for good weather. If it gets rainy and muddy like last year, this race is far more unpredictable and difficult to control. In terms of the racing itself, ideally, Alaphilippe is used to mark dangerous late breakaways with climbers and Stybar can handle the classics riders who go off the front. I would not want to see Stybar up against a guy like Romain Bardet (who was second last year) on that steep final climb. Best-case scenario: Both of them make the final selection, putting Deceuninck in the driver’s seat.
Andrew: They have Julian Alaphilippe, who’s looked jumpy so far this season, and has the explosiveness to win. Strade Bianche might be a tad too punishing for Alaphilippe, so the team needs to protect him until the final hour of racing. Stybar is a former winner, so the team, as they do in most major one-days, has more than one realistic chance to win.
This race can be unpredictable, especially in bad weather. Pick a dark horse favorite for the men’s race and explain why he has a chance.
Fred: We won’t be calling this guy a dark horse much longer. Reigning U23 world champ Tadej Pogacar is looking extremely strong this season — he won an uphill finish at the Volta Algarve a few weeks back against a group of heavy hitters. While Strade Bianche’s length may be a bit too far for him just yet, this kid looks so talented that I’m inclined to give him dark horse status. I just wish his name was a tad easier to pronounce for my clumsy American mouth. Here’s a video of him pronouncing his own name. Ta-day Po-gah-chur.
Spencer: Okay, maybe Wout van Aert isn’t a true dark horse since he was third in last year’s Strade Bianche. However, the three-time world cyclocross champion is a bit of an unknown quantity this early in the season. He was 13th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but that is his only road result so far in 2019. I’d love to see the 24-year-old Belgian animate again on the white roads. Since he’ll be riding for WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma, he should have more team support this year than he did in 2018 when he raced on a Pro Continental outfit.
Andrew: Astana’s been on a roll, and Alexey Lutsenko is the type of rider who could surprise the five-star favorites. Most Strade Bianche winners are riders hitting their peak before the spring classics, and Lutsenko is eyeing the Ardennes, so it might be a touch too early. Bad weather favors the brave.
In the women’s race, Katarzyna Niewiadoma has come second in the last three runnings of Strade Bianche. What will it take for her to win in 2019?
Fred: The women’s race tends to be a battle of attrition, as the front group gradually is worn down by the brutal roads. In order to win, Niewiadoma needs to have one or two teammates make it into the front group to chase down attacks or launch moves of their own. You can bet that Boels-Dolmans will have Chantal Blaak, Anna van der Breggen, and maybe even mountain biker Annika Langvad in whatever group comes into the final 30km together, and it would be impossible to defeat that level of firepower by oneself.
Spencer: Some of Niewiadoma’s best victories have come from audacious long-range solo attacks. Since she has twice lost on the final climb to Siena, by a matter of seconds, I’d feel a lot more confident in her chances if she didn’t bring any passengers to the final kilometer. However, if she cannot go it alone, Niewiadoma would do well to lead-out the sprint. Those little “streets” through Siena are so narrow, the corners so sharp, that it is very difficult to make a last-minute pass. She should be on the front by 300 meters to go, or else she’ll end up stuck behind another rider, like what happened in 2017 when Elisa Longo Borghini won on the wet cobblestones.
Andrew: The Boels-Dolmans team needs to have a bad day. The team lines up as the pre-race favorite, so Niewiadoma needs to put pressure on them to carry the weight of the race, and then save her matches for the finale.