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Gravel

Alexey Lutsenko wins first pro-only gravel race as teams welcome new format

Serenissima Gravel makes debut as first ever pro-only gravel race, organizers Filippo Pozzato and Jonny Moletta eye future expansion for 'Ride the Wonderland' series.

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Gravel got a pro makeover this week.

Alexey Lutsenko won the Serenissima Gravel race Friday, the first-ever pro-only gravel event on the calendar.

Gravel rookie Lutsenko beat Riccardo Minali (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) and Nathan Haas (Cofidis) with a huge solo attacked that distanced a small field stacked with WorldTour talent.

The 132-kilometer Serenissima was the second of a new four-part series of events organized by former Milano-Sanremo champion Filippo Pozzato and bike designer Jonny Molletta.

The “Ride the Wonderland” series, based in Italy’s Veneto region, opened up Wednesday with the revived Giro del Veneto road race, won by Xandro Meurisse (Alpecin-Fenix). The riding rounds out this weekend with the Granfondo VENEtoGO mass-participation event Saturday and the Veneto Classic pro road race Sunday.

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Lutsenko hit the gravel in a run of late-season form after winning the Coppa Agostoni on Monday and riding high in the Giro del Veneto two days later. However, with no gravel racing experience to his name, the Kazakh’s expectations were low for a race packing just 25 percent paved surfaces.

“I am so happy to win this race,” he said. “It was a tough challenge and an unforgettable experience for me.”

Based on a route focused around single-track and back-country lanes, there were few wide-open stretches of stones like those found in races Stateside.

Despite being a gravel rookie, Lutsenko had the confidence to hit out at 80 kilometers to go, and was never seen again as the pack chased around one minute back.

“It was a difficult race with a technical parcours, very narrow roads and so many corners. We had a plan to attack closer to the finish, but in a moment after another corner I found myself in front with a small gap to the group, so I decided to keep on pushing knowing that I had my teammates behind me in the peloton,” Lutsenko said.

“I think it was one of the toughest races in my life – 3.5 hours of 100 percent full gas, but I am really happy I finished it with a victory!”

A new gravel flagship? ‘I hope this race gets a big future’

The inaugural Serenissima race had attracted just a small startlist, but one deep in talent. Alongside the WorldTour teams Astana-Premier Tech, Cofidis and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux, several Italian ProTeam squads and the Continental Qhubeka team were also in action.

The new concept went down well among the road-focused pros as gravel gains increasing traction in the upper echelon of the sport.

“It is fantastic to conclude the season with a podium, especially at the end of a unique experience like this,” Minali said. “It was a difficult race, but we really had fun. I’m looking forward to participating in more gravel races in the future!”

Astana-Premier Tech had sent four riders to the start Friday and went prepared to take the event seriously, particularly given the team’s bike sponsor Wilier had a financial stake in the series.

Both Intermarché-Wanty and Astana welcomed the opportunity to test sponsor materials while offering riders the opening to dabble in something different.

“It was the first experience of these kind of races for everyone, but we came out to the start really motivated to try and to do it in the best possible way,” said Giuseppe Martinelli, Sports Director of Astana-Premier Tech.

“It was such a beautiful race, a bit technical and difficult, especially from the start, but still nice and spectacular. Indeed, it was a serious challenge for all the riders and the race was 100 percent from the start and until the finish line … It is a new but so nice race which must go on in the next years. It was a pleasure to ride Serenissima Gravel today and I hope this race will get a big future”

Italy’s own Flandrien festival

Pozzato, who retired in 2018, and Moletta, who works with brands including Specialized and KASK, are hoping for a big future for their “Ride the Dreamland” series.

“UCI President David Lappartient told us that, if all goes well, in two or three years we will be able to aim for the WorldTour with the Veneto Classic,” Pozzato told TuttoBici.

“In the future, then, we would like to start the race from Piazza San Marco, it would be one of the most beautiful images you can have for a cycling race. We are trying to organize a race that allows spectators to be able to see more stages of the race, a bit like the Tour of Flanders. The idea is to create a stadium atmosphere.”

The growth of the event wouldn’t be isolated to the road racing.

Moletta hopes that attracting a wider field to the tarmac events would naturally encourage entry to the off-road race, which had to be mandated by the President of the Italian Federation.

“We will take advantage of the fact that the teams will be in the area for the Giro del Veneto and Veneto Classic to invite them to also do this innovative race on gravel bikes,” Moletta said.

“I believe we were the first in the world to study an ad hoc regulation for this type of racing with the Federation. Veneto offers many opportunities and I am sure it will be a great show.”

With experience organizing the Italian nationals in 2020 and the UCI recently announcing its plans to launch its own gravel series and world championships Molleta and Pozzato’s project could go far.