Road

Preview: Strade Bianche Women Elite

Strade Bianche Women Elite returns this weekend, with riders facing hot conditions, a dusty and dry course, and the overpowering might of Annemiek van Vleuten.

After a six month hiatus, the UCI Women’s WorldTour resumes on Saturday with Strade Bianche. With last week’s three one-day races in northern Spain under their belts, the peloton’s top riders head toward Tuscany with some questions answered and others remaining.

One thing is for certain: After the failure of some teams to meet the UCI’s COVID-19 protocol ahead of Thursday’s Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, teams will be more attuned than ever to meeting criteria to race in Tuscany on Saturday. All eight UCI Women’s WorldTeams, the highest-ranked seven UCI Women’s Continental Teams, and eight wild card teams are expected to start in Siena.

What’s not for certain?

Who will be able to withstand the scorching temperatures, demanding course, and current domination of world champion Annemiek van Vleuten?

The weather: Hot

Strade Bianche’s weather can be many things, but 37 degrees Celsius (97.8 degrees Fahrenheit) it usually is not. The postponement of 2020’s edition from March 7 to August 1 means that it will be very warm in Tuscany at the start line; the forecasted temperature in Siena for race day is 37 degrees with 82 percent humidity and a less-than five percent chance of rain.

Strade Bianche isn’t known for the same weather extremes of Belgium’s spring classics, but March in wine country isn’t always balmy. In 2018, race day unfolded under conditions so rainy and cold that only 59 of 136 starters finished the race; 17 women arrived outside of the time limit. During the 2017 edition, rain fell heavily during the second half of the race, resulting in numerous crashes. In wet years, the charming white gravel turns to peanut butter-sticky mud; given this year’s heat and absence of moisture, the real enemy of the eponymous strada biancha will be the potential for suffocating clouds of white dust.

In 2018 the peloton fought bitter cold and rain. That won’t be the case in 2020, as the forecast calls for temperatures approaching 100 degrees F. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

While weather is never filed under ‘things we can control,’ how riders deal with staying hydrated in the extreme heat will definitely have an impact on the day’s results.

The course: Breakaway or sprint?

In 2017 Lizzie Deignan won a tight battle with Kasia Niewiadoma. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

This year’s course follows the same route established in 2018 and used since then. The 136 kilometer course contains 31.4 km of strada biancha; there are eight sectors of white gravel ranging from 800 meters to 9.5 kilometers long.

The strada biancha of Strade Bianche amount to about 23 percent of the total course, and those gravel sectors vary in terms of length, difficulty, and topography. Some are flat, and others include steep climbs and winding descents, which means that different skills come into play depending on the sector. The other 77 percent of the race course is similarly varied, and there are some significantly steep climbs along the route.

2020 Strade Bianche Womens Route
2020 Strade Bianche women’s route. Photo: RCS Sport

In its five editions, the Strade Bianche has seen women ride to victory via solo breakaways or tactical battles in the final seconds of the race. As the length and the number of gravel sectors have increased since the race’s inaugural edition (in 2015, it was 103 km long with only 17 km of strade bianche), the predictability has not: every year, it’s any woman’s race.

In 2015, Megan Guarnier rode to the win solo after putting a gap on teammate Lizzie Deignan during the penultimate gravel sector and holding onto it until the end. In 2016, Deignan took the win in totally different fashion; she attacked Katarzyna Niewiadoma with 100 meters of the finish to beat the Polish rider by three seconds.

Last years’s race started in earnest around the 70 kilometer mark on the fifth and longest gravel sector, San Martino in Grania. A dozen riders traded attacks until Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) and Janneke Ensing (Team Sunweb) made a move with 13.5km to go just before the start of the final gravel sector, Le Tolfe. Shortly thereafter, then-time trial world champion van Vleuten made a solo attack that created up a 45-second lead before time trialing her way to victory. Although van Vleuten may have been alone on the steep, final climb of Via Santa Caterina, in other years, it’s been a sprint all the way up to the Piazza il Campo.

Annemiek van Vleuten had time to savor her solo win in 2019. Photo: Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Although three out of five of victories at the the Strade Bianche have been captured on a solo breakaway à la van Vleuten or van der Breggen, Canyon-SRAM rider Niewiadoma’s second place finishes in 2016 and 2017 indicate that a tactical battle on the final climb isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. Will this year’s race be won on the final kilometer into Siena’s medieval city by a fast finisher who has the legs left for the scorching climb, or will we know the result well outside of the city limits?

All eyes on Annemiek van Vleuten

If van Vleuten’s performance in Spain last week is any indication, it might be the latter; however, Niewiadoma has come too close too many times to cede defeat.

“I’m just getting more and more hungry for another edition of Strade Bianche,” Niewiadoma said at the end of last year’s race.

Niewiadoma has been in Spain since the season ended abruptly last year, and like many women in the peloton, endured almost eight weeks of not being able to ride outside. Whether or not this affects her ability to integrate back into IRL racing remains to be seen; however, working in her favor is Niewiadoma’s experience and expertise on the course. The Canyon-SRAM rider has finished on the podium at four out of five editions of Strade Bianche.

2017 Strade winner Elisa Longo Borghini is another rider to watch, especially given her commanding performances in Spain last week. The Trek-Segafredo rider had podium finishes at both Clásica Femenina Navarra and Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria and finished fourth at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa. In 2017, Longo Borghini sprinted to victory in Siena, even after rainy conditions and a crash during the fifth gravel sector threatened to derail her. Like Niewadoma, she is one of the riders who spent many weeks indoors while Italy was ravaged by the coronavirus, yet she has returned to racing in 2020 with only positive side effects.

All eyes will be on Annemiek van Vleuten this weekend. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Although she missed out on the first two races of the revived season due to her team’s concern with COVID-19 protocol adherence, CCC-Liv’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio should also be one to watch in Siena. The South African’s palmarès from the racing hiatus include three stage wins in Zwift’s Tour for All and a stage win during July’s virtual Tour de France. Moolman-Pasio became a self-confessed eracing convert during the lockdown period and found that the results translated outdoors; she set a QoM on the Rocacorba climb in Spain the day that she was allowed to start riding outdoors.

Of course, 2018 Strade champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) will be a top contender in Tuscany, as the Dutchwoman has entered the renewed 2020 season with an impressive showing already. She staged a late chase on Annemiek van Vleuten at the Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria and finished 18 seconds off the world champion’s time. Van der Breggen’s all-around excellence on the road make her a favorite at almost every start line.

And last, but certainly not least, is the world champion herself.

The fact that van Vleuten solo’ed to victory at Strade Bianche in 2019 notwithstanding, the Mitchelton-Scott rider has also won every race she’s started this year. Aside from the never-ending uncertainty surrounding racing during the time of the coronavirus, the biggest question to emerge since racing resumed last week is how to reign in the rainbow jersey. After a week of rest following her commanding performance in Spain, there’s a good chance that no one can.

Yet, that won’t stop them from trying.

“I think there will be times coming where we can get there, outsmart her, or outplay her with tactics,” said Trek-Segafredo’s director Ina Teutenberg. “The season has just restarted, and we hope this will not be repeated every bike race we go to now.”