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We were treated to another thrilling edition of the Italian nuovo classic Strade Bianche on Saturday. In a way that few others can attack, Annemiek van Vleuten went off the front of the women’s race and held her advantage all the way to victory in Siena. The men’s race was a three-man thriller down to that steep hill through the ancient Tuscan city. Julian Alaphilippe attacked with panache to win that event. How did the tactics play out? What should we make of the unexpectedly impressive performance by mountain biker Annika Langvad? Let’s roundtable!
How important is this victory for Julian Alaphilippe, a man who until recently had trouble sealing the deal in major one-day races?
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: I put this right alongside his win at La Flèche Wallonne. I think this victory is actually quite a bit more impressive than Flèche. However, the Belgian race has a deeper history, so let’s just say they are even. This victory marks an important stepping stone in Alaphilippe’s transformation into a possible monument winner. If he can be that punchy and fresh at the end of Strade Bianche, you have to assume he can be similarly strong at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. Is Julian Alaphilippe cycling’s next great monument winner?
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: I agree with Fred that this is a big one for Alaphilippe. My angle is that this Strade win is less important in terms of confirming talent and more important in terms of revealing potential. By now, no one can question his chops. He won Flèche, he romped through the 2018 Tour de France, and he put a cherry on the top with a San Sebastian victory. Those races are all pretty one-dimensional though: Races for punchy climbers. I think his win at Strade showed he can be a factor in tough classics, such as Tour of Flanders, provided he has the endurance to go another 60 kilometers or so. I’m sure he’s had plenty of time to pick Philippe Gilbert’s brain on the subject — they are teammates after all.
Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: First off, I would qualify that question by saying he had trouble sealing the deal only in a monument. He won Clasica San Sebastian and Flèche Wallonne last year, hardly small potatoes. The Strade Bianche victory certainly is another important step in his evolution and it seems that a “big one” is imminent, but I wonder how much of an actual breakthrough it will be. Alaphilippe is already a proven winner and he’s only getting better. Trouble is the new Liège course isn’t ideal for Alaphilippe, nor is Sanremo. Funny enough, he thinks Flanders could be the race that best suits him going forward among the monuments of the spring classics.
Evaluate Jakob Fuglsang’s race. How close was he to winning, and what would he have done differently to take victory?
Fred: I wanted Fuglsang to attack a few more times prior to the run-in to Siena. He’s the heavier, stronger rider, and I assumed he might be able to get a gap on the flats and time trial away to victory. But that’s asking a lot — Alaphilippe really did appear to have Fuglsang’s number this time. I’m not sure if there was anything Fuglsang could have done to get away.
Spencer: On a scale of 1 to 10 bottles of Chianti, I’d give Fuglsang a solid six. He had a chance, but it was not a very good one. Perhaps he should have tried to keep Wout van Aert in the mix to assist with the pacemaking in their breakaway. Then he might have saved his legs for one final push up to Siena. I think Alaphilippe did a better job of conserving one final match to burn on that climb.
Andrew: Fuglsang simply tried to power away from everyone, and it took everything that Alaphilippe had to beat him. That final explosive ramp was just a touch too much for the Dane, and it was ideal for the explosive Frenchman. Pure power will usually win; Fuglsang just didn’t quite have enough. Bravo for trying — it’s great to see Fuglsang go all-in.
Take us through your emotions as you watched Wout van Aert claw his way back into contention in the final kilometers.
Fred: Honestly, I was disappointed when Wout van Aert was dropped on the 10th gravel sector, even if the pitch was horribly steep. If he wants to win Flanders, Wout is going to need to be able to survive short, punchy hills like that. Chapeau to Wout for having the tactical smarts to go with Fuglsang.
Spencer: I had completely written him off when he got dropped by Fuglsang and Alaphilippe. But then, little by little, that time gap started to come down, and when he rode right past them into the final kilometer, I was out of my seat in disbelief. Could he pull it out? Alas, it was quickly shown that he didn’t have anything left in the tank. I really loved his moxy, though. That was a hard-fought podium result.
Andrew: What a baller. Van Aert brings that essential element to racing that many top pros are missing: desire. It’s one thing to have success founded on innate talent, but the true champions bring that killer instinct into the mix that often makes the winning difference. Van Aert has that fighting spirit and hunger that should see him win innumerable big races for years to come.
Annika Langvad turned heads with a second-place finish in the women’s race. What should we expect from this world champion mountain biker on the road?
Fred: Strade Bianche is the most mountain biker-friendly race in pro cycling, due to its loose surface, steep climbs, and power-friendly course. I’m really happy to see Langvad put in a strong showing. But if there were a race where she should have been good, this was it. I’m not so convinced that this is a harbinger of dominance on the road.
Spencer: Well, first of all, she is going to absolutely destroy the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race, which starts on Sunday. She’s teamed up with Anna van der Breggen for that South African race. Watch out! I see Fred’s point that Strade Bianche is friendly terrain for Langvad. But hey, steep, rough, power-friendly climbs … Sounds a lot like a northern classic to me. Maybe we’ll see her in Belgium?
Andrew: The sloppy nature and extra demands of the gravel certainly would help a rider used to red-lining it in mountain bike racing. It’s great to see riders crossing over into different disciplines. Though modern cycling is ever more specialized, bike racing is bike racing, and she could be the next in a long line that includes Marianne Vos and Peter Sagan of uber-talented riders who can excel in any discipline they choose.