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Roundtable: Racing returns at Strade Bianche

After months of pause, the peloton made a punishing return to WorldTour action Saturday. We pick over the major talking points from an exhilarating day of racing.

WorldTour racing kickstarted in style at Saturday’s Strade Bianche.

As the first top-tier competition after nearly five months of shutdown, what can we learn from this weekend’s race?

What’s next for winners Annemiek van Vleuten and Wout van Aert? And what did Saturday tell us about the oncoming season as riders look to shake out a long period without racing and the wider cycling community battles the ongoing threat of COVID-19?

Editor-in-chief Fred Dreier, Andrew Hood, James Startt, and Jim Cotton pick it all over in this week’s roundtable!

Just how tough a return to racing was this? Van der Poel, Alaphilippe, and many other major names were off the back. Is that testament to the conditions of the day or an insight into what nearly five months without racing can do?

Defending champion Alaphilippe punctured five times and finished 24th, 15 minutes back.
Alaphilippe was one of many favorites that failed to make a mark Saturday. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

Fred Dreier (@freddreier): It really sounds like the conditions had a huge impact on the final outcome given the quotes after the event and the comments made by riders in their various social media posts. Riding 180km over those steep Tuscan gravel roads is tough enough when it’s 65 degrees out and overcast. When you crank the temperature up to 95 degrees and let the riders bake in the sun, their systems are likely to react differently.

Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): These early races are telling us who came out of lockdown in a good way. Many riders simply didn’t cope as well during quarantine, while others could train without restrictions, so we’re seeing a bit of that in these early races. Also, some of the bigger fishes are looking a further bit downstream, so there is already some tapering of form happening even in this very weird COVID season.

James Startt: There are so many factors here. Obviously the heat and the dust were something that few riders have experienced and you really cannot prepare for. And then there were the roads that were just so dry, hard and slippery. They were really dangerous. And they wreaked havoc on the peloton as many big riders like van der Poel and Alaphilippe suffered multiple punctures.

Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): I think any surprise poor performances were down to bad luck, lack of acclimatization to the heat, or bigger goals later in the year rather than poor preparation. Alaphilippe may have punctured five times, but he had admitted he was off the boil before the race. Jakob Fuglsang had been looking strong but admitted overheating after attacking in the final. A missed bottle hand-up could have ended anyone’s race Saturday.

Van Vleuten once again proved unstoppable. Is her huge work capacity and endless commitment to training a lesson for the wider women’s peloton?

37 years young: Van Vleuten again proved unstoppable. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images.
37 years young: Van Vleuten again proved unstoppable. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images.

Andrew: Van Vleuten is unbeatable in all starts going back to the 2019 world championships, and is clearly a pedal stroke faster than all of her rivals right now. Her work ethic over the winter, when she spent time on the Teide volcano training with the men’s team, certainly has paid off. Her rivals have to up their game to have a chance of taking her on. Right now, she’s in a class of her own, and if she’s this hot out of the gate after a long stoppage, no one’s going to stop her except bad luck.

Jim: Her approach to training and the hours she puts in are incredible – her workload through lockdown likely put a lot of male pros to shame. However, I think one major thing playing to her advantage right now is confidence. You just need to take a look at her social media to see that it’s not just the wider world that backs her – she backs herself.

Fred: Van Vleuten is unstoppable at the moment, and although she’s been out training with men’s teams I don’t see that having any greater impact on her form that if she had trained with female riders. She’s famous for her work ethic and for her ability to push herself, so I think if she’s training with men, women, or by herself, she’s going to be prepared and strong for the races.

Van Aert finally made it count after two near-misses at Strade. Does he have the makings of a monument winner later this year, where he starts Roubaix and Flanders?

Van Aert made his move on the final gravel sector to pull clear of an elite lead group.
Van Aert made his move on the final gravel sector to pull clear of an elite lead group. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

James: Van Aert has the makings of a lot. He can sprint. He can time trial. And as he has already shown, he can win classics. Roubaix and Flanders are no-brainers, and victory this weekend will only give him enormous confidence. He didn’t just win Strade Bianche, he won this Strade Bianche. It was just a huge ride.

Fred: Wout sure seems to have the legs to win Flanders or Roubaix; the big question is whether he has the racing intellect and the team. I think Strade Bianche showed that van Aert can use his big engine to dictate the tactics. He shut down Alberto Bettiol’s attack and then waited for the final climb to make his move. A less confident rider may have tried to attack alongside Bettiol, or immediately counter. His win at Strade Bianche was definitely a sign of his fine form. It was a sign of his confidence and his tactical smarts as well.

Jim: He could definitely take a monument – even Milano-Sanremo next weekend. He’ll be going into the northern classics in fall with three weeks of Tour de France in his legs, and provided he has shaken off his major injury from last year should be considered a five-star favorite for the cobbles at this point. Having him back in the mix alongside other do-it-alls such as van der Poel, Alaphilippe, and Sagan should a whole new level of drama to racing this year.

Unlike at recent men’s and women’s races in Spain, there were no late COVID dramas at Strade. How reassuring is this in the wider context of a WorldTour season after the coronavirus lockdown?

Leah Thomas and Annemiek van Vleuten celebrate their podium finishes – from a distance.
Strade was in the spotlight as the first race of the post-COVID season. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images.

Fred: I’m cautiously optimistic for the future, but I’m still not convinced that all of the remaining races will go off safely. What we’ve learned from the U.S. pro sports is that COVID-19 safety inside a “bubble” requires diligence and sacrifice by the athletes. One careless move can expose others. There are hundreds of riders who are all potential transmitters of the virus, and you have to figure at some point someone may make a mistake. I’m also dismayed by how closely the fans got to the riders, and how frequently they squired them with their water bottles during Strade Bianche. This year is NOT the year to touch riders and douse them with your drinking water.

Andrew: It’s very encouraging for the upcoming races. In Spain and in Italy, the protocols and safety measures were rolled out with surprising success. Teams, riders, organizers, and even fans embraced the restrictions because everyone wants to see racing return. Of course, there are going to be hiccups, and everyone should brace for the occasional COVID case. If everyone is responsible and transparent within the peloton, handling these cases in the right way shouldn’t mean that racing will stop. The larger threat to racing right now is the wider health situation across Europe. If COVID surges back with a second wave, it won’t matter what cycling does, because health authorities have the ultimate decision.

James: I think we are still in a day-by-day situation regarding the race calendar and COVID-19. Numbers are spiking in key countries like France, and there were very few people cheering with masks on as the riders passed this weekend. This year’s Strade was a tremendous success and provides hope that the cycling calendar will remain intact. But it is still too early to tell.