Strade Bianche 2020 promises ‘so many unknowns’

Dust, heat, and lockdown legs set to add even more spice to the first race of the restarted WorldTour calendar.

Bicycle racing has five monuments. And then there is Strade Bianche.

The monuments are the sport’s oldest, longest and generally most difficult one-day races. But while Strade Bianche is not even 15 years old, it has managed to enter into the ring of greatness, mostly due to the fact that much of it is held over the timeless white dirt roads of Tuscany, which give the race an epic, historic quality on par with races like Milano-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Despite its relative youth, Strade Bianche is undoubtedly one of cycling’s most coveted races today.

Needless to say, this year’s edition promises to be special. Normally held in early March, due to the coronavirus crisis, it is now opening up the reshuffled WorldTour cycling calendar this Saturday.

Tuscany is quite different in August than it is in March. With temperatures soaring into the 90s in Europe this week, Saturday’s edition promises to add a certain unknown. That, combined with the dust from the dirt roads, promises to provide unique challenges, not to mention some well-worn faces at the finish.

“The circumstances will be a lot different than normal and the heat will be a big factor,” said perennial favorite Greg Van Avermaet (CCC-Team). “I hope I am ready for that.”

Van Avermaet, like every other rider at the start, understands that he will largely be racing into the unknown this weekend, as this will be their first major race since the cycling calendar came to a halt at the finish of the Paris-Nice race in mid-March.

Normally for a race of this stature, riders would have had several early-season races to hone their condition. But not this year, and it will be interesting to see which riders can hit peak form just by training.

“It’s really hard to talk about expectations because it will be new for everyone this year and there are going to be so many unknowns,” said Philippe Gilbert, who has notched wins in all the monuments save Milano-Sanremo, and took the honors at the 2011 Strade Bianche.

Gilbert will lead the Lotto-Soudal team Saturday. At 38-years of age, he cautioned that he may not be firing at full form after months away from racing.

“I think that the young guys will have an advantage getting the engine running quicker,” he said. “But the preparation is going to be the same for everyone and it is all going to be about what you do in training.”

A spectacular finish in Siena's Pizza after a steep final climb into town adds yet more drama to the race. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)
A spectacular finish in Siena’s piazza after a steep final climb into town adds yet more drama to the race. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images.

Strade Bianche draws riders with a range of skillsets, making the list of contenders a long one. Reigning champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) is returning to defend his title, with two-time winner Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos) and other veterans including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek Segafredo), and previous winners Zdeněk Štybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) also set to line up to start in Siena.

But they will have plenty of company from up-and-coming riders like Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates), Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix). With their cyclo-cross background, both Van Aert and van der Poel are natural-born Strade riders. Van Aert has finished on the podium twice in his two starts in 2018 and 2019. And van der Poel, who is making his debut, can never be ruled out.

However, to win this year, one must not only master the 11 sections of dirt roads over the 184-kilometer course, but the intense heat. Under normal conditions, the 63 kilometers of gravelly hills provide sufficient challenges, but soaring temperatures complicate things further.

“It’s going to be a completely different race than we are used to,” Deceuninck–Quick-Step sports director Davide Bramati said. “Temperatures of 35C degrees and even more dust than usual.”

Bramati then added that the winner will have to be prepared for “every type of scenario.” And on that point, few would argue.