FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — There’s no Wout van Aert or Mathieu Van der Poel. Even Peter Sagan is steering clear of Strade Bianche on Saturday.
That means it will be a very different Strade Bianche in the sense of there’s not a clear, five-star favorite. But will their collective absence change the race dynamics entirely? Most definitely not.
Every major race creates its own distinct narrative, and Strade Bianche brings its unique race signature no matter who is at the start line of the elite men’s race.
What remains in place for 2022 is the course, the setting, and the prestige of winning on the white roads. In many ways, it’s the course that is the star at Strade Bianche, and the riders are actors who merely fill the stage.
Rather than list a bunch of names of pre-race favorites, it’s an interesting exercise to see how the race is most often played out. And then work backward from there to figure out who might win Saturday.
Of course, some don’t care about predications, and simply want to watch a great race. Those people are satisfied just about every race weekend.
For the rest of us who thrive on guessing and predicting who will win a certain race, and perhaps placing a bet on the side within your riding club, this is where things get interesting.
Strade Bianche presents a nuanced and unique puzzle for those who like to make their predictions. The “white roads” throw up a different kind of challenge, akin to Paris-Roubaix. It’s a stand-alone race on the calendar. Classics-style riders typically shine, but some GC grand tour riders can often sneak into the frame.
Yet how does the race usually end?
In its 16-year history, there’s only been one edition that ended with a reduced bunch, and that came in 2011 when Philippe Gilbert powered to victory in what was his magical year when he later swept the Ardennes and won the opening stage at the Tour de France.
Gilbert hit the final kilometer with perhaps the biggest group ever to get that far into the race, and he simply rode everyone off his wheel.
Only four winners have won off the backs of long-range solo attacks. Fabian Cancellara did it first in 2012, with Michal Kwiatkowski and Tiesj Benoot winning in solo moves in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Van Aert blew away everyone in 2020.
On every other occasion, reduced groups of four or fewer arrived to the finish wall with chances for the flowers dancing in their crossed-eyed vision.
So let’s dig through the scenarios, and see which starters best fits each one.
Solo winner: Tadej Pogačar seems ready to pounce
Is there a solo winner in this year’s field?
That’s a hard one to call. It’s been a bit of strange start to 2022. Races in Australia and South America were canceled, and so far, there hasn’t been a singular rider who’s been blowing everyone away. And without van Aert or van der Poel, two riders who typically race in no hold’s barred fashion, it seems unlikely.
If you had to pick one rider, it’s an easy one: Tadej Pogačar.
Pogačar fits the profile of a Strade winner. He packs bang on the climbs, packs the bike-handling chaps to manage the gravel, and is explosive at the line. After three starts at Strade, including seventh in 2021, Pogačar seems destined to win every race he starts.
Tom Pidcock’s soloed away from fields in mountain biking and cyclocross, but never at the WorldTour. Team officials confirmed Friday he’s not starting. It’s hard to see anyone else doing it, either. Maybe Alaphilippe, but he seems like he’s far from bien cui right now.
If there’s one rider who can ride away from everyone, it’s Pogačar.
Bigger group: It could happen this year
Could a team pull a “Quick-Step” and boss the entire race?
SD Worx did it last year in the women’s race. UAE Emirates did it in Wednesday’s Trofeo Laiguelia, sweeping the top-3 podium spots.
Historically, teams have done well controlling the pace at Strade Bianche, especially in its earliest editions, with Team CSC and HTC-Columbia pulling some early numbers.
UAE Emirates or maybe Ineos Grenadiers with former two-time winner Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz are the likeliest candidates.
In today’s highly equalized peloton, it’s hard to imagine a big group making it all the way to the final climb and blasting into the Piazza del Campo together. That’s not to say it cannot happen.
Without a big favorite and perhaps with the peloton coming into Strade Bianche a little underpowered, the race might not blow up like it typically does. Forecasted overnight rain and cool temperatures will add another layer to the dynamics Saturday.
Elite group: Sticking with the familiar script
So without van der Poel and van Aert to blast to the moon, and with a big group also unlikely to make it to the flame rouge, it’s still very likely that Strade Bianche will play out like it has nearly 70 percent of the time.
And that’s with a small select group of riders.
Most years have featured two to four brave riders arriving to the final wall into Siena’s piazza with serious options to win.
Why does Strade play out this way so often? Perhaps it’s the gravel, and its attritional nature and unfamiliarity to the pavement posse. Punctures, crashes, wind, and team work also play a role. If you have a teammate up the road, mark the wheels. That’s Racing 101, regardless of the road surface.
There’s usually a very strong rider who jumps early and often, but there are always one or two who have the legs and the smarts to follow. Then it’s a question of how long they can hang on, and the Tuscan hills usually have something to say about that.
It’s also early season, so that means the classics riders are nearing their frothing peak, while the GC riders are racing on class. Yet a big engine is a big engine, no matter the time of year.
Once clear, riders will work usually together with the hopes of having the legs to spice up the final climb. Anything can happen in that final kilometer, and everyone knows it.
So who in the race to win on Saturday? This is where the list gets longer.
Pogačar, always, add Alaphilippe, already a winner here in 2019. Toss in an Ineos Grenadiers, with Kwiatkowski the likeliest candidate. Valverde? Claro que sí!
Add some riders on early season form, such as Tim Wellens and Magnus Cort. A few outsiders, like Simon Clarke, Matej Mohoric, or Asgreen. Add a sprinkle GC grand tour riders who often sneak in with a chance, so ching up Pogačar (again)or Carapaz.
Let’s add Sepp Kuss and Quinn Simmons (VN is still an American), and you have all the ingredients of a great race.
If you had to narrow it down to a three-rider, all-in trifecta, go for Pogačar, Alaphilippe, and Valverde. Toss in one wild card, and you’ve covered the odds.
Reviewing how every Strade Bianche ended
How have the races unfolded over the years? Let’s take a look:
The opening edition in 2007 saw Team CSC finish 1-2, with Kolobnev pipping teammate Marcus Ljungqvist.
In 2008, Fabian Cancellara beat back Alessandro Ballan in a mano-a-mano duel.
In 2009, Thomas Lofkvist won in a big day for HTC-Columbia, which put Edvald Boasson Hagen into fourth. Fabian Wegmann and Martin Elmiger finished off the podium a few seconds back.
Maxim Iglinskiy won out of a three-rider group in 2010, while Philippe Gilbert won the race’s first reduced bunch in 2011 out of a 19-up uphill stampede with everyone strung out.
Cancellara delivered the race’s first true solo winner in 2012, riding away from Iglinskiy by 42 seconds. Moreno Moser fended off Peter Sagan in 2013, while Michal Kwiatkowski relegated Sagan to second again in 2014.
Zdenek Stybar dropped Greg van Avermaet to win in 2015 by two seconds, and Cancellara returned the favor the following season.
Kwiatkowski and Tiesj Benoot won in solo moves in 2017 and 2018, respectively, while Julian Alaphilippe dropped Jakob Fuglsang on the final wall in 2019.
Van Aert delivered a stunning solo win in 2020, while Van der Poel smashed Alaphilippe in the final run up to Piazza del Campo last year in dramatic fashion.
So over the years, there have been a few dramatic solo breakaways and one reduced bunch sprint. But the general blueprint of the race is that two or three strong riders pull free and swap punches all the way into the piazza.
If history repeats itself, try to find those two or three riders with legs, and put all your liras on them.