SIENA, Italy (VN) — Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) blasted into Siena’s Piazza del Campo caked in mud and victor of Strade Bianche. Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) finished second at 15 seconds and behind, stars like Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step Floors), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) chased.
Van Avermaet looked back on the 175-kilometre ride through Tuscany’s countryside and over its famed gravel roads, soaked wet and muddy from afternoon rains Saturday. He called it “old school” racing.
“It was really old school today,” Van Avermaet said after cleaning his face and standing second on the podium.
“From the fifth or sixth section of dirt roads [with close to 100km left to race], it was full gas to the finish, there was never a moment when you cold recover a little bit.”
Van Avermaet is used to hard racing having grown up in Belgium. He finished third in both the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, he won the cobbled Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice including last week, and of course, the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last summer.
Already after 10 years, Strade Bianche is considered one of the hardest one-day races that benefits from rolling countryside marked with cypress trees and small villages. The race covers the famous white grave roads used for years in the amateur Eroica event and walked on by Saint Francesco.
It covered 11 undulating gravel sectors turned grey brown in the rain. Out of the 175 kilometres, 61.9 were on gravel.
The riders fight for position ahead of and attack on the gravel roads as they would the in the cobble sectors of E3 Harelbeke or Ronde (the Tour of Flanders).
“I think this is a real Classic. It’s a fight to the [gravel sectors], then when you are on them, it’s risky and technical. Then with the wind and the rain, you can make the race hard wherever you want,” he added.
“It’s such a nice race because all that makes it hard and special. In every sector you have to be there. I love it.”
Stybar and Kwiatkowski fought for their second title Saturday having already each won once before. Van Avermaet went for his first, in the race’s first year to be in the top WorldTour calendar, and to build his fitness for the upcoming cobbled classics.
The race broke up with less than 90 kilometers to race due to a large crash. Van Avermaet remained with a group of 14. Everyone seemed ready to take their turn in attacking. Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) tried, Dumoulin tried and with just over 15 kilometers left, Kwiatkowski went solo. Stybar chased briefly but could not bridge.
“We were just jumping around like idiots but that’s racing. It was nice,” Van Avermaet said.
“This was the hardest edition of the race I did. It opened so early and that’s why every guy was one against one. That’s what made it so hard. Everybody had to ride on their own.”
Once Kwiatkowski, the 2014 world champion went free, the others hesitated too much.
“There was more jumping and stopping, that kills you even more. He took five seconds extra with this and you know it’s hard to close to him.”
Van Avermaet races Tirreno-Adriatico next. He won the central Italian stage race last year after the organizer had to cancel the summit finish stage due to bad weather. From there, he heads to his favorite races of the season.
He will seek revenge in the Ronde van Vlaanderen after crashing out with a broken collarbone in 2016.
“I feel good and in shape. I felt fresh today,” he added. “I took a week of recovery last week because I want a good build-up to the Classics. This was a first goal and you can see I’m up there.”