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Stones, sun, and a searing pace made Strade Bianche no easy return to WorldTour racing Saturday.
The loose gravel and 40-degree temperatures in Tuscany put paid to a swathe of favorites’ chances in the first race in top-tier racing since the coronavirus shutdown.
Defending champion Julian Alaphilippe and Dutch superstar Mathieu van der Poel both saw their races ended by punctures, while other contenders including Jakob Fuglsang, Oliver Naesen and Philippe Gilbert simply overheated.
Van der Poel went into his debut Strade Bianche as an undoubted five star favorite. Having forged his way into the pointy end of the action, a flat tire with 55 kilometers to go shortly before the gravel sector of Monte Sante Marie essentially put the Dutchman’s hopes to bed, leaving him to come home 15th, 10 minutes back on winner Wout van Aert.
“I lost a good result there,” van der Poel said at the post-race press conference.
“I had to go very deep to come back after that flat tire with Alaphilippe and a number of other riders. Everyone I came back with had to unload afterward on Monte Sante Marie. I went over the limit and after that it was just finished. ”
If van der Poel thought himself unlucky, he should be thankful he didn’t have the day suffered by defending champion Alaphilippe. The Frenchman stopped to replace a broken wheel after just 10km of racing, and from there on, a series of flat tires saw him constantly on the chase. His fifth puncture, suffered in a similar location to van der Poel’s race-ending deflation, finally ended his chances.
“It was impossible today, I lost track how many times I stopped and came back,” Alaphilippe said after the race. “The mechanicals made it very difficult, as if the race wasn’t hard enough, but out of respect for this race which I love, I wanted to finish it.”
While Alaphlippe and van der Poel battled on to the finish line in Siena, many didn’t.
Over 160 riders started, and only 42 finished. The gnarly conditions added a whole extra layer of difficulty and tension to a race that saw a peloton bristling with nervous energy after nearly five months on the sidelines – and it was those unpredictabilities that meant no amount of lockdown training would guarantee a rider making it through the full 184km.
Among those failing to make the finish line was Vincenzo Nibali, who crashed with 70km to go and got into the team car, later reported to have suffered trauma to his left hand. 2018 winner Tiesj Benoot punctured and simply called it quits.
For Oliver Naesen, it was simply the heat that put an end to his chances.
“At the start I felt it was too hot for me,” Naesen told Sporza. “I have not remembered much about this race. Yes, it is nice, but I think it is nicer racing here at 8 degrees than at 40.”
Outside favorites Jakob Fuglsang and Philippe Gilbert both made it to the Piazza del Campo, but the sun took its toll. Fuglsang had found himself in the elite lead group in the final phase of the race, but an optimistic attack saw the Dane go too far into the red.
“The last 50km after my little attack, I exploded a little bit due to the heat,” he said in a team statement. “I overheated and it was difficult to find my legs again.”
Saturday proved that no amount of indoor training and lonely road rides can prepare even the best for the frenzy of bike racing — particularly when you throw a heatwave and 60km of strade into the mix.