It was about one year ago that the coronavirus pandemic was dropping the curtain on the European calendar. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that it’s been a year, and though no one is quite yet out of the woods yet, racing is back.
And there’s no better way to ease into the classics season than with Strade Bianche. The men and women will trace one of cycling’s most prestigious and stunningly gorgeous race routes in quickly what’s becoming one of the top dates on the international calendar.
Forecasters are calling for a chance of rain. No matter what happens, nearly all the top names have converged on Tuscany for what many are already calling cycling’s sixth monument. Will we see repeat winners from last year’s rare summer edition? Or will riders who’ve opened up the 2021 season on a tear upset the five-star favorites? We dig into our picks:
- Strade Bianche: Forecast is for excitement
- Julian Alaphilippe: ‘Wout and Mathieu are the big favorites’
- Trek-Segafredo braces for high-stakes women’s Strade Bianche
Jim Cotton and Andrew Hood give their predictions:
Jim: Men’s favorite – Mathieu van der Poel; Outside bet – someone from Ineos Grenadiers
It feels like a cop-out, but Mathieu van der Poel is a red-hot favorite in my eyes. He was supreme at the UAE Tour, near-unstoppable at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and almost won Le Samyn on a bike that was falling apart. Van der Poel suffered in the intense heat at his Strade Bianche debut last year, but with the race back in its typical slot and the mercury down at a reasonable level, I cannot see anyone stopping him.
Of those that can stop Mathieu, Wout van Aert may be lacking race-speed after weeks at altitude, and Julian Alaphilippe just doesn’t have the raw horsepower to match “MvdP.” It can only take another snapped handlebar to stop van der Poel on Saturday.
Outside bet? I am sitting on the fence and saying Tom Pidcock or Michał Kwiatkowski. Pidcock has the attacking verve and all-terrain skills, and Kwiatkowski has twice won the race. Together they make a strong pairing, and they’ve got Pavel Sivakov and Egan Bernal behind them. Ineos Grenadiers could pull of a surprise if the stars align.
Jim: Women’s favorite – Annemiek van Vleuten; Outside bet – Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig
Annemiek van Vleuten was caught out of position when it mattered most to miss out at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend, and she won’t make the same mistake again. Van Vleuten has a third-straight Strade Bianche victory in her eyesight and the support of Movistar teammate Leah Thomas who was third last year, in Siena.
The former world champ and winner of the last two editions of Strade Bianche has spent months atop Mount Teide and said after Omloop that “the form is good.” Last Saturday was a rare divet in van Vleuten’s unerringly consistent racecraft, and if anyone knows how to win in the Tuscan dirt, it’s her.
For a dark horse, I say Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. The Dane has finished in the top-10 in all four of her appearances at Strade and punched home with the main chase group at Omloop last week. With climbing star Évita Muzic at her side at FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, 2021 could be Uttrup Ludwig’s year.
Andrew: Women’s favorite – Anna van der Breggen; Outside bet – Kasia Niewiadoma
In early season races, you go with the “mo.” And no one’s got that more motor than Anna van der Breggen. The way she blew the legs off everyone at Omloop means she’s in top form. With Lizzie Deignan sidelined due to illness, and Annemiek van Vleuten finding her way with new teammates, SD-Worx will likely pile on like they have since the season started. There might be a few riders who can ride her coattails, but once the race gets serious, expect another solo victory.
If she won’t win, Kasia Niewiadoma will. She’s been on the final podium three times, and her explosive climbing punch could be the difference if she comes in with a small group of a half-dozen coming into the final kilometer. The final ramp into Siena’s piazza is perfect for her punchy style.
Andrew: Men’s favorite — Wout van Aert; Outside bet — Bauke Mollema
Now I’m going to turn the tables and pick my outsider first. Bauke Mollema‘s got the “big mo” coming out of the gates, with two wins so far in 2021, and the Trek-Segafredo rider looks to be on ripping form. Mollema is capable of dropping the best when he’s on top fitness, and he’s coming into 2021 firing at all cylinders. Having said that, he’s only going to win if course conditions are perfect, and he’s in a group without either of the top you-know-who’s. If it’s rainy and sloppy, Mollema won’t be able to handle the wet and sketchy descents.
So who is going to win? WOWt, of course. Cycling’s version of the Swiss Army Knife doesn’t need no stinking warm-up races. He’s going to parachute into Siena, and crush it. Wout van Aert is simply on another level, and the only rider who will be able to match him will be, well, you-know-who. Insiders say van Aert is keen to race to show his stuff, even if he still might be tapering toward a peak in April.
If it’s wet and sloppy, it could come down to the “VanderWout” showdown, and if it does, I think van Aert will get the best of his nemesis on the pure power finale into Siena.