Wout van Aert fulfils his potential
With two podium finishes here in the bag already, and dirt roads that resemble the conditions he’s so excelled at on the cyclocross circuit, Strade Bianche has long felt like a race that Wout van Aert was destined to win since his transition to the road. Today, that expectation became a reality, as it became the first major classic victory of the 25-year-old’s career.
Van Aert was the worthy winner of a thrilling, attritional race, forming part of the decisive six-man selection that formed on the eighth dirt road sector about three quarters into the race, then attacking 12km from the line for victory.
For Van Aert, the absence of racing extends even beyond the Covid lockdown, after he missed the entire second half of last season following the severe injuries suffered in a crash at the Tour de France, only once racing on the road since then at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February.
Before that crash the Belgian looked on the verge of taking the sport by storm, with stage wins at both the Tour de France and Critérium du Dauphiné following another impressive spring classics campaign. Any concerns that he might struggle to recover from such a serious crash were happily dispelled today, as, if anything, he looked even stronger than he had before.
Strade Bianche 2020 looks set to be the first of many classics the Belgian will win.
Nothing can stop Annemiek van Vleuten
An Annemiek van Vleuten victory was certainly a predictable outcome to the women’s Strade Bianche, but the race did not play out as straightforwardly as the result suggests.
In fact, with 20km left to ride, it looked as though she and most of the other major favourites were out of contention altogether. A breakaway group of about a dozen riders had escaped up the road earlier in the day (featuring the likes of Amanda Spratt, Ellen van Dijk and Lisa Brennaeur) and held a substantial lead over the peloton, with Mavi Garcia (Ale BTC Ljubljana) further ahead with a huge lead of over three minutes.
But Van Vleuten has returned from racing in extraordinary form, and even this seemingly insurmountable deficit wasn’t beyond her limits. Hitherto undetected by the TV cameras, she suddenly appeared on-screen having caught up to the Spratt-Van Dijk-Brennauer chase group on the penultimate dirt road section. She made short work of riding all of them off her wheel, then hunted down Garcia 6.5km from the finish before attacking up the finishing climb to Piazza del Campo to victory.
With the time gaps rarely updating, it was difficult to know for sure exactly how big the gap that Van Vleuten bridged from herself to the leaders was. But one stat that underlines the dominance of her ride is the distance at the finish line between her and the other major favourites she attacked from the peloton — Anna van der Bregen (Boels-Dolmans) was 2-05 behind in fourth, Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) fifth at 2-11 and Marianne Vos (CCC Liv) sixth at 2-36.
Defeating all of these riders by over two minutes is impressive in and of itself. To do so while also catching and passing several other quality riders given such a big head start up the road shows just how much Van Vleuten is flying at the moment.
This victory makes it four wins out of four for Van Vleuten since racing returned, and five wins out of five over the season as a whole. The rest of the peloton must be at a loss as to how the world champion can be defeated.
Big names are not yet at the races
After such a long delay in racing, it was always difficult to know what kind of form the riders would bring to Strade Bianche, and indeed many of the top favourites didn’t go as well as we’d usually expect.
Defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and pre-race favourite Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Felix) both showed initial promise with tentative attacks early on, but were dropped when the selections were formed during sector eight , eventually finishing 24th and 15th respectively.
They both still fared better than Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who, after also being dropped on that sector, failed to even make it to the finish.
Such an intense return to racing evidently took its toll on both him and most of the rest of the peloton. Only 42 riders made it to the finish, with eight missing the time limit, and the other 116 — consisting over two thirds of the whole field — abandoning.
The women’s race, by contrast, didn’t have quite so many drop outs, and pre-race favourites like Van der Breggen, Vos and Borghini all showed good legs, and would likely have finished higher had they not allowed the breakaway such a large gap.
One rider who was notably below her best, however, was Lizzie Deignan. Having made the podium on each of her previous three Strade Bianche appearances, today she finished a long way down in 37th. With her major targets not occurring until later in the season, and having not completed a full season of racing since 2017. she’ll be happy for now just to have got some racing in her legs.
Early indicators of form
In place of the floundering favourites were other, less heralded names, who have taken to post-Covid racing by storm.
In second place behind Van Aert was Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), striving to win on home roads in the Italian national champions jersey. He rode a canny race, preserving his energy while his breakaway companions Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling) wore themselves out attempting solo attacks, but couldn’t quite match Van Aert’s ride.
Completing the podium was German Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). After clinching overall victory at Paris-Nice on the final day of racing pre-lockdown, he picked up from where he left off with another eye-catching performance that demonstrates his versatile ability. The 26-year-old looks set for a breakthrough season, and must surely be considered a contender for Il Lombardia in two week’s time.
Mavi Garcia enjoyed one of the best performances of her late-blooming career, producing an epic solo attack that only the might of Annemiek van Vleuten was able to prevent from being the winning move.
And Leah Thomas (Equipe Paule Ka) was also in great form, comfortably being the strongest in the chasing group behind Garcia to finish third. She might even have finished on the top step of the podium had she not lost her chain and fallen on the crucial penultimate gravel sector having just attacked and dropped her fellow escapees.
A thrilling return to racing, with a caveat
It’s been so long since there was any racing to watch that we’d settle even for a 250km durge with no attacks and a sprint finish. But it so happened that both these Strade Bianche races not only marked a successful return to World Tour racing, but also offered loads of excitement to remind us of what we’ve been missing since March.
There was not a single dull moment throughout the television broadcasts of both races — in fact, it was a source of frustration that we weren’t treated to live pictures earlier. Mavi Garcia’s epic ride and Van Vleuten’s determined chase made for a tense, finely balanced women’s race, while the men’s race exploded into life early on, the crucial selections being made over 50km from the finish. The winner Van Aert described it as ‘one long day of suffering’, as bit-by-bit the lead group splintered until only he, the strongest, survived.
There was, however, a troubling reminder of why the cycling world needs to remain cautious as racing returns. Just hours before the race, Ag2r La Mondiale rider Silvan Dillier had to pull out of the race after returning a positive test for Coronavirus. An outbreak of Covid in the peloton would of course be the nightmare scenario for hopes that the rest of the season will be able to play out, and Dillier’s positive test (which he has questioned the validity of) further raises questions about the sport’s ability to control any spread of the virus.
The news was a sobering reminder as to how precarious the current situation is, and that we should make the most of exciting racing like this in case the return is to be short-lived.