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There was much elation eighteen months ago when race organisers RCS announced the introduction of a women’s Strade Bianche for 2015. It would be the first time ever that the women’s peloton would race on the infamous gravel roads that make this race so selective and heroic. The women stepped up and delivered an absolutely thrilling race. Now it’s the first event of the inaugural UCI Women’s WorldTour.
While an official race wasn’t established until 2007 (for the men), the event has much historical allure. The event leading up to this race, the amateur granfondo l’Eroica, has a long history and a fun novelty: in l’Eroica, participants have to ride bikes built before 1982; clothing and shoes need to match as well.
In the autumn of 2014, Marianne Vos took her teammates out to Italy to ride this world famous granfondo. Roxane Knetemann wore the vintage Raleigh jersey of her late father, former World Champion Gerrie Knetemann, while Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who at the time had just being crowned World Road Champion, wore Gerrie’s World Champion jersey of the TI-Raleigh team. This spontaneous action by the Rabo-Liv team may have led to the introduction of the Strade Bianche on the women’s calendar not much later.
Only a year into its existence, the Strade Bianche gets the honour to be the very first race in the inaugural Women’s WorldTour. Not only will more teams get the opportunity to start in this phenomenal race, the 121 kilometers on the white roads of Italy will eventually determine who will ride herself into the history books as the first ever female winner of a WorldTour race.
What happened last year:
On March 7, 2015, 16 teams lined up at the start in San Gimignano.
Boels-Dolmans had already had a great start to the season with pre-season wins and showed their collective strength when three of the five team members made the front group after the second gravel section.
With a time gap of almost a minute to the second group, it was clear the winner of the race would be among the front group.
Bigla’s Ashleigh Moolman launched a series of attacks. With the rapid succession of steep climbs and dirt roads combined with gusty winds, only four riders were able to follow Moolman: Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv), Elisa Longo-Borghini (Wiggle Honda) and Boels-Dolmans’ Lizzie Armitstead and Megan Guarnier.
Using the numbers to their advantage, the Boels-Dolmans duo rode smartly and Megan Guarnier was able to get away, arriving at the finish line after a solo of around 20 kilometers. Armitstead doubled the joy for the team by outsprinting Longo Borghini on the final climb into Siena. As the home favourite and ‘ambassador’ for the race, Longo Borghini might just have had to deal with a little bit too much pressure before the race, but she did enjoy riding the Strade Bianche and was pleased with her podium spot, she told Ella after the race.
The results show just how hard the race really was. A mere 57 riders got a result to their name, with a large group of women arriving at the finish line outside the time limit. An even bigger group of riders did not finish the race.
The inaugural Women’s WorldTour opener
UCI Women’s WorldTour rules and regulation state that the top 20 UCI teams (determined at the beginning of the year) have to receive an invite to one day races, for stage races it’s the top 15.
Yet not all 20 teams will line up in Siena as United Healthcare and Topsport Vlaanderen have decided to sit this race out.
“Logistically, it’s quite an undertaking. To limit the risks of puncturing, you’d need different material. The chances of crashing are also quite high in the race, so our team director decided we won’t race there,” explained United Healthcare’s Iris Slappendel. “Since our European team consists of only eight riders, it forces us to make choices. We only skip the Strade Bianche though, United Healthcare will ride all other races.”
Strade Bianche being an Italian classic, the peloton will be completed by the five Italian UCI teams outside the top 20: Aromitalia Vaiano, Inpa-Bianchi, SC Michela Fanini, Servetto Footon and Top Girls-Fassa Bortolo.
After the race, two jerseys will be awarded. The winner of the race gets to wear the white Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey, while there is a marine blue jersey for the best U23 rider.
The race is slightly longer this year, with 121 kilometers as opposed to only 103 last year. Instead of departing from San Gimignano, the race will now start and finish in Siena, just as the men’s race will. Both races are held on the same day, with the women’s race on much of the same roads as the men’s.
The women’s peloton will come across 22.4 kilometers of gravel roads on the course. The race is named after those sections, ‘strade bianche’ meaning ‘white road’. But it is the constant climbing that makes the race extra tricky. Italian races are known for the fact that not a meter of the course is flat, and it tires out the riders. This combination of climbs and gravel sections, where every team wants to be at the front, will make it a very nervous race.
In a race like the Strade Bianche, there’s always an element of luck involved. On the 20+ kilometers of dirt road, the risks of puncturing are great and if that happens at the wrong time, you’re out of contention for the win. Ignoring these risks for the moment, the following women will probably be in with the best chances for the win.
It’s not enough for Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) to have won the first ever women’s edition of the Strade Bianche. She would like to repeat that win as the race will form the first event in the inaugural Women’s WorldTour. She has shown to have excellent gravel riding skills and knows what it takes to win here. After a stint in the pink leader’s jersey at the Giro Rosa last year, she is now aiming for that very first leader’s jersey of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour.
Elisa Longo Borghini
She was right up there last Saturday, pulling the peloton from early on in the race, earning herself a top 15 position in the Omloop het Nieuwsblad. The Italian Wiggle High5 rider was the favourite for last year’s Strade Bianche, but had to deal with quite some pressure and responsibilities as the prime ambassador for this race. She’s the big favourite of the home crowd again and there are new opportunities in this next round of dirt road racing, where she’ll be sharing the leader role in her team with Emma Johansson. Johansson rode for Orica-AIS in 2015 and suffered a puncture just before the race was about to split, so she’d like to improve her 12th place of last year.
Annemiek van Vleuten
Not being selected for the Dutch World Championship team last year, due to an injury when the team was decided, meant Annemiek van Vleuten’s last race in 2015 was the Boels-Rental Ladies Tour early September. She has trained all winter with her new team Orica-AIS and is ready to show her non-selection in the team was a mistake. Her 11th place in Omloop het Nieuwsblad tells us she is in good form and she’s eager to improve her ninth spot of the 2015 Strade Bianche.
Out of the Cervélo Bigla team, Ashleigh Moolman will be the one to watch. She was a key player in forming the final group of five that was riding for the win in 2015, on account of her always attacking riding style. Moolman had a setback in February, when she lost both South African championship jerseys because of an illness, so she’s probably more eager than ever to show she doesn’t need that national champion kit to get herself into the spotlights.
She didn’t start in the 2015 edition, because Team Liv-Plantur wasn’t present at the race, but Claudia Lichtenberg now gets a chance with her new team Lotto-Soudal. As a previous winner of the Giro Rosa and always doing well in the Tuscany area where the race is held, she’s one to keep an eye on this Saturday. Her results in the opening weekend weren’t too great, but we’re expecting her to do better once the peloton is on a course more suited to her abilities.
Although she doesn’t wear the colourful Canyon-SRAM kit like her teammates do, instead donning the Belarussian national champion jersey since three years, Alena Amialiusik is not to be overlooked! She performs well in races like the Strade Bianche, with its steep climbs. She wasn’t able to get in a good performance in either of the two Belgian classics of last weekend, but she put in some great effort working for the team. Those race kilometers might pay off in the Strade Bianche, where she finished seventh in 2015.
Plus the usual suspects
When Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) and Anna van der Breggen (Rabo/Liv) line up at the start of a race, there’s always a big chance they will win it, no matter what the course looks like or how the weather conditions are. So if they’re on the start list, we could automatically mention Armitstead and Van der Breggen in our preview of that race and it’s no different for the Strade Bianche. Armitstead made the podium last year, while Van der Breggen finished fifth – winning the Giro Rosa later in the year. Armitstead’s dominance in the Omloop het Nieuwsblad makes her definitely one to watch this weekend.
How to follow the race
Of the 17 Women’s WorldTour events, eight races are promised to be livestreamed by the UCI, but the Strade Bianche isn’t one of them. A 30 minute highlight video of the race should be published on the UCI YouTube channel though. We’re also expecting RAI Sport 2 to make a highlight video again. Both videos will also be shared on our Twitter and Facebook accounts.
No women’s specific hashtag has been announced yet, the official race hashtag being #StradeBianche. Adding #UCIWWT, the official Women’s WorldTour hashtag, might help to filter out the updates of the women’s race.
We’ll have a race report on the Strade Bianche and photo’s by Sean Robinson and Balint Hamvas, so be sure to tune in at Ella after the race!