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Former world road race champion Michael Kwiatkowski raced to his second career victory in Strade Bianche, conquering the legendary white roads again three years after his 2014 win.
The Polish rider gave some good news to his Team Sky squad, which has been under pressure of late due to the investigation into the mystery package delivered to Bradley Wiggins in 2011.
Kwiatkowski was strong throughout the Italian event, being part of a select group in contention for the win after the day’s early break was reeled in. He then pushed ahead inside the final 15 kilometres, leading onto the final dirt road sector, that of the steep Le Tolfe climb.
He was 11 seconds ahead of the chasers at the summit and padded his lead to 30 seconds with one kilometre to go. From there he only had to negotiate the steep climb up to the finish line and had plenty of time to savour his win.
Behind, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) played the finale best of the chasers and took second, 15 seconds back. Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens was a further two seconds down in third, with Zdenek Stybar (QuickStep Floors) 23 seconds back in fourth.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Orica-Scott duo Luke Durbridge and Chris Juul Jensen were next home, taking placings fifth through to seventh.
“I’m so happy – it’s an unexpected victory. After the difficult season I had last year, I still had a lot of trust from the team,” Kwiatkowski said. “Now the preparation for this season has already paid off.
“Second victory at the Strade Bianche, it’s just amazing! We started to play a game after the Sante Marie section – I actually didn’t feel so good there – but I thought the best situation was to do my own thing, that’s why I went from so far out. I’m glad it worked out well.”
Van Avermaet said that the race was harder than it might have been because things opened up early on due to a big crash. This was followed by hard riding by Lotto-Soudal, ramping up the pressure at that point of the day.
“It was a really hard day right from the middle of the race,” he stated. “I was in a bad position a few times and then I came to the front. In the end I have to be happy as so many things can happen and you’re just lucky that you survived everything.”
He had concerns about race vehicles interfering with the action, although he didn’t blame the winner.
“The motorbikes were everywhere today, even when I was in the second group. It’s not Kwiatkowski’s fault, because if the motorbikes come in front of me I would do the same, but we need to do something about it and have some rules about the distance between riders and motorbikes.
Winner last week of Het Nieuwsblad, Van Avermaet’s runner-up slot confirms his good form. He is aiming for the Tour of Flanders and seems exactly on target.
“I felt good. The longer the race went, the better I felt. It was hard but I still had enough punch for the end so I’m happy I could take second and not fourth. A podium place is always nice.”
Breakaway group defines early action:
Strade Bianche began in Tuscany’s Siena and saw the riders face a total of 11 sectors of white gravel roads, strewn with gravel and mud. In total those sectors totalled just over 60 kilometres out of the 175 kilometre parcours, posing significant challenges for the riders.
It’s not quite Paris-Roubaix, but the sectors still require plenty of skill and power. One those hoping to use both was Zdenek Stybar, the 2015 winner. He said at the start that his condition was good and that his QuickStep Floors team was strong and ready for a big battle.
There were plenty of attacks from the start, including on the opening 2100 metre Vidritta sector (km 11.4) and on the second, the 4,700 metre Bagnaia, which was located 17 kilometres from the start.
Five riders – Jose Goncalves (Katusha-Alpecin), Quentin Jaregui (Ag2r La Mondiale), Simone Andreetta (Bardiani-CSF), Marco Frapporti (Androni) and Truls Engen Korsaeth (Astana) – nipped clear after approximately 15 kilometres.
These worked well together and gained time through the 4,400 metres Radi sector (km 27.8), extending their lead to over two minutes, and raced onto the fourth gravel stretch, Str. Com. di Murlo (km 38.5). Just over five kilometres in length, the sector enabled Thibaut Pinot to get across. The Frenchman is better known as a high mountain climber, but was feeling aggressive and had the power to bridge.
Together, the group had five minutes in hand racing onto the 11.9 kilometre Lucignano d’Asso sector. They maintained this lead there, but had to contend with dampening conditions and, because of that, a trickier road surface.
Perhaps because of this, the hammer went down behind on the sixth sector, that of Pieve a Salti (km. 79.7). A big crash also occurred, further splintering the peloton. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora hansgrohe), Stybar, BMC Racing Team duo Greg Van Avermaet and Stefan Kung, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) were all prominent.
Others were also involved, leading to a select group chasing hard and getting closer to the leaders. This pressure caused the break to knuckle down in a bid to stay clear, shelling Frapporti, but the chasers were just over two minutes back and looking menacing.
One who lost his place in the latter group was Sagan, who retired because of illness.
By the time the chasers reached the new Fabian Cancellara sector, that of San Martino in Grania (km. 102.7), they were just one minute 40 seconds back. Also present were Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven, Orica-Scott’s Chris Juul Jensen, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Dimension Data), Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Luis Leon Sanchez and Moreno Moser (both Astana), Matteo Trentin (QuickStep Floors) and Scott Thwaites (Team Dimension Data).
Attacks ramp up as the finish nears
Out front, Andreetta cracked and went south, losing his place in the leading group. The chasers were just over a minute back with 52 kilometres left and made further inroads when Wellens surged and dragged Kwiatkowski, Durbridge and Stybar clear. Danger recognised, Van Avermaet, Dumoulin and Benoot also bridged, and closed to within just over half a minute behind the leaders.
Pinot, Juaregi and Goncalves were determined to stay clear as long as possible and kept hammering, but Korsaeth’s legs were gone and he cracked.
Boasson Hagen bridged up to the chasers to make it an octet of pursuers, and these finally got across to those out front with 30 kilometres left.
Soon afterwards, Stybar turned the screw and dropped Olympic champion Van Avermaet. Also caught out were Benoot, Pinot and Boasson Hagen, but the latter got back across soon afterwards. Van Avermaet also recovered.
Stybar continued to feel good and ramped up the watts on sector nine, that of Monteaperti (km. 150.7). Kwiatkowski was also prominent and led over the top of the climb, while Dumoulin hit the gas on the descent. Van Avermaet, Gonclaves, Stybar, Durbridge, Juul Jensen and Wellens were close by.
Soon afterwards, Kwiatkowski, Van Avermaet, Wellens and Stybar pushed ahead and had a gap hitting the second-to-last sector, that of Colle Pinzuto (km. 155.6). While Dumoulin, Juul Jensen and Durbridge recovered, Kwiatkowski scurried clear again inside the final 15 kilometres.
Leading onto the eleventh sector, the brutally steep Le Tolfe climb (km. 161.7), he was 11 seconds ahead of Stybar, Wellens and Van Avemaet at the summit.
Kwiatkowski continued to build time and was 30 seconds clear with just over six kilometres left, descending skilfully on wet roads. Stybar, Wellens and Van Avermaet were trying to get back on terms and started making slight inroads into his lead, but this recovery proved to be short-lived.
Van Avermaet said afterwards that the timing of the move had been the biggest factor.
“Kwiatkowski was strong, but he was no stronger than everyone else. He made the right move at the right time and opened a gap. We tried to work, Wellens and Stybar and myself. We tried to do everything we could but we couldn’t close.”
The Polish rider remained out front heading into Sienna and raced onto the start of the finishing climb with a 30 seconds advantage.
The gap made his victory all but certain and, sure enough, he sped up the slopes to grab a dominant win. Behind, the three chasers started to play cat and mouse, losing some momentum in the tussle for second place. Van Avermaet put in a big attack but was unable to shake the other two off on the uphill part. However he gapped Wellens and Stybar soon afterwards, landing the runner-up slot.
Dumoulin beat Durbridge and Juul Jensen for fifth, with Benoot eighth, Pinot ninth and Thwaites tenth.
KWIATKOWSKI Michał KWIATKOWSKI Michał Team Sky
VAN AVERMAET Greg VAN AVERMAET Greg BMC Racing Team
|BMC Racing Team||0:15|
WELLENS Tim WELLENS Tim Lotto Soudal