Benoot, Van der Breggen look to defend at Strade Bianche: Daily News Digest

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Welcome to your Daily News Digest. Here’s what’s happening today:

Can Benoot and Van der Breggen defend at Strade Bianche? Next week, the biggest names in the sport will be racing at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. And a video exploring how Mathieu van der Poel’s domination of cyclocross has impacted the discipline. All that and more in today’s Daily News Digest.

Story of the Day: Can Benoot and Van der Breggen defend at Strade Bianche?

Though it’s only in its 13th edition, Strade Bianche, held on the white gravel roads of Tuscany, is already a spring classic. The race, which begins and ends in Siena, became a UCI WorldTour race in 2017, and was won last year in dramatic fashion by Belgian Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal). There’s been a women’s race since 2015, and it’s seen four different champions, most recently won by Dutch world champion Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans). The men’s race will cover 184km, with 11 sectors and 63km on gravel roads, for a total of 34.2% of the course; the women’s race covers 136km, with eight sectors and 31.4km on gravel roads, for a total of 23.1% of the course.

Last year, Benoot was clearly the strongest rider on a wet and muddy day; he followed the right wheels, attacked the bunch at the right time, bridged across to leaders Wout Van Aert and Romain Bardet, and shed them before the final climb into Siena, finishing alone. Benoot, 24, crashed heavily at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday and was forced to abandon with abrasions and cuts to his knee, but he’s been cleared to defend his title in Tuscany this weekend. He’ll be joined by teammate Tim Wellens, who finished third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad — and third at Strade Bianche in 2017.

“The Strade Bianche is one of the races which suits me the best,” Benoot said. “It will be special to start with number 1 in a race of that caliber. For me, the finish at the Piazza del Campo in Siena is one of the most beautiful ones, maybe together with the Champs-Élysées. It will be very difficult to repeat last year’s performance, but with the legs I had during the Omloop, I can certainly compete for the victory. I hope to have the same feeling on Saturday but the shape is already good. Of course, the crash was not ideal. My knee has been stitched and we will have to evaluate how it heals day by day.

Van der Breggen, who soon heads to South Africa to race the March 17-24 Cape Epic with former mountain-bike world champion Annika Langvad, finished 11th at the Omloop on Saturday — a race won by her teammate Chantal Blaak, with Boels-Dolmans rider Jip van den Bos also on the podium, in third. It was Van der Breggen’s first race of the 2019 season; Strade Bianche will be Langvad’s first road race since the 2018 World Road Championship.

Looking to dethrone Van der Breggen at the 2019 Women’s WorldTour season opener is Canyon-SRAM’s Kasia Niewiadoma, who has finished at Strade Bianche for the past three years, as well as her teammate Elena Cecchini. Others to watch include Marianne Vos and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC); Annemiek van Vleuten, Amanda Spratt, and Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott); Marta Bastianelli (Vrtu); and Lucinda Brand and Coryn Rivera (Sunweb). Italian Elisa Longo Borghini, winner of the 2017 Strade Bianche and third last year, will not take the start due to illness; her Trek-Segafredo is sending Americans Ruth Winder and Tayler Wiles, as well as Dutch veteran Ellen van Dijk.

“There are a lot of heavy gravel roads, but the biggest break up will probably take place after the two long sections just before the feed zone,” Benoot said. “The area of Monte Sante Marie is very technical with some steep parts uphill and downhill. It is really a grueling race which is underestimated by many riders. Percentage-wise there is even more gravel in the Strade Bianche than cobbles in Paris-Roubaix. Moreover, there are around 3,000 meters of elevation. Last year, the cold weather also had an influence. The forecasts are better now but I do not focus on that since the course is tough enough to make the difference.”

Tweet of the day

Tour de France champion isn’t above having a laugh at his own expense; he recently posted a “who wore it best?” tweet comparing his appearance on the Graham Norton Show with a similar outfit worn by Alan Partridge, a comic character portrayed by English actor Steve Coogan.

Race Radio

Up next: Paris-Nice

The 77th edition of Paris-Nice begins on Sunday, March 10, and runs through Sunday, March 17. Beyond the three Grand Tours, Paris-Nice is one of the most well-known and prestigious stage races on the race calendar. The 2019 edition sets off in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and will build toward a decisive final weekend, including a penultimate mountain stage featuring a summit finish on the Turini Pass, and a final-day out-and-back stage that uses the Pelasque climb, training ground for the many pro cyclists who live in the area.

After three stages designed for the sprinters, Stage 4 starts in Vichy, moves through the vineyards of Condrieu, and finishes with a bumpy circuit around Pélussin. The peloton will tackle the Côte de Chavanay (3.1 kilometers at 4.9%) just before the finish line. One of the possible key moments in the GC- battle will be Stage 5, a 25.5km individual time trial in the heart of the Massif de la Montagnette, featuring an intermediate climb to the Abbaye de Saint-Michel de Frigolet.

Stage 7 takes in five intermediate climbs to conclude on the spectacular Turini Pass; it’s the first time the climb has been used at Paris-Nice, though it’s been used at the Tour de France three times, in 1948, 1950 and 1973. The final 15km averages 7.3%, with 3km averaging over 10%. The final stage is short and explosive, with six intermediate climbs; the final climb, the Col des Quatre Chemins is 5.5km long at 5.5% before a 9km descent into Nice.

Among those racing for the overall victory will be Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Egan Bernal (Team Sky), Fabio Aru (UAE Emirates), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), defending Paris-Nice champion Marc Soler (Movistar), and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). Two-time winner Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) was scheduled to race, but his team announced earlier this week that he will be forced to skip it due to bronchitis suffered after the Herald Sun Tour; he’ll focus on Volta a Catalunya instead. The field sprints will see battles between Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Andre Greipel (Arkéa Samsic), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Emirates).

Up next: Tirreno-Adriatico

The 54th edition of Tirreno-Adriatico runs from March 13-19 and will be marked by several steep, punchy climbs in Central Italy. Known as the “Race of the Two Seas,” these steep climbs could open up the potential for a different style of GC contenders. As in years past, there will be two time trials, an opening team time trial, and a final stage individual time trial, as well as two sprint stages.

Among those taking the start will be 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, two-time Tirreno champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), 2017 Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (sunweb), 2018 Il Lombardia winner Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), recent UAE Tour winner Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), Giro d’Italia stage winner Mikel Landa (Movistar), and Tirreno stage winner Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).

The list of stage hunters is impressive, starting with Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), and Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) for the time trial, plus   sprinters Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Emirates), Giacomo Nizzolo (Dimension Data) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis).

Moving Pictures

Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel has dominated the cyclocross scene over the past three seasons. What effect is his supremacy having on the discipline?

Happy birthday to…

Argentinean Max Richeze turns 36 today. The Deceuninck-Quick Step lead-out ace has taken 15 pro wins, including stages at the Giro d’Italia, Tour of Turkey, Tour de Suisse, and Vuelta a San Juan.

Polish rider Maciej Bodnar turns 34 today. The BORA-hansgrohe strongman has taken eight pro victories, seven of them in time trials — and four of them Polish national titles. His biggest win was Stage 20 of the 2017 Tour de France, ahead of Michal Kwiatkowski and Tour winner Chris Froome.

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