Preview: What you need to know about the 2020 men’s Strade Bianche

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WorldTour racing is back! Strade Bianche was meant to be held on March 7 but after COVID-19 put it (and the rest of the racing calendar) on hold, Italy’s best one-day race (shots fired) was moved back to this Saturday, August 1.

So, as we gear up to watch the first top-tier race in more than four months, here’s what you should know about the 2020 men’s Strade Bianche. Follow the link for our preview of the women’s Strade Bianche.

Expect to see signs of the pandemic at the start and finish.

Riders will be wearing masks before and after the race, including on the presentation podium. Team staff and other race personnel will likely wear them throughout the entire day. The crowd at the finish will be smaller than usual. Efforts will be made to keep an appropriate distance between spectators and those involved in the race.

These are just some of the visible measures in the UCI’s return-to-racing protocol for WorldTour events. A whole lot more will be done behind the scenes, as detailed in the official protocol document.

The race starts and finishes in Siena.

As usual, the 2020 Strade Bianche starts and finishes in the Tuscan town of Siena. This year’s race spans 184 km before ending up in Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo. It’s one of the most picturesque races on the calendar thanks to the idyllic Tuscan countryside and the old-world charm of medieval Siena.

More than a third of the race is held on gravel.

Roughly 63 km of the race — 34% of the total distance — will be held on the white roads of Tuscany that give the race its name. Those 63 km of gravel are spread across 11 sectors.

It’s a very lumpy race.

Take a look at the profile below — this is a race with plenty of climbing, much of it on gravel roads. There aren’t any massively long climbs — the longest is about 5 km — but many of those ascents are steep and besides, given the volume of climbing (around 3,500 metres), the race will be plenty hard enough.

The grey sections in the profile above are the “strade bianche” gravel sectors.

The final challenge is a short but steep ramp into Siena.

After five hours spent battling the rolling roads of Tuscany, the riders will hit the final rise with 1 km to go. Through narrow streets in Siena, this climb averages 12.4% for 500 metres and peaks at a punishing 16%. From the top of this rise, at 500 metres to go, there are a couple of corners and then a short descent to the line.

The final 3 km.

Strade Bianche tends to be won solo.

Lots of climbing, tough grippy roads, a steep final ascent — this isn’t a race that ends in a bunch sprint. In fact, of the 13 past editions of the men’s Strade Bianche, nine were won solo. Of the remaining four, two were won from a group of two and two were won from a group of three.

In short, expect a small group or solo rider to reach the finish first on Saturday. Even if there’s a decent-size group coming into that final climb, it’s likely to be just a handful of riders that emerge at the front. See the 2011 edition where 20 started the climb, and just three emerged (with Philippe Gilbert taking the win).

It’s nigh on impossible to know who’s in form.

Predicting the winner of a bike race is a fraught exercise at the best of times. Doing so when no one’s been racing and we have no recent performances to go on? A fool’s game.

That said, we can certainly make some educated guesses at who might feature at the pointy end.

Mathieu Van der Poel is good enough to win on debut.

Gravel roads clearly won’t faze the three-time cyclocross world champion, nor will the fact it’s his first visit to the race. Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won Amstel Gold Race, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabanste Pijl last year on debut, so why not Strade Bianche? Julian Alaphilippe did it last year …

Van der Poel winning Brabantse Pijl on debut last year.

Alaphilippe could quite easily go back-to-back.

As we saw at last year’s Tour de France, Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is probably the world’s best all-rounder, capable on just about any terrain. He won last year’s Strade Bianche by getting away from Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) just after the crest of the final climb into Siena but could just as easily go solo from much further out this time around.

Jakob Fuglsang would be far from a surprise winner.

The Dane has done one race this year — the Ruta del Sol — and he won that. At his two previous visits to Strade Bianche he was 11th and second, and very nearly won it last year. It wouldn’t be a shock for him to go one better in 2020.

Wout Van Aert is knocking on the door.

The Belgian was third the past two years, and was only dropped on the final climb last year. The three-time CX world champ has only raced once on the road since he crashed out of last year’s Tour de France so who knows what his form is like.

In the 2018 edition, Van Aert cramped up in both legs on the final ramp to the line, but managed to hold on for third.

Peter Sagan will surely win Strade Bianche at some point.

It’s something of a surprise the three-time road world champion hasn’t won it already. He has been close though: second in 2013 and 2014, fourth in 2016, and eighth in 2018 (at his last visit). It’s a race that suits Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) well — difficult terrain with short and steep climbs. He just needs it all to come together on the day.

Greg Van Avermaet is also due for a win at Strade Bianche.

The Belgian has finished inside the top 10 on seven occasions with second place being his best result (2015 and 2017). As with Sagan, it’s somewhat surprising that Van Avermaet (CCC) hasn’t won this race yet. And like Sagan, he’s more than capable of taking that elusive win on Saturday if things fall his way.

Van Avermaet finishing second in the 2015 edition, behind Zdenek Stybar.

Really, there are so many riders that could triumph on the day.

Unlike the women’s Strade Bianche, where it’s Annemiek van Vleuten’s race to lose, the men’s Strade Bianche is a wide-open affair. The riders above are among the most likely to take home the chocolates, but any of the below are certainly capable as well.

Tiesj Benoot (Sunweb): The Belgian won solo in 2018 in what was a career-best performance (so far). Note that he was second overall at Paris-Nice back in March which means he had good form earlier this year. Now? Who knows.

Tiesj Benoot attack at Strade Bianche.
Benoot on the final gravel sector on his way to winning the 2018 edition.

Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep): Alaphilippe will be the team’s go-to, but Asgreen is a great option too. He won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne solo earlier this year, in The Before Times, and could be looking to do similar at Strade Bianche if given the opportunity.

Zdenek Stybar (Deceunincnk-QuickStep): Another former winner (2015) and another great option for the team with the cringeworthy, lupine-inspired nickname.

Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling): This will be the Canadian’s first real-world race since breaking his femur at Paris-Nice. It’s his debut at Strade Bianche but the former runner loves steep climbs, so this could suit him nicely.

Mike Woods leading Richie Porte up the gravel climb on stage 2 of the 2019 Sun Tour. (Image: Con Chronis)

Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal): It’s been nine years since ‘PhilGil’ won this race but he’s shown in recent years that, even in his late 30s, he’s still a formidable force.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos): ‘Kwiato’ is one of only two multiple-time winners of this race, with two victories (2014 and 2017). On both occasions he got to the line solo. In recent years it feels like the Pole has gone from a one-day specialist to more of a GC super domestique, but if he gets a chance Saturday, he certainly shouldn’t be underestimated (Pop quiz: who is the only other multiple-time winner of the men’s race and how many wins do they have?)

Kwiato winning in 2017, his second victory.

Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale): The former Belgian champ is on debut this weekend but could still feature. He’s got a slew of top-fives in other hard one-day races, so a good result here is a real possibility.

Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates): The 21-year-old was 30th on debut last year but he’s shown since just how incredibly strong a rider he is. Three stage wins and third overall at the Vuelta in your neo-pro season? Come on. A late solo move might be his best bet. Or maybe a punchy attack on the final ramp. Anything is possible from the Slovenian.

Can ride a bike.

It’s going to be a scorcher.

Strade Bianche is usually held in the European spring, which typically means low temperatures and rain. Just check out the photos from the mud-encrusted 2018 edition. Pushing the race back into summer this year changes things quite a bit.

The weather forecast suggests it’s going to be 37ºC (98.6ºF) in Siena on Saturday. Expect to see plenty of salt stains on riders’ jerseys, and large plumes of dust as the convoy rattles down each gravel sector. How will the heat affect the race itself? Who really knows. It certainly won’t make things any easier for the riders.

You should be able to get live coverage easily enough, depending on where you are.

If you’re in Australia, check out Eurosport via Fetch TV. In the US or Canada, you’ll probably want to check out either fuboTV or FloBikes. If you’re in the UK, Eurosport is probably your best option. As ever, be sure to check your local guides for information.

Who’s your tip to win the 2020 men’s Strade Bianche?

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