Preview: Your guide to the 2020 women’s Strade Bianche

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After months of speculation and stress the time has come for World Tour racing to resume. Most of us never thought this day would come, and hey, it’s only Thursday — there is still time for the race to be cancelled. This is 2020 after all.

Regardless, teams all over Europe are getting ready to converge on Siena, Italy for the sixth edition of Strade Bianche. A race that is, in a normal year, a favorite for most riders, and now has new meaning as the first WorldTour race since the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race back on February 1.

Weather could play an interesting role in this years edition. Usually held in the wet early spring we have seen some absolutely bonkers editions of the race. This year, with a heat wave comfortably settling itself over Europe, it’s a completely different game to what the riders are used to.

We’ve actually already published a preview of this race — a day before its original March date was cancelled — so if you want to learn more about the history and significance of the race, be sure to check that out.

The course

Saturday’s race takes place on a 136 km loop, starting and finishing in Siena, Italy. The terrain on which the race is held is guaranteed to provide some stunning photos. Strade Bianche would not be Strade Bianche without the namesake white dirt roads of Tuscany, flanked by almost fake-looking rolling green fields and Italian Cypress evergreens.

The finish will be the same as it has been in every previous edition: a narrow and steep cobbled climb to the Piazza del Campo in the centre of Siena. The final climb is only 500 meters long, but a staggering 13% gradient makes for a painful finish to the race.

The race’s eight gravel sectors are indicated in grey above.

Lockdown form

Quarantine training meant a variety of different approaches for riders, depending on their location, whether they could ride outside or were trapped riding the trainer for over a month. Not to be slowed down, Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) proved in Spain last weekend that she is stronger than ever. Elisa Longo Borghini, who was in one of the more severe lockdown scenarios in Italy, has also come into the season restart in fine form. The form of most in the women’s peloton, however, remains an unknown.

We didn’t get to see Ashleigh Moolman Pasio or Marianne Vos take on Van Vleuten in the first two races back as CCC-Liv pulled out last minute due to coronavirus concerns. In the third race in the Basque Country, in Durango, neither Vos nor Moolman Pasio were part of the group of four that finished ahead of the field. Moolman-Pasio did take second out of the remaining, much reduced bunch though.

There are currently questions regarding COVID-19 procedures and protocols for this race. One thing that poses no question whatsoever is the excitement of riders, fans and surely team sponsors, to see live human beings racing outside once more.

Riders to watch

The favorite: Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton Scott)

In 2020, Annemiek van Vleuten, wearing the rainbow stripes of the world champ, has four wins from four races. It’s pretty safe to say she is the rider all others want to take down; they just haven’t quite figured out how. Add into the mix that Van Vleuten won Strade Bianche last year with her signature solo move, and it would be no surprise to see her make a winning move long before the flamme rouge on Saturday.

Van Vleuten winning the Clasica Femenina Navarra last weekend, her second win in two days.

The wildcard: Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Niewiadoma stood on the second step in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and was third in 2019. This race clearly holds a special, if somewhat frustrating, place in her heart. Can she finally take the win this year?

The heart pick: Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo)

Images of Elisa Longo Borghini hugging her teammates after winning the 2017 edition are likely to bring a tear to the eyes of even the coldest cycling fans. Longo Borghini also placed third in 2015 and 2018, and was fourth in 2016. She was unable to race in 2019 due to illness.

A very proud Italian, Elisa was devastated to see the effects of coronavirus on her country. In fact, she told me on the Freewheeling podcast back in late March that she was training for her country. “All the people that are suffering, I pedal for them”. Now, with racing back on tap and returning to her native country, not to mention in a race where she has excelled in the past, tears will flow freely if Elisa Longo Borghini crosses the finish line with her arms over her head.

Longo Borghini’s trump card will be her teammates. Compared to the other teams on the start list, Trek-Segafredo undoubtably holds the most options with Lizzie Deignan, Ruth Winder, Lucinda Brand, and Ellen van Dijk all potential starters.

The worthy adversary: Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans)

Never to be overlooked, Anna van der Breggen had a strong showing at the Basque races last weekend. She won this race in 2018, and with her retirement already announced for just after the Olympics next year, she will want to go out with a bang this season and next. Time and time again she has wowed us all. Can she do it again this weekend?

Anna van der Breggen winning the 2018 Road World Championships road race.

The exciting rider to watch: Brodie Chapman (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope)

“A solo rider is making her move away from the peloton” is basically what you get when you look up “Brodie Chapman” in the dictionary. It has not taken long for Chapman to make a name for herself as an aggressive rider. Potentially ill-timed though her moves may sometimes be — though certainly not always — she is constantly an exciting piece of the bike racing puzzle. Given she is on a new, more developed, team this year, we might see more courageous moves timed to perfection.

The young ‘un: Demi Vollering (Parkhotel Valkenburg)

This young rider is, without question, one to watch not only this weekend, but for the rest of her career. Last year she had some really impressive results, not least of which were fifth at the GP de Plouay, fifth in the general classification at the OVO Energy Women’s Tour, fifth at La Flèche Wallonne, and third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Parkhotel Valkenburg was absent from the Basque racing over the weekend, and we haven’t seen Vollering race since Setmana Cyclista Valenciana in February, where she was third overall, but that can’t keep her off this list.

The 23-year-old Dutchwoman is bound to be exciting to follow this season, and for many seasons to come, and with her strength on smaller, poppy climbs, Strade Bianche is a great place for her to start showing off.

Vollering winning last year’s Giro dell’Emilia, ahead of Longo Borghini no less.

Who’s your pick to win the women’s 2020 Strade Bianche?

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