Preview: What you should know about the 2021 men’s Strade Bianche
Strade Bianche is fast becoming one of pro cycling’s most popular races. Raced on the white gravel roads of Tuscany this one-day event is now into its 15th edition and regularly plays host to a tough and entertaining day’s racing.
Last year’s edition was a hot and dusty affair held in the middle of the Italian summer – just one of many races rescheduled due to COVID-19 – but in 2021 the race returns to its regular March time slot. Here’s what you should know ahead of Saturday’s 15th edition of the men’s Strade Bianche. (Follow the link for a preview of the women’s race.)
Starting and finishing in Siena, the race covers a total of 184 km and follows the same route that’s been used in recent years. That route doesn’t have any super-long climbs, but what it does have is a multitude of shorter, punchier hills, plus 11 gravel sectors that give the race its name.
The approach to Siena at race’s end has become one of cycling’s most recognisable finishes. From the picturesque rolling hills of Tuscany the race heads back into town, through narrow cobblestoned streets before heading down into the Piazza del Campo to finish.
The final kilometre is a doozy. At 1 km to go there’s a tough 500-metre climb that averages 12.4% and maxes out at 16%. After a couple of tight, narrow turns there’s a short descent to the finish line.
How it might unfold
More than just about any other event on the calendar, Strade Bianche is a race that favours a solo winner. In fact, of the past 14 editions, 10 were won solo. Of the remaining four, two were won from a group of two and two finished up with a group of three.
These numbers should give you a sense of the sort of race it is. It’s your classic race of attrition where only the strongest riders are able to stay in contact with the front of the race, and where the attacks are numerous, particularly towards the end.
Expect the same to be true in 2021. The winning move is likely to come somewhere inside the final 50 km, and likely from a solo rider. But as noted above, a small group is a possibility too. Just don’t expect more than a handful of riders to sprint it out for the win.
There are three top favourites for Saturday’s race and it’s difficult to separate them.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) won last year’s edition after two third-place finishes and should feature prominently again. He’s got all the attributes required for this race: incredible strength, great climbing ability, terrific off-road skills (he’s a three-time cyclocross world champ after all) and the ability to go it alone late and hold off a chase.
Van Aert could well go back-to-back on Saturday. His biggest rival is again likely to be his arch-nemesis Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
Everything that can be said about Van Aert’s chances also applies to Van der Poel. He too has all the necessary ingredients to come away with a win on Saturday and out of Van der Poel and Van Aert, it’s Van der Poel that comes in with the best form. The Dutchman was demonstrative (if a little too exuberant) at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and right up front at Le Samyn as well (even with a snapped handlebar).
If there’s one thing that gives Van Aert a leg-up over Van der Poel at Strade Bianche it’s experience. Where Van Aert has raced it three times for three podiums, Van der Poel’s only raced it once – last year when he finished 15th. It’s not clear how much of a difference Van der Poel’s relative lack of experience will really make though. If both are on a good day, picking a winner is very difficult indeed.
The third favourite is the world champion, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep). Alaphilippe doesn’t have the same off-road chops as WvA and MvdP but the fact he won this race in 2019 suggests he’s more than comfortable on the gravel, not to mention his proficiency on shorter climbs and his love of a late solo attack.
Given this is a one-day race in the spring, Alaphilippe will almost certainly have the strongest team on the startlist. Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere said earlier in the week that isolating Van Aert and Van der Poel is the best way to beat them, and if his team is going to do that, they’ll do it with numbers.
Former winner Zdenek Stybar, last year’s Giro d’Italia revelation Joao Almeida, Kasper Asgreen, the in-form Davide Ballerini – these are just some of the cards Deceuninck-QuickStep has to play in support of Alaphilippe.
For many cycling fans, the ultimate scenario involves Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe getting away together towards the end (like we saw at last year’s Tour of Flanders, before Alaphilippe’s spectacular moto incident). The prospect of that trio hitting the final climb into Siena is a mouth-watering one (and probably favours Alaphilippe, for what it’s worth).
In all likelihood one of these three riders will win on Saturday. But that’s no certainty.
One of the most exciting riders to watch on Saturday will be British neo-pro Tom Pidcock (Ineos-Grenadiers). The 21-year-old is already a multi-disciplinary star with road, cyclocross and MTB world titles to his name. Like Van der Poel and Van Aert Pidcock will be right at home on the dirt, and if his showing at Belgian ‘Opening Weekend’ is anything to go by, he won’t be fazed at all by the fact he’s so new to WorldTour racing.
On debut, Pidcock is a genuine chance of a podium finish. Victory, while perhaps unlikely, isn’t out of the question either. Regardless of how he goes this weekend, you can be sure Pidcock will be among the top names at this race over the next decade or so.
Note too that Ineos has two-time former winner Michal Kwiatkowski on the startlist. He’ll probably play second fiddle to Pidcock on Saturday, but if the Pole is still in the mix towards the end, he could be a real danger.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) hasn’t been spectacular in his few races so far this year, but that’s not likely to matter. When it comes to tough one-day races with a bunch of climbing, Fuglsang is one of the very best in the world.
The Dane has raced here three times, finishing 11th, fifth and second (in 2019). On paper you’d have him slightly behind the likes of Van Aert and Van der Poel, but he’s hardly a rider you want to rule out.
Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroen) has been on the list of contenders for this race for over a decade. Indeed, the Belgian has eight(!) top 10s at Strade Bianche with two second-place finishes, but hasn’t managed a win.
Clearly it’s a race that suits him – he just hasn’t quite put it all together. Maybe this is his year. Changing teams has a way of shaking things up for a rider, and maybe a change of scenery (and teammates) will be the catalyst for that long-awaited victory.
Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) is another Belgian who’ll be aiming high on Saturday. The 29-year-old won Etoile de Besseges last month off the back of a solo victory, and he’ll be hoping to channel some of that energy into Strade Bianche.
Wellens has only raced here twice before, but his 10th- and third-place finishes are more than encouraging for another strong performance this weekend.
Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates) showed himself to be a dab hand at this race last year with an excellent second place. Perhaps he could do similar this year.
Romain Bardet (DSM) is another former podium finisher (second in 2018) and he’s with a new team this year. Perhaps with some new motivation he’ll be in the running again.
Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) finished on the podium in 2016 and judging by his overall win at the Tour des Alpes et Maritimes et du Var (quite the mouthful), he’s clearly moving well at the moment. Speaking of Trek-Segafredo riders in good form, Bauke Mollema is showing great signs early in 2021. The Dutchman won a stage at the Tour des Alpes et Maritimes et du Var and just Wednesday won Trofeo Laigueglia with a strong solo move. He’s only raced Strade Bianche once before (2019, 76th) but a good result this year is within Mollema’s range.
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) is another one to keep an eye on. The Slovenian’s energy will be directed towards stage races in 2021 (he won the UAE Tour the other week) but a 13th place last year suggests the 22-year-old could be thereabouts. His Grand Tour GC rival Egan Bernal (Ineos-Grenadiers) is another interesting prospect. Pidcock will almost certainly be Ineos’ main man, but Bernal rode to an encouraging second place at Trofeo Laigueglia on Wednesday.
Fans of wet and muddy bike racing rejoice: rain is expected in Tuscany on Saturday. According to the latest forecast there’s a roughly 70% chance of rain, with temperatures peaking at 14ºC (57ºF). If the soggy 2018 edition is anything to go by we could be in for quite a spectacle.
As for how the weather changes the racing, well, that’s a little harder to predict. If the gravel roads become slick and muddy, those proficient at racing off-road will likely benefit – think the likes of Van Aert, Van der Poel and Pidcock.
How to watch it
If you’re keen for live coverage of Saturday’s race, your best bet in almost all territories is the combination of Eurosport/GCN+. The same is true for the women’s race too, incidentally, which will also be broadcast live. Follow the link to see Abby Mickey’s preview of the women’s race.