Strade Bianche, which every year gains momentum to become cycling’s sixth Monument, is back on Saturday. Last season the white gravel race was the first major competition back after the five-month-long chasm COVID-19 made in the schedule. This year it returns as the Women’s WorldTour opener to kick off the sixth season of the series, the 2021 Cadel Evan Great Ocean Road Race having been cancelled in February.
Megan Guarnier was the inaugural Women’s WorldTour winner, and so far there’s been no repeat champion. Last year Lizzie Deignan earned her first title, while Marianne Vos claimed 2019’s crown. Before Vos two other Dutch riders were the overall champions: Anna van der Breggen in 2017 and Annemiek van Vleuten in 2018. Guarnier, van der Breggen, van Vleuten and Deignan have all won Strade Bianche.
The women’s course features 30 km of gravel in eight sectors over 136 km. The toughest sectors are the undulating 9.5 km of the Sector 5 at San Martino, the short but steep Sector 6, Sector 7’s 2.4-km climb toward Colle Pinzuto and the final sector, which boasts a tough descent and ascent and ends 12 km from the finish. There is demanding climbing both on the approach to Siena and on the Via Esterna di Fontebranda and Via Santa Caterina in town.
It’s hard to look beyond the last two winners, van Vleuten (2019 and 2020) and van der Breggen. (SD Worx), who looked her usual dominant self in winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Van Vleuten’s American Movistar teammate Leah Thomas placed third last season, while Mavi Garcia of Alé BTC Ljubljana was second. Canyon SRAM’s Pole Katarzyna Niewiadoma has been on the Strade Bianche podium four times. Deignan and her teammate Elisa Longo Borghini, the 2017 champion, bear watching.
Canada’s Leah Kirchmann will race for Team DSM and Olivia Baril will represent Massi-Tactic. Baril was sixth in February’s Dubai Women’s Tour.
The men’s race has the same eight sections of gravel as the women’s and three more, for a total of 63 km. Rippling sections five and six are so close together, they practically make a 20 km long sector in the middle of the 184 km course. Sector 8, ending 43 km from the finish line in Siena, is the toughest of the race: 11.5 km of gravel featuring fatiguing climbs, including Monte Sante Marie. The men’s and women’s races share the same Siena finale.
All eyes will be on Wout Van Aert to repeat as champion. Van Aert was also on the podium for two consecutive years before he took the win. The Belgian will have stiff competition from both swashbuckling Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, the 2019 winner, and great Dutch ‘cross rival Mathieu van der Poel, who so far this season has won the first stage of the UAE Tour, lit up Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne with a long-range attack, and set up his teammate to win La Samyn with a broken handlebar. Jakob Fuglsang has come fifth and runner-up in the last two editions, so ignore him at your peril. Can this be Tadej Pogačar’s kind of race? He was 13th last year and 30th in 2019.
Hugo Houle and Michael Woods both finished in a pack 19:27 behind Van Aert last March; Houle will be in Tuscany on Saturday, his fourth Strade Bianche. Woods’ teammate and compatriot Guillaume Boivin also faces the white gravel.