Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) won a sensational women’s Strade Bianche, the first Italian to do so, in the 2017 Women’s World Tour opener on Saturday, while Michael Kwiatkowski (Poland/Sky) soloed to his second white gravel victory in a very active men’s race. Conditions were wet and windy in Tuscany.

The women faced 127-km of Tuscan roads with eight sections of white gravel for a dirt total of 30.5-km.

After 47-km and four sections of sterrati covered, the race was still together, albeit without the winner of the first edition, Megan Guarnier (USA/Boels-Dolmans), who had to quit due to a wretched headache.

On the 9.5-km long, mostly uphill Section 5, the race split up, with 40-riders in the front. As it began to rain, three riders flashed away from the leading pack.

At the 100-km mark, the trio’s gap was under a minute, as Orica-Scott led the chase behind. Section Six send out of the fugitives out the back. The break submitted on the steep middle section of Section Seven, where five more riders powered off the front. This was an elite quintet with reigning champ Lizzie Deignan, Orica-Scott duo Annemiek van Vleuten and Katrin Garfoot, Longo Borghini and Katarzyna Niewiadoma. With 10-km to go, the gap was 27-second, with Garfoot dropped in the final gravel sector.

The rain continued to lash the riders. Garfoot came back just before the dramatic final steep climb to the Piazza del Campo in Sienna. With 2-km to go Sunweb’s Lucinda Brand, last week’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner, bridged over alongside Sharra Gillow and took a big lead onto the Via Santa Caterina. Brand had the gap with a kilometre remaining, Gillow just behind her. Surely one of them would win.

But with 450-metres to go Niewiadoma, Garfoot, Deignan and Longo Borghini caught them. The Italian and Pole surged ahead before Longo Borghini prevailed in the sprint. Niewiadoma was runner-up for the second straight year. Longo Borghini takes the first lead of the WorldTour.

Karol-Ann Canuel was top Canadian in 15th.

The men had 11 sections of dirt road totaling 61.9-kilometres over a route of 175-km.

Rain wet the first 2.1-km section of gravel, Vidritta, where two riders tried to get loose. It was on the longer, hillier Bagnaia section that five riders went clear, later joined by the dangerous Thibaut Pinot (France/FDJ).

On long Section Six, the gravel turning to mud, the escape held a 5:00 gap. In the peloton, a crash shattered the field and a group containing favourites Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali and Kwiatkowski dashed away.

One man dropped out of the break and Peter Sagan, not feeling well, climbed off the bike.

With 54-km and four sections, including the recently rededicated Fabian Cancellara section, to go, the gap from the five escapees to the elite chase was 1:40. Also known as Monte Sante Marie, the Cancellara section is 11.5-km long and full of climbing. The break lost another rider as the mucky conditions took their toll. The difficulty streamlined the chase down to seven.

As the chase drew closer, it was bolstered by more riders. As soon as Stybar’s teammate Matteo Trentin joined before Section Nine, he attacked. This injection of pace animated the chase, splitting it. Four chasers captured the breakaway with 35-km to go. Van Avermaet was left behind momentarily, but the two groups merged.

Move after move cracked the unity of the front group before the key Colle Pinzuto, the penultimate section of gravel, with slopes that encouraged a decisive attack. Winner of the 2014 edition, Kwiatkowski attacked up the Pinzuto and Stybar, Van Avermaet and Tim Wellens were able to go with him. Tom Dumoulin chased. The Dutchman brought over a couple of riders.

Once more, Kwiatkowski forced a gap and led onto the final section with 13-km to go. The Tolfe section had a maximum grade of 18% where Kwiatkowski added to his lead.

With 10-km to go, the Pole led Stybar, Wellens and Van Avermaet by 21-seconds. Only this trio had any chance of catching Kwiatkowski.

But there was no stopping Kwiatkowski. On the Via Santa Catarina Van Avermaet banged out a strong second place. Wellens rounded out the podium.

The best placed Canadian was Hugo Houle in 47th.

The WorldTour next has two stage races on tap: Paris-Nice starting Sunday and Tirreno-Adriatico March 8-14. The next one-day affair is Milan-San Remo, the first Monument of the season, on March 18. The next Women’s WorldTour race is Ronde Drenthe next Saturday.

2017 Strade Bianche Women’s Race

1) Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy/Wiggle High5) 3:44:45
2) Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland/WM3 Energie) +0:02
3) Elizabeth Deignan (Great Britain/Boels-Dolmans) +0:05
15) Karol-Ann Canuel (Canada/Boels-Dolmans) +1:24
20) Leah Kirchmann (Canada/Sunweb) +1:54
37) Joelle Numainville (Canada/Cylance) +3:14

2017 Strade Bianche

1) Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland/Sky) 4:42:42
2) Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium/BMC) +0:15
3) Tim Wellens (Belgium/Lotto-Soudal) +0:17
47) Hugo Houle (Canada/AG2R) +13:37


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