Is this cycling’s sixth Monument? No but just asking the question is a clue to this race’s sudden prestige and beauty. The established list of five classics can stay as it is but the Strade Bianche has become a compelling race and the 2018 was a glorious vintage.
The conditions were grim with recent snow only just melting, resulting in a sloppy mess on the gravel sectors. The riders too seemed keen to stay warm and the usual pattern of letting a move go up the road while the big names saved energy was abandoned with plenty of early scrapping. Eventually a move did go but it had strong riders like Pierre Latour, Victor Campenarts, Edvald Boasson Hagen as well as fearless neo-pros like Valentin Madouas and Truls Korsæth, the former would shine later this year in Paris-Tours with its gravel take while Truls Korsæth has since retired, the sport isn’t for him.
Patrick Lefevere branded it “irresponsible”, a curious take for the DS who has guided more riders to Roubaix than any other, presumably team managers were as nervous as the riders. With each new sector the riders seem to travel back in time: the more they were covered in dirt the more the images resembled those from the past, especially as they riders abandoned their sunglasses.
The breakaway was reeled in but not by the bunch. Instead a move including the likes of Michał Kwiatkowski, Wout van Aert, Alejandro Valverde and others got across. Peter Sagan missed the move and gave chase in a group along with Zdeněk Štybar, Greg Van Avermaet and Romain Bardet. Spot the odd one out although if Bardet was mixing with the classics contenders so was Alejandro Valverde.
Bardet bridged to the lead group where he found team mate Pierre Latour and soon attacked with 49km remaining. He won the Classic de l’Ardèche the previous weekend weekend in the and looked to be strolling then but said he enjoyed racing in lower-level races for the opportunities they afford, the races are not under a tactical lock-down. But here he was in a World Tour race going for a long raid. van Aert bridged across to Bardet and the two began to pull out a lead. Did the others think it was safe to let them go? No but behind the chase group was in zugzwang. This is part of the race’s charm, that from a long way out the team leaders are isolated and so have to think and work for themselves. Giovanni Visconti set off in pursuit, as did Tiesj Benoot, Pieter Serry and Rob Power. All four are strong on their day and outsiders for the win but not the sort who need to be closed down instantly. Benoot was on the rampage, surging past Visconti and for a moment there was an entente with Serry and the rare spring sight of Lotto-Soudal and Quick Step working together. It didn’t last long as Benoot was going full Rambo on the sterrato and soon he was solo in pursuit of Bardet and van Aert.
Van Aert impressed, lucid late into a long race when you might expect him to drop his guard as he’s not used to racing so hard for so long. Bardet coped fine with the gravel but he’s adept at cyclo-cross and won his regional championships in the past.
Benoot got across to Bardet and WVA but didn’t hang around. Why waste such good legs? He did some work with them and had a breather then attacked as soon as the road on the next gravel section rose. His attack was brutal: he didn’t try to surprise, to take a different line or use another ruse: he was on the front, stood on the pedals and dropped his rivals. He steadily built up a lead as he rode into Siena for his first ever pro win.
Why the highlight?
Grim conditions and if these roads can offer great riding this was a day to watch from the sofa rather than the saddle, one to applaud every finisher. Relentless racing from the start and this contributed to a stellar group for the final hour where few had a team mate to work for them. Seeing Bardet and van Aert on the move around 50km to go was impressive and Benoot was on a mission, covered in the white dirt he resembled a golem.
A great win for Tiesj Benoot. He seems to have been around for a while now but is still eligible for “best young rider” competitions, indeed he won that prize in Tirreno-Adriatico on his way to fourth place overall and then four top-10s in the spring classics including a podium in the Brabantse Pijl before finishing 14th overall in the Criterium du Dauphiné in the summer. The point here isn’t to rattle off his results, more to say that if he didn’t win anything more this year he was quietly placing amongst the best among terrain from Flanders to the Alps, something he was doing last year too. This is impressive, he could as versatile a rider as Michał Kwiatkowski or Alejandro Valverde albeit with different strengths and weaknesses or does he focus on something instead?
Romain Bardet had a great season with third overall in the Dauphiné, sixth in the Tour de France and silver medal in the World Championships but gets judged on his Tour ride where the sight of him on the podium has accustomed people such that sixth place looks almost poor. Arguably if he’d ridden more boringly in the Tour, eg not attacking to La Rosière and then Alpe d’Huez where he’d only get countered then he’d have finished higher but perhaps the sport is all the better for his moves and his decisions to race this and other classics? There’s talk of the Giro and who wouldn’t want to ride but surely a Tour-Vuelta double would suit him more, a Tour where he aims for a podium again and then sees what happens in Spain where the 20 minute climbs suit; partly because if he rode the Giro there’s nobody obvious replacement to lead the team in the Tour.
This was the ride that established Wout van Aert as a player on the road. He was impressive in cyclo-cross and had shone in a few road races before but not in such a long distance race and it set him up for a spring classics campaign which was all the more impressive because he’d hardly had a break from the cross. Come the end of the year and he was getting involved in moves of transfer kind with a contract for Jumbo set for 2020 but an option to join if he didn’t have a team for 2019. He’s such a rider that his squad is built around him meaning a Catch-22 scenario where sponsors might withdraw if he leaves. Did this machination cause his team to collapse? No, there’s more to it but the UCI probably needs to investigate rules to prevent tampering or tapping up , the idea of another team or an agent making alluring noises to make an athlete unhappy in their current job so they move to a new one. Also with hindsight we got something the TV cameras missed, fans filmed van Aert coming to a stop on the final climb into Siena.