Tiesj Benoot ditches Romain Bardet and Wout van Aert on the final section of sterrato. This was the moment the race was won. Amid a galaxy of star riders Benoot was not the obvious pick at the start in Siena but five hours later there was no doubting his strength.
The snow had melted. But only just, leaving behind a sodden mess on the gravel roads: an gloopy upper layer of dust and slush and beneath a deeper, dirtier slop in which wheels could sink. With added rain this wasn’t the terrain to let a small break of wildcard chancers go away while everyone else trundled along. The race was intense with the peloton breaking in two and there were crashes and mechanicals galore. 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.
Patrick Lefevere branded it “irresponsible”, a curious take for the DS who has guided more riders to Roubaix than any other but right or wrong it suggests 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 a decade ago. The riders abandoned their sunglasses and with their faces plastered in dirt they looked like a collection of golems.
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. He didn’t hang around for a chat, instead attacking with 49km to go. He won the Classic de l’Ardèche last 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. It’s all the more impressive given he’d cut his arm a few weeks ago, slicing into the nerve.
Wout van Aert bridged across 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 happens in chess when a player doesn’t want to make a move because it will cost them; here nobody wanted to chase because it would benefit their rivals. 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. Sagan did have help but only just and he didn’t seem at his best either. Moscon tried a move but this seemed to put his team mate Kwiatkowski in the red.
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 so they seemed to be allowed room. Benoot though 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 Rambo on the sterrato and soon he was solo in pursuit of Bardet and van Aert.
Van Aert was impressive. There’s the obvious like his ease on the dirt roads or his explosive jump that let him clip across to Bardet. There’s more like his attention to detail, eating and drinking a lot when it’s not a habit he’s used to in a race or watching his rivals and their pedal strokes for any “tells”. There are only so many verandas to sell in Belgium, how long until a World Tour team makes him an offer he can’t refuse?
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, his uncovered arms as red as the local brickwork and rode to his first ever pro win.
A fine edition of a great race. If the suspense dimmed in the final kilometres it was only because the race had been raging for hours. Benoot was a deserving winner, barging his way across to the lead pair and then attacking them direct. The humpbacked Belgian has been knocking on the door marked victory for a long time whether his podium in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2016 or fifth place in the Tour of Flanders as a first year pro and he looks handy in the hilly races, even the Critérium du Dauphiné where he finished 12th overall last summer. Bardet and WVA make for satisfying podium too, attacking from almost 50km out. And what a podium, Benoot as the winner flanked by a Tour de France podium finisher and the world cyclo-cross champion.
Is this cycling’s sixth monument? Perhaps but it would have to go out to 240km to mimic its older cousins and that’s molto for the first weekend of March. Besides more kilometres wouldn’t necessarily make a better race, this year’s edition was intense from the start. Why change the winning formula that has made this new race an instant hit? One criticism of the race is the amorphous course, there’s no sense of place in the way we talk about the Molenberg, the Ghisallo or the Carrefour de l’Arbre but in the Strade Bianche it’s just one sector after another. Perhaps the Sante Marie just needs to be ridden more and for the palimpsest of history to start recording the place where Cancellara attacked, where Sagan fell and so on but for now the course doesn’t seem to provide as many visual clues and landmarks. But this is a nit-picking observation of a young race and if the course doesn’t have the visual references the finish in Siena is superb and you can see why it attracts riders like Bardet, Dumoulin and Valverde as well as the usual cobbled classics contenders. They could run this race in March, May and September every year and surely we wouldn’t get tired of it.