The Moment The Strade Bianche Was Won

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.

The Verdict
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.

68 thoughts on “The Moment The Strade Bianche Was Won”

  1. Enjoyable race today, the strongest/smartest rider won on the day. Impressive ride by Wout and Romain. Would have been nice under blue skies from a purely televisual opinion but todays weather made it look somewhat unpleasant. (No keyboard monologues from me! get in, read, comment, get out).

  2. “They could run this race in March, May and September every year and surely we wouldn’t get tired of it.”

    You nailed it and chapeau for such a great write-up shortly after the race!

    I think though the race course is as perfect as they can become. A real challenge and the near perfect platform to make sure that the strongest rider wins if Mother Luck is not against him. Monument yes or no, it doesn’t really matter, the riders love it already being such a “honest” race and at least they value a win here as much as in any other race.

    Perfect timing by Benoot who also was on a special day, today. But maybe not and he’s already that strong now in his fourth season as a pro. Wout could have played it more defensively and kept his powder dry for longer. But that’s something you only learn when racing on that level more often.
    The future looks bright for Belgian cycling.

    • Well, to be a little pedantic, if they ran out three times a year I think the prestige of winning it might be somewhat diminished, and so we probably wouldn’t get such a good race. ;o)

      I know what you mean though – it’s one of few races where one of the first thoughts after it finishes is always “I can’t wait for next year’s edition”.

      • Well… In 2010 they effectively did run in March and then again in May (as that stage within the Giro).

        It culminated with Cadel Evans smearing the mud from his rainbow stripes for the finish line photo.

        100% undiminished!

  3. What a race.
    Action among top names was on 70 kms to the line with Gilbert, Valverde and Kwiatkowski trading attacks, and Van Aert showing up more often than not on the front of any selected group was forming. The latter was pure class, as Bardet.
    It looked just perfect to me that Benoot won this as his first pro race: the sort of guy you’re always afraid he might become a jack of all trades, brilliant on every terrain, rarely a winner (think Felline), it was so appropriate that he won a race where very different “kinds” of riders face each others in a surprisingly balanced mix…

    Young guns: Madouas and Latour looked good, while they lasted, and a *warm* welcome back to Rob Power (cheers for Mülberger and Mohoric).
    For a change when compared to previous years, Sagan was supported by a huge team. What a pity that his form still isn’t the most honed one. Puccio and Moscon looked good for Sky but it seems that they were held back because Kwiatko had got his powders wet too soon, unlike Valverde which, after his early attacks, still looked strong well into the finale.

    Monte Sante Marie, Colle Pinzuto and Le Tolfe, besides the finale, are already quite easy to recognise, I’d say. Maybe the problem is that every single meter can be good for a decisive attack, not only the well-known key-points… in that sense, it’s more Roubaix than Flanders (in terms of race dynamics, I mean).

    TV production was good, considering the condition, but I found it a bit confusing from time to time, too many little groups to account for, perhaps.

    • Lots I’d agree with, good to see Power back and Sagan’s team has been missing in the past but I had been thinking the return of Oss will help and with the likes of Bodnar, Burghardt and Pöstlberger he’s starting to get the support he needs.

      • Burghardt, a proven domestique, oss, who was maybe already tired and mühlberger, who stayed on until the very end were b side sagan during the finale. I did not quite understand what they were doing. It did not look so organised. Why they did not organize a chase. Sagan was mostly by himself

        • I don’t think Oss was that tired since he was finally 12th (Mühlberger was 10th and Burghardt 15th). We didn’t have many images of that group (the number of motos on the road is obviously limited, as their agility under such circumstances), but in a couple of short takes you could see the three working on the front. However, Sagan previously had decided to try and get back to the front group all alone two or three times, which your gregari rarely be able to follow (depending on the occasion, he sometimes had one of them already on the front); perhaps he’s too used to ride on his own. Another factor was maybe the overwhelming superiority shown by Valverde, probably nobody wanted to bring him back just to be left behind on the final climb.

          • Bora hasnt got such a weak team after all it seems. Delighted to see mühlberger in the mix, the man who took the wrong route at the tour de l avenir.

          • But you, gabriele, have to agree that what Bora did (or did not) did not look organized at all. They had three or four man including Sagan who all finished in high placings, so no one totally killed himself by making the pace. While at least the final 60 km of that race are not ideal for pacing your captain back to the front while he’s just doing 200 Watts it would still make a big difference.
            But maybe Sagan said to them after the hectic first two thirds of the race that he did not feel as if he could win it and they should ride for themselves rather than make the race for those that were watching him.
            Interesting aspect you bring up with regards to Valverde. Given that those were not the conditions he’s usually best in his performance was indeed another very strong showing. Nobody will ever tell publicly so we will never know but you might be right that a lot of riders are kind of pissed / suspicious / or at least envious that this soon 38 year old “bastard” :-))) is still flying higher than nearly all of his colleagues can ever dream of. It might really be a factor after his dominant performances this season that nobody wants to tow him along.

    • “TV production was good, considering the condition, but I found it a bit confusing from time to time, too many little groups to account for, perhaps.”

      Apparently the weather was also interfering with the data from the riders, making it even harder to sort out who was where. And, of course, when they finally did manage to sort out one of the groups, Eurosport went to an ad break just as the caption was coming on screen. :o)

      • Not only the racing, also the images and stories produced yesterday were priceless. A huge promotion for cycling. Seeing benoot going up against bardet is like a batman vs superman fight, two favourite riders from different universes, and spiderman (wva) was also in the mix. Mud-covered valverde was also a very unusual sight – he looked sympathic(for once). Only downturn is how they ruined the piazza del campo, one of the finest squares in the world, with their ugly installations.

  4. Tremendous spectacle! That’s what the classics are all about and why they are the best part of the season! Van Aert was super impressive as was Bardet. Fully deserving podium and nice to see some not so familiar faces finishing in the top 3. The scenery was epic and the riders being covered with mud brought back memories of the Giro stage from 2010.

  5. Benoot looked like the kind of cartoon character Jo Burt would create with a languid Pen. Or you see him lurking on the Causse Mejean hunting down Kléber and LeBusque. Gutsy riding by the front three

  6. Seeing this race was like going back in time, great stuff.

    I think from a visual standpoint, that Benoot’s mud-covered face stands its own ground very well compared to the old images from the 70’s of Merckx, De Vlaeminck that surely set the standard from which all mud-covered cyclists must be judged.

  7. One of my favourite races of the year. Always entertaining, and I think there are recognisable landmarks along the way which will become more legendary as the race gets older.
    The comments from LeFevere were a bit odd. If it was irresponsible to allow the race to run in those conditions (assuming this was his point), surely it’s irresponsible of him to let his riders race it? If a team of QS standing said they weren’t racing because the course wasn’t safe, surely this would have far greater impact than the riders Union complaining. I can’t imagine him saying something similar if it was sub-zero, wet and windy at Roubaix.

  8. An excellent race. In a way it’s what we’ve been missing at Roubaix with all the dry editions lately. It was mano a mano and nobody could rely on team mates to get them out of trouble. A very worthy and satisfying podium. Benoot and Van Aert could be the future Belgian classics superstars. Bardet did his reputation as a courageous, attacking rider no harm either.

  9. I love this race. I cannot think of a better sporting amphitheatre as a finale.

    I get the lack of geographical narrative but that will come in time.

    I see from bystander footage that Wout came off near the top of final climb. Bardet had already attacked but they were only a few seconds apart at that point. TV need to sort out decent coverage for the final km for all eventualities/weather.

    Epic again.

    • That was some brilliant footage! WVA seems to have cramped near the top and thankfully he had a nice advantage to keep his 3rd place. I agree that the final kilometer deserves better live footage because we haven’t seen much of it at all. I was wondering whether something like a spider cam would be an option here. The surrounding buildings on Via Santa Catarina and narrow street surely are a perfect place to install it.

  10. Great report, as always. The spectacle is the thing, it’s what makes the race unique. It may not be called a Monument but the fact that the idea is even discussed shows its calibre.

    “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. ”

    Wow! Will have to find some highlights, if only to see this.

  11. One of my favourite Spring Classics. A new race but it never fails to be selective.

    In some ways it’s a shame that the final climb didn’t produce the sort of showdown it has previously, though hats of too Benoot. He had a great ride.

    The favourites were all too tightly marked and the others made good use of that. I would have liked to see what Sagan could have done to the field if he was in a final selection group to see his form. He must have done well to make the top 10 though.

  12. Another great one in the books for both the men’s & women’s races. The “epic” conditions made it quite the spectacle. Like the men’s podium, a little shake-up from what many might have expected, but that’s good on occasion. Nice write-up as well, Inring

  13. Great race today. A couple of obsv:

    1) It looked classic. Something about Benoot caked in mud and dust in that helmet looked like something from the 80s.

    2) I started to get a sense of the course having watched it for a few years. The 11km sector is sweeping and shows the Tuscan countryside well from above. You could see the race getting broken up. Also the last short sector where Benoot went.

    3) I don’t think we’ve seen how selective that finish could be yet. Given how WVA was nrarly broken on it, there will be more stories to come.

    • Per 3) Totally agree. I was stood at the apex at the top in 2015, and can’t underestimate how brutal it is. Extremely selective, favouring riders with a punch (even then it gets laboured), and those outside the top 20 were crawling up

  14. Thanks for the report, I watched it on TV and was mesmerized by the layers of muck on the riders, it seemed to epitomise how tough a race like this truly is. If they raced it again next month, I’d watch it just as intently.

  15. Brilliant stuff. The only problem with this race is that Eurosport don’t show enough of it. I watched ‘on-demand’ in the evening and the most they offered was the last 63km (without commentary). Usually on that, they show whatever they showed live (including an entire programme of snooker if it over-runs), so did they only offer ~1.5 hours live? (They claimed to be showing 2.5 hours, but are unreliable.)

    • Where do you get that 2.5h from? It was always announced in the tv schedule to start at 14:00 CET. 1.5h live, as planned.
      Even RAI started only at 13:40. Which were the earliest live pictures.

      • Eurosport UK online seemed to be promising 12.50-15.20, GMT for their commentary-less coverage, which from what you say about RAI’s coverage should have been possible, but I didn’t check what they actually showed at the time.

          • Just what I read on Eurosport UK player. The website often makes no sense: I clicked their hour-long video of the race on ‘on demand’ and it was snooker.

          • Not sure that anyone else is interested, but they still have the commentary-less 2.5 hour version on their ‘on demand’ section now – but the race starts at 10 min and finishes at 1 hour 55 min, so maybe that’s what they were offering live. And their 1 hour video is still snooker.
            I gave up trying to make sense of Eurosport’s online offerings a long time ago.

          • Ah their scheduling for coverage on Sky is largely arbitrary too, especially for things showing overnight in UK/Europe – plenty of times I’ve recorded something on the box and it’s ended up being another sport entirely, as things don’t run on time.

        • Yeah, they started coverage somewhere between 12.50 and 1pm. Which worked quite well with the women’s race finishing around 12.40.

          Not entirely convinced that this was a classic edition, though. It looked great, but most of the racing was done with 30 minutes left to go.

  16. Great race and a really satisfying podium. I thought Bora’s strength was notable and Sagan has to be a big favourite for Roubaix now. I know it’s because he had all his winter clothing on but he looked even more bulked up than normal.

    • I found Sagan to actually look slimmer than usual during the last hour when he had taken that rain jacket off. His face also looked slimmer during the press conference.
      And with regards to his shape yesterday’s race did not deliver any hint, did it? At least during what was broadcasted he did not inspire any pace or try to blow that group apart. He just rode somewhere in that group most of the time.

      • Yeah, agreed, he didn’t look in peak form personally but there’s still a few weeks until Flanders/Roubaix and his track record would suggest he’ll come good. What I meant was that his team looked strong and were still involved quite late in the race which is a good sign for him. You might be right about him being slimmer, as I say, it was just so cold all that winter clothing made his upper body look Hulk-like.

    • Why I don’t ride without gloves…

      Truls certainly isn’t of the little brittle guy type! And possibly those sessions on a trainer placed upon a special vibrating platform (developed in one of your many fine institutes of sports science) had made him that little bit stronger and helped him take that hard hit?

      PS But most of all I think he benefitted from the wet conditions: it is always better to slide when you land:-)

  17. Ah, a great antipasto for the real racing season, as always. I wanted to be there but after watching on TV I started to think not being able to go this year might have been a blessing? But then again, I’ll NEVER forget this day -

  18. Given that we have full coverage on TV of some races, including Paris-Roubaix, this race cries out for full start to finish time on television.
    Fabulous race, Benoot the beast, Bardet must be hard as nails and Wout showing how an hour of CX translates easily to the road when you have such class.
    Comparing cadence between Bardet and Wout at times during their break was educational, the cx rider demonstrating such souplesse

  19. All top three finishers put in some serious championship rides, especially given the “hard-man” conditions of the early season. Van Aert was the unknown quantity, but he has proven his worth on the road. He can look forward to some serious coinage in the years to come. Who’s going to pick him up, I wonder?

    • Given his status in Belgium my money would be on Quick-Step, he’d be a nice fit to replace the hole left by Boonen’s loss.

  20. Thanks for another wonderful analysis. Thanks also for introducing me to the word “zugzwang”. It seems perfect for describing the age old dilemma of chasing in a bike race.

  21. What a race, loved every second of it!
    Was anyone else cringing at the motors getting too close and seeming to tow riders for lengthy periods too? It was really frustrating me.

    • Trentin was (cringing).
      But I really don’t think it was very much recurring or anyway intentional, either, although it looked so blatant in a couple of occasions.
      I don’t think they made it on purpose because no national riders were involved, and you didn’t see it favouring any sponsor superstar, either.
      My impression is that it was simply due to the desire to take some fine shots and to the fact that cyclists could often go faster than motos. You could also see from time to time that the rider supposedly taking advantage of the slipstream was actually complaining!
      It would surely be better if no moto towing was ever involved, but when it’s not intentional, it ends up being more or less balanced (except for the riders who’re left in groups on the back with no camera coverage). Hard and unusual conditions also make it more excusable than on other occasions.

    • Valverde was visibly annoyed at the closenss of the motos on the sterrato but I guess the motos don’t want to go too fast and crash as quite often they were struggling with grip as well. Attacking riders definitely benefited from it like Tiesj but most blatantly with Elisa Longo Borghini after her mechanical when she was with Van der Breggen.

      Does anyone know why some races haven’t trialled using drones for footage? Is it just to do with the tech isn’t ready yet or safety concerns as you don’t have to worry about them creating a draft and there should be a massive reduction on filming costs as you don’t need helicopter pilots and heli cameramen along with moto riders and moto cameramen only drone pilots?

      • Drones are complicated, the helicopters used to film bike races have special cameras to ensure stable images. Imagine trying to fly a drone by radio control across a windy landscape with the tall cypress trees, power lines, phone lines etc. They’ve trialled it in the Tour de France but a tethered one and to film the finishing sprint.

        • And people are also a bit naive about the range of such a drone, batterywise. Some can fly a few km, of course, but with decent transmitter technique, who captures HD pics and send them live , you would need a few dozen of them during a race. Not to talk about bad weather conditions, when a moto still is operable, and your drone toy is gone by the wind.
          And also naive to think camera shots from a bunch of drones would be better to direct as from experienced camera crews on bikes. And there would be no close shots of riders, things the same people who want to ban motos would complain about, once they realize what the differences.
          They are nice gimmicks, and useful for stationary sport events and a lot of other things, but good luck with a 50-80km fast peloton.

  22. I love this race, from a visual perspective it is spectacular in the sun or rain.

    From a racing perspective, is is pretty unique to see classic specialists and GT podium finishers battling it our for the win.

    What more could you want in a bike race!

  23. Moto pacing was a problem at times. Particularly Benoot getting a tow across to the two leaders. Also saw it in the women’s race. Certainly the conditions played a big role in the moto’s ability to keep distance. Double edged sword – can impact racing but leads to great camera shots for us fans.

    Love this race.

Comments are closed.