The Moment The Strade Bianche Was Won

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Mathieu van der Poel attacks on the final section of sterrato in Le Tolfe on the outskirts of Siena. Even Julian Alaphilippe had trouble following. This was the winning moment, the Dutchman showing he was the strongest and even if Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal would join him moments later it was only temporary they’d again be out of the picture once again when he rode into the arena-like Piazza del Campo.

The early break had someone from each of the second tier ProTeams plus Intermarché-Wanty and Lotto-Soudal and so wasn’t any kind of a tactical move packed with riders sent ahead for the day. Despite representing little threat they never got five minutes, in part because of the nervous bunch that rode each of the sterrato sectors hard and the work done by Jumbo-Visma and UAE Emirates.

It was on the San Martino sector of the strade bianche that many started seeing red, it’s a long section and the TV caption described it as “undulating” but that’s a question of scale, from space the Himalayas look crinkled and back on earth for a cyclist this section was a hard slog. A lot of riders would be undone by punctures, crashes and traffic, to lose a wheel here meant an effort that would be paid for soon after. Deceuninck-Quickstep went from “wolfpack” to lone wolf with just Alaphilippe left after a series of mechanicals struck. Trek-Segafredo’s Gianluca Brambilla, a Giro stage winner on these dusty roads, put in an attack and this started a wave of serious moves. Greg Van Avermaet was next and took a large group of 16 riders clear but it was mostly secondary figures, strong but all outsiders for the win. Wout van Aert led the chase in person and Julian Alaphilippe took up the pace and suddenly there were nine riders in the lead:  van Aert, Mathieu Van der Poel, Tom Pidcock, Egan Beral, Tadej Pogačar, Quinn Simmons, Kevin Geniets and Michael Gogl. Van Avermaet and Fuglsang were metres behind but the Belgian seemed to pay for his attack minutes before and couldn’t bridge the gap while the Dane seemed more patient in his chase. Then Geniets popped from the front group to leave eight.

Then seven because Quinn Simmons, who probably likes white roads, puncture and because his team car was a long way behind, he had to get a spare from the neutral service and it took an age. He did though get back very quickly to the chase group and the likes of Fuglsang and Pello Bilbao chased hard to get to within ten seconds but no closer, the presence of multiple Alpecin-Fenix and Qhubeka-Assos riders sapping the efforts. Yes these two teams could have had more riders up front if they’d joined in the chase but they’d already placed their aces up ahead so numerical superiority wouldn’t necessarily mean physical superiority.

It was a quality breakaway with, to borrow from Blondin, Michael Gogl as a second class passenger in the first class wagon. The Austrian’s been in the top-10 here, so he’s no stowaway but the others in the breakaway – excepting Pidcock – have an extra zero on their salary compared to the Austrian. But Gogl isn’t the story, instead it was the assembly of star riders in the breakaway: two Tour de France winners, the world champion, last year’s winner, this year’s winner and in Tom Pidcock possibly a future winner. Once you’d got your eyes used to the starlight, the questioned turned to who was going to win? Bernal and Pogačar as Tour de France winners needed a 20 minute climb, not a two minute one and lacked punch. Gogl was happy to be there and on the limit. Pidcock? Good but not yet that good. Then an acceleration by Alaphilippe uphill was enough to see Wout van Aert and Pidcock distanced, partly positioning cost them but it took them a long time to get back.

Alaphilippe looked to be floating, taking hairpin bends one handed as he swigged a drink one minute, dancing uphill the next but possibly in this show watts were wasted, calories consumed. But there was a sort of stalemate in the group, all collaborating to keep the chasers at bay but not attacking each other, each biding their time.

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Onto the final sterrato section of Le Tolfe where the stalemate broke when Pogačar was the first to get dropped on the climb and seconds later van der Poel launched. Julian Alaphilippe followed but only gradually while later Bernal rode across. Van der Poel’s move was crucial for two reasons: first, because it showed confidence, he might have counted on his sprint in the finish but all the better if he could get rid of any baggage from the group; second, because his move was so incisive even Alaphilippe struggled to follow, he had something left in the tank when the others were beginning to run on fumes.

Coming into the finish in Siena the trio had collaborated enough to ensure they’d get the podium positions, barring a van Aert style cramp up. Heading through the gates into the ancient quarters of Siena Alaphilippe had eyes only for van der Poel. Then on the final climb the Dutchman took the lead. Now in a sprint it’s advantageous to be behind because of the slipstream and because you can watch your rival and even surprise them. But on a 20% climb paved with clumsy flagstones as any school physics class teaches, it takes a lot of force just to accelerate and draw level so it was already advantage van der Poel.

Then the Dutchman kicked and that was that, he left Alaphilippe for dust; the same Alaphilippe whose weapon is sprinting uphill, who has won the Flèche Wallonne twice. Alaphilippe would finish five seconds behind and as a measure of the two riders, Bernal did not appear at the finish line until 15 seconds later.

The Verdict
The hype was justified, a beautiful course with a stellar field and some very lively racing on a kind of course where cyclo-cross experts and Tour de France winners can race, all with a vintage connection as riders bob on their bikes like old while coated in dust. There was suspense to the end but no doubting the result and the podium feels satisfying.

In an alternate world the spring classics would not take place against the brown backdrop of Belgium with its brick buildings and damp fields, criss-crossing the same Flemish roads again and again but instead occupy Tuscany for a month every spring and even people who cared little for sport might tune in just for the scenery. But that doesn’t exist, it’s Chianti for a day and the scarcity makes it all the more special. It’s so special there’s even talk it should be a Monument and it’s a nice idea but to join the “club of five”, (a loose definition nobody really knows where it came from) then that would mean adding 60km on top to make it comparable and the risk would be a front group that’s less explosive in the final and that could make it a lot less lively. Why change a winning formula?

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

  1. Fantastic review as ever Mr Inrng, you really captures the essence of the contest. It was a great watch for the fan from first timer to old head. What’s the whistle nicely for the next few weeks!

  2. Nicely written and witty as ever, thank you.

    Alaphilippe was maybe a bit too generous in his efforts after the group had formed, but I doubt he could have done anything against Van der Poel in this kind of shape. I actually felt the earth tremors from both his attack on the last sterrato and his final sprint. I think the neighbour’s window broke when he passed the sound barrier.

    A great race that fits right in the 2021 season, which has been fantastic so far.

  3. I am not usually a big fan of one day races but this was very good, no doubt the scenery helps (plus memories of summers spent in Tuscany, aperitifs consumed on the Piazza il Campo). MvdP was impressive, he seemed the likely winner from some way out, he was simply better than all the rest. Egan Bernal was surprisingly good, maybe his back problems are less of an issue for a one day race but his form does suggest a serious tilt at the Giro is on the cards, which was in some doubt with the reports of his health issues.

  4. Nice write up – enjoyed this and the women’s edition earlier in the day. Apart from distance I guess what makes the monuments is their history (or sense of history) and Strade Bianchi is rapidly gaining a list of very decent winners indeed, and today’s selection showed why. Another fifty years of that sort of quality and I reckon the conversation would be moot…

    • I’d be curious to know where the term “monuments” comes from, it seems it has gained popularity worldwide in the last 10-15 years, but I don’t remember seeing the word used when I was a kid?

      • Nobody seems to know. Like “grand tour” it is used fluently today as a label but the origins are not so obvious, probably from the early 1990s and the time when the sport tried to define the pro calendar and put ranking points on things.

        • Cycling historian Benjo Maso says the phrase “The five Monuments” is from the 80’s. Before that it was The 8 Classics, or The Grand Classics, which also included Paris-Brussels, Paris-Tours and Flèche Wallonne. Those 8 and the Tour, Giro and Tour de Suisse counted towards the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo which was almost as prestigious as the world championships. Paris-Brussels lost its status because it wasn’t held 1967-1972, Flèche apparently changed course too much and moved to Wednesday (it was on Saturday before LBL) and Paris-Tours also changed its course and its name (GP d’Automne, Blois-Chaville).

          But then Hein Verbruggen came along and decided those 3 wouldn’t be included in the new World Cup, also because he wanted to make the sport more international than just France, Italy, Belgium. At that point the new term Monuments was practical to stand out from The Grand Classics. Nevertheless, Eddy Merckx still rues never having won Paris-Tours and thus not all 8 Grand Classics, contrary to Rik van Looy.

          This is how Benjo told it to me. It doesn’t say who exactly it was that came up with the phrase “The 5 Monuments” and some of those also changed courses, so why not ditch them, but it is the most detail I got.

          • Looking into it again, Jacques Goddet labelled his Paris-Roubaix a monument in 1950, a turn of phrase to evoke the race’s place in the sport, a sense of permanence so the phrase was born. But for the five races, it could be Hein Verbruggen when he unveiled the 1989 World Cup, a series long competition of one day races and it seems he used the term “the five monuments / les cinq monuments” then to highlight the importance of these five traditional races set alongside new races like the GP des Ameriques or the Wincanton Classic which nobody valued and didn’t last long. But it didn’t really stick, I found a 1989 album from the Miroir du Cyclisme in a flea market a few years back that talks a lot about the World Cup that year and there’s no mention of monuments, nor in a 1991 year in cycling history. It really only seems to have appeared in 2010 when the UCI revived the term and riders like Cancellara began using it. In a way if these five races didn’t have a label they’d need one but it’s hard to pin down.

    • I like the idea that it needs that many years to earn its place as a monument. I also like the idea of it being referred to as the unofficial 6th monument (if the quality continues), kind of like the 5th Beatle of one day events.

      • I think in the true sense of a ‘Monument’
        it can never catch up the time as the originals have been dipped in lore that can only be sealed by ageing. There are other races in the classics compendium which might also argue a claim to be a monument, for having been around as long. But maybe the moniker will pass and a new encompassing one will satisfy a definition for the best one day races in times to come.

      • Its not ‘like a monument’ stop that discussion, we can start the discussion in year 2080!

        However it IS one of the most entertaining races all season

        (though parcour is dead easy compared to it’s original the l’Eroica Gaiole event – only the first edition in 2007 was done on the full l’Eroica Gaiole parcour and only the first 3 editions included the Del Bosque climb to Montalcino used in the 2010 and 2021 Giro. l’Eroica is 209km, and TWICE the distance on the white dirt roads)

        It’s just a fabulous race, just like le Samyn is a fabulous race. Neither is a classic or a monument but both are entertaining and races everyone would love to win them.

  5. After the Spring that wasn’t threading this year has been fabulous so far, if racing was called off for the year tomorrow I could live with that.

    It really feels like a golden age of racing

  6. I watched the last 70km and it was very entertaining, up until the last kilometre, when MvdP took it up another notch. I thought he looked a bit cooked but clearly not – a devastating show of power on the final climb. Agree that Alaphillipe was possibly wasting some energy on the run in. A nice gesture to congratulate the winner as soon as he could after crossing the line.
    A great ride, a great read, thank you.

  7. What a great race,and refreshing to see such a mix of specialities at the front. Pidcock was a predictably good recruit for Ineos, but EF’s acquisition of Carr looks really smart. What’s his future?

  8. That attack in the finale by MvdP was just beyond words… taking into account that JA is an absolute generational talent on wall of a climb exactly suited to his freakish strengths and then to have a guy 15kgs heavier than him smoke him like he was barely moving?!? Unbelievable.

  9. For me the ‘6th monument’ is the world championships, just saying. I was in favour of making Strade Bianche longer until they had that wet and cold race a few years ago. If it had been much longer nobody would’ve finished. A third of the race is on gravel, which obviously increases the resistance and it’s not flat with set piece hills like in Belgium, it’s constantly up and down.
    Here’s hoping everyone finds some form or we’re going to be watching a lot of MvdP raising his arms this spring.

  10. A memorable edition of a beautiful race with an exceptionally powerful performance from the winner.

    Thanks for the write up.

    I’m all in favour of sports people leveraging their platform politically, especially when I agree with their politics. But Simmons, on the wrong side of neutral service, the wrong side of the other rider’s wheel and the wrong side of history.

    • Your final paragraph makes no sense at all. It flatly and knowingly contradicts itself. But you feel a better person for having paraded your vapid stupidity and a Quinn Simmons pile-on is always a safe bet so all’s good, right?

  11. A great race – made up of fabulous scenery, a mixed surface route, and a mix of riders you very rarely see in a one day race; TdF/GT winners, the World Champion, Monuments winners, CX World Champions – and all have a chance of making the podium.

    And a useless factoid; all 3 on the podium have medals at off road (MTB, CX) World Championships.

    As for the ‘monument’ discussion; those races are of the time they were instigated; 250-300km were perfectly fine back then – and mustn’t be changed. I’d class them as the ‘Historic Monuments’. However, I’d put Strade into a newer ‘Modern Monument’ classification, if you were to classify it as anything – and it’s current distance is perfectly fine as it is for a modern 21st century race.

    • Nice first couple of paragraphs.

      As for your final lines, well, just have a look to another decent candidate to the title of 6th-(nearly)-Monument, Gent-Wevelgem. Old (before WWII), soon international (right after WWII), *huge* past and present winners.
      You might notice that since it got *revamped*, distance actually got greater and greater during the last decade, that is, while the race also looked for (and got) a more prestigious Sunday spot.
      By the way, the 2021 edition, if run according to plans, will join the longest ever along with… 1977, 1989, 1948, 1988 and 1980. Ye ol’ good times?
      In fact, the shortest editions were the first ones, in the 30s, whereas all the editions since 2014 classify among the top half of a list by course length.
      And I’d also personally add that we’re getting better racing in the very last editions.

      OTOH, the Flèche Wallonne’s shortened recent courses (sometimes because of rules, too) mirror a period of progressive fading lustre which probably started since the 90s. The constant search of a new identity with frequent course engineering can’t move it away from its actual status of a curiosity, albeit interesting (to me, for one) – the world championship of uphill sprinting. However peculiar, there’s no doubt that its status – and the level of fireworks during the race – tended to be higher in the past, with longer courses.

      You might have a look at Liège’s history, too. The *shortest* editions were the first ones, in the 20s and in the 30s (before it hadn’t been held on such a regular basis – even so, the XIX century ones barely feature among the 50 longest editions). Of the 30 *shortest* edition, none was held *after* 1970.

      A similar trend, although with some notable while very limited exceptions for this or that peculiar edition, can be observed in all the Monuments barring perhaps Roubaix, where the need to adjust the course to the presence and condition of cobbles shuffled the cards many times through the decades.

      Lots of editions which feature among the longest, for every Monument, often belong to the 80s, probably the period when cycling’s grew more from a commercial and TV-show POV.

      Frankly, I can’t understand where do all the commonplace fallacies about race length come from. Some pundit or journo freshly landed in the sport? Some sort of behind-the-scene lobbying by lazy pros who loved the Zwift or Wahoo way? 😛
      Those (mis)informations tend to be so distant from actual sport history (with all the sources you can easily check nowadays, just a couple o clicks away…) that they leave me quite surprised.

      • Laurent Fignon had a bit of grumble at La Flèche Wallone’s declining distance alongside its status in his autobiography. Whether he was right or not, I can’t say, but he gave the impression that at least part of the peloton saw the two factors as connected. That could, of course, be related to having ridden in the 80s when distances were, as you say, relatively long.

        • Fanciful theories from me here, but just as I’m pretty sure that whereas course length in Classics is poorly related to racing spectacle or any regular progression/regression in the middle to long term, I’d suspect that some correlation might be worked out with the general socioeconomical and/or political leverage which cycling can exert in a given context, in a given moment.

          Just a random example. In recent years, so many Belgian towns have been craving to have races, whereas in Italy, despite the steady popular support which cycling enjoys, so many majors are rejecting races (even Monuments!) because of shopping days, traffic and the likes: the longer a race, the more complicated and expensive it becomes to manage it, and in a nearly exponential way (schedule becomes less predictable, more and more administrative structure are involved and so on).
          Although Italian cycling industry is living a very favourable moment, and although watching figures stay nice, as at the same time an also growing number of person practices cycling, too, it can’t be denied that the relation between industry or politics isn’t as solid as 25 years ago. The momentum is obviously changing as big sponsors slowly come back, but it will take time. In the while, you’ve got a bit of a headwind if you want to make races longer.

          I suspect that such might be the case in more general terms. When the sport is “more powerful” (so to say), it can stretch events (in total number and length) as it physically occupies the territory, whereas when the sport is under pressure, it can be forced to give ground and fold in every sense.

      • Very good analysis, but they are not about Strada.

        Every successful race needs to balance a unique set of circumstances, length, difficulty or even time of the year to make them “just right” so that they are open. Hard enough that you can’t have big teams close down the race and have some sort of sprint at the end, but not so hard that only a few freak of nature can win it.

        Strada’s length is just right because of the combination of hard finish, gravel, climbing en-route and tricky descents. Any longer you make it less open; LW may needs to be longer because everyone arrives too fresh at the finish and there are too much lead out for the uphill sprint.

        I suppose moral of story is that there isn’t a universal rule which says longer or shorter races are necessarily better. It really depends. The same way both 200+ km TDF and 100km uphill sting Vuelta stages can be boring.

        • Of course, I agree.
          But please note that my comment above wasn’t at all about making Strade Bianche longer right now – it was just about to put into context the (absolutely wrong) idea that “long distance” is the legacy of a very far past whereas it doesn’t believe to modern era. Which is simply false.

          Race distance is surely a complicated matter.
          In fact, it’s quite significant that there are strong differences on the subject even among women cycling advocates, or among women athletes themselves.

          Generally speaking, a certain level of competition besides pure “natural selection” is welcome and it isn’t always compatible with very long distances, depending on the field, team level and so on. At the same time some “natural selection” shouldn’t be left out of the picture.
          Variety through the calendar of Classics, semiclassics and so (or within a GT in the case of stage racing) tends to be paramount, just as it is, for the Monuments, a good degree of course adaptations through the years in order to keep “the spirit of the race” alive, Sanremo or Roubaix being notable examples in that sense.
          Sometimes you might even think that time has come to slightly tune a race course, as it looked like in Sanremo’s case around 2005 or so, only to get a whole different generation in terms of talent, racing attitude and the likes, so that you actually don’t need that much anymore to change the recipe.

          However, if one wanted for whatever reason to tilt Strade Bianche towards a pinch of extra fondo, you always have as an option the solution which most Monument actually go for: add some easier kms at the start, as in… Liége-Bastogne, indeed, before you turn and go back towards Liège.

  12. Rather than considering lengthening Strade Bianche we should be contemplating shortening the other Monuments. Part of what makes SB great is that it’s just 4.5 hrs of full on racing with hardly a dull moment. Imagine a bumpier shorter course to Sanremo or LBL where you have 20 guys fresh enough to attack on La Redoute.

    Whether or not we call it a monument, it’s already better than 3 of the official monuments.

    • Perhaps you didn’t get that what prevents Redoute from being made great again (among other things) is precisely that athletes now get there too fresh, not too cooked.

      • Still the same old supercilious nastiness from you, gabriele, especially when addressing somebody whom you regard as inferior to you – fatherhood hasn’t changed you for the better.

        • It’s heartwarming that despite passing years same old Anonymous miffed commentaries keep sprouting up as Spring comes by. People that remember you – and even care so much about – way more than, say, some casual neighbours or past schoolmates. Moving. Come for inrng’s write-ups, but stay for Anons’ half-baked wit.

    • Why doesn’t San Sebastián merit any monument consideration. I feel like Spain should have a monument. Let’s add three – San Sebastián, Amstel Gold, and Strade Bianchi. Big tent!

      • what youre talking about is more or less exactly what the old UCI Road World Cup was, which seem to be the only person to miss. The monuments plus the other ‘big’ classics of the day – so basically G-W, Amstel Gold, San Sebastian, Zurich GP and Paris-Tours.

    • Milano-San Remo is perfect! The last 15 minutes are probably my highlight of the cycling year: it’s always tense and you never quite know if the riders who got away on the Poggio will manage to stay ahead of the bunch.

  13. Great race! Good comments. Because Wout lack a little bit so he was chasing so many times for so long, dragging others behind him. I’m not impressed with Pidcocks ride, just like in cyclocross not even close to Wout or MVP.

    • What a strange comment. Seasoned pros would give their eye teeth to finish fifth at Strade Bianche, let alone at their first attempt, when they’re 21 and in their first season as a pro. And while WvA and MvdP are better riders, they’re both older, stronger and more mature (and he beat them both at cyclocross this season)

  14. No changes to Strade Bianche please. It’s wonderful.
    If I was to suggest any change at all it would be to include the Monte Sante Marie sector in the women’s race. As the route is now no woman gets to chase her wheel like Elia Viviani.

    • Do you know it HAS been changed?

      The ‘original’ l’Eroica Giaole is 209km and includes TWICE the amount of white dirt roads including the extremely difficult Del Bosco sector/climb to Montalcino which is unlike anything in the current edition in terms of both length, surface and elevation gain.

      Only the first edition was done on the original parcur and only the first 3 editions included Del Bosco. The 2010 Giro included Del Bosco, the 2021 Giro will include it as well. Guess it’s deemed too difficult to be included in Strade Bianche but it would love to see it reintroduced.

      • Of course I know, Morten. Please tone down your partronising somewhat.
        In my opinion they’ve found the right parcours (for the men) now, at least for it’s slot in the calendar. I’d like to see the women turn right after the San Martino sector instead of left. Monte Sante Marie is not Del Bosco, it has it’s own merit.

  15. Watching MvdP detonate tomahawk missiles of each of the last two climbs, but with the control and grace of a ballerina. Gave me goodbumps…!

    • And not since Frank Vandenbroucke has someone looked cooler on a bike. He says he has no interest in collecting the Monuments but I really hope he bags them all, along with his coveted MTB Olympic gold.

  16. Great write up to a great race, especially the mention of Quinn Simmons. I cant wait until I can tell my kids in ten years time, I was there, in front of the TV, watching when MVP hit the nuclear button and did that.

  17. Quinn Simmons likes white roads… haha, i see what you did there mr inrng, clever dig. Well put, nothing further to say on the topic.

    Great race recap as always and your P-N previews have me thinking that this is a “normal” year, thank you for doing this

  18. Half the comments here appears to involve monuments, plenty of other races shpuld be mentioned before: Paris-Tours, Gent-Wevelgem – Donøt even mention Worlds which is ABOVE the five monuments.

    Stop the monument discussion related to Strade Bianche, we can start the discussion in year 2071!

    However it IS one of the most entertaining races all season and it attracts a wide variety of riders and in terms of broadcast coverage it’s also one of the most attractive of the season. It ticks all boxes.

    It’s a fabulous race, Le Samyn is also a fabulous race. Neither is a classic or a monument but both are super entertaining and everyone would love to win both of them.

    As for the parcour: It’s ‘dead easy’ compared to it’s original the l’Eroica Giaole event – only the first edition in 2007 was done on the full l’Eroica Giaole parcour and only the first 3 editions included the Del Bosca climb/sector to Montalcino used in the 2010 and this years Giro.
    l’Eroica is 209km, and TWICE the distance on the white dirt roads.

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