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.
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 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?