The Moment The Strade Bianche Was Won

Tadej Pogačar goes solo with 50km to go. Nobody could or would follow and this was the moment the race was won.

Even before a pedal was turned many riders didn’t start. Egan Bernal was watching on TV at home, Wout van Aert probably from a hotel outside Paris and perhaps Mathieu van der Poel at a simulated 3,000m inside a hotel room in Spain. Of those who’d intended to race here several were ruled out by a stomach bug, think past podium placer Romain Bardet and likely contender Tom Pidcock.

An early break went and the race had a classic feel to it. Until suddenly as they crossed a ridge and the wind was gusting. Riders began to struggle to hold position and then a stronger blast pushed several riders across the road with Julian Alaphilippe somersaulting over the bars, a rainbow blur and many others were on the ground nursing bad injuries. Alaphilippe would get back but it cost Quick-Step team mates but their team was spared. Alpecin-Fenix lost Michael Gogl, Jumbo-Visma lost Tiesj Benoot.

Add in the crash damage of Alaphilippe and Gogl and for the anecdote and all six of riders who finished ahead of Pogačar last year hadn’t start or were now ruled out. Not that Pogačar was up against a lightweight field but objectively this had to help; we should note he was caught in the crash too.

But going solo? It briefly looked incongruous, like he’d gone too soon. Sure make a move but take some riders with you and either attack or outsprint them later, but solo? Off he went, early on the Monte Sante Marie section of sterrato, the longest portion in the race. The clue that he was all in was Carlos Rodriguez, the Spanish ace was trying to bridge across but couldn’t make it; tactically Pogačar could have linked up with him to share the work but no, all in and solo.

Eddy Merckx in his pomp looked potent, all cheekbones and sideburns; Bernard Hinault had that snarling menace about him. Pogačar? A cherub with tufts of hair poking out of his helmet who you half expected him to pull a Kinder Bueno out of his back pocket rather than a gel. Yet here he was riding away solo.

The chase group look beaten for a good while despite its size. Movistar and Lotto-Soudal did some work but it wasn’t a full pursuit, this kept the gap between a minute and 90 seconds and rival squads didn’t have plenty of riders to deploy in the chase. With Rodriguez eventually reeled in after a big effort, a solid chase group formed behind with Quinn Simmons, Jhonatan Narvaez, Kasper Asgreen, Alejandro Valverde and Tim Wellens.

Wellens had a go solo but Asgreen seemed the most persistent and eventually it was just him and Valverde left after the final Tolfe section of dirt roads and in the finish Valverde rode away to take second place, his best result in the race after two third places and other top-10s.

The Verdict
Shades of Paris-Roubaix with Fabian Cancellara in 2010 and Tom Boonen in 2012 as with 50km to go the winning move had gone, a solo rider was clear and the suspense dried up in the final hour. But they did those moves in their favourite race, seeing Pogačar pick of another one day race shows more range, nobody else from Jebel Hafeet last week or any of his rivals in this summer’s Tour would try such a thing and if Pello Bilbao, third on that summith finish was a creditable fifth today, it was down to economy more than extravagance.

Like the Coppi-Merckx-Hinault eras this was impressive to record but not thrilling to watch in the moment. Still there was the scenery to enjoy is always pleasant although if you thought it looked nice, visit between May and October when it’s ten times better. Plus the gap did go down towards the end, Asgreen’s chase did at one point raise the possibility of Pogačar coming back but the feeling was fleeting and there was a big contest for the other places.

Pogačar was so far ahead wiser heads were asking what races Pogačar can’t win? That list has to be brief, the Scheldeprijs for example. Races that trumpet his presence might come to regret it if today’s modus operandi becomes a fixture. But that’s unlikely, let’s remember he’s in top condition at a time when most don’t want to be. The UAE Tour is so important for his team that it’s a peak when for many other stage racers it’s a test or even a training camp; and for all the classics riders they want to be in top form a month from now and not today. Good luck to those trying to beat Pogačar in Tirreno-Adriatico next week… and on the Poggio too? It’ll be interesting to see if UAE keep kicking sand into the faces of Jumbo-Visma, Ineos and Quick-Step in Paris-Nice too.

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

    • I watched it (Barney Ronay’s article provided inspiration and some much needed light humour) and was glad I did.
      I’d add that Pogacar’s (and indeed Roglic’s) almost season-long durability are also another (Merckx-like?) quality which I’m not sure Inr Rng has appreciated fully here?

      • I did enjoy Adam Blythe’s Johnny-on—the-spot query in commentary yesterday that the crush may have been caused by “natural wind”.
        After Peter Sagan’s recent observations about the lack of youthful respect and a consequent decline in hygiene standards in the peloton, perhaps this was another example, where a terrible pasta / energy gel & drink mix gaseous explosion caused resultant havoc?
        No one has yet come forward as the culprit but, as the saying goes, “he who smelled it, dealt it”.

  1. Strade Bianche had everything today – a veteran champion trying to fill a hole in the palmares, the world’s dominant team coming under initial pressure and then eventually claiming victory, tension buidling coming into Siena and then a thrilling sprint to the finish and a well-deserved winner.

    The men’s race, on the other hand, was as dull as ditchwater.

    • In fact, the men’s race looked a lot like some more or less recent stereotypes about women racing (not speaking of being dull or so, rather of field depth, very few riders dominating on every terrain, “too commanding” performances, astonishing superiority, lack of competitiveness and so on)… and the other way around ^__^
      The final wheel on wheel, shoulder to shoulder duel between Lotte and Annemiek was truly compelling. I also liked better women’s Omloop.

  2. A few initial observations:
    1. On the way back to Siena there were stretches of tailwind. Had there been headwinds Pog probably would have sat up, worked with the pursuit, and attacked on the final climb.
    2. 30th, 13th, 7th, 1st. About as close to inevitable as you’ll get in this game. He should still have another 2-3 years before peak.
    3. missed van Aert, maybe the only one who could’ve given Pogacar a race today. Not that I think it would have made a difference.
    3. Somehow I am reminded of Alex Ferguson, after Wembley 2011 when mighty Man United emerged shell-shocked from the bunker, who said something like “sometimes you simply have to doff your hat and applaud.”
    4. Valverde! Sure, take away the gravel and this is LBL lite, but still.
    5. Competition-wise not so exciting,but a spectacular race and a spectacular performance (which correlates inversely with competitiveness)

    • 3. And the other “van”, of course. But I guess you’re speaking of a “more possible” scenario, a “closer” alternative universe, so to say.

      As I aldo wrote below, I also really missed more “strength in numbers”, that is, a higher number of really strong competitors, who, albeit inferior one by one, could perhaps mount a harder opposition working together, as it sometimes (or “often”) happened to, say, Boonen, Cancellara and probably even Sagan.

    • Valverde sucked the life out of the chase group of him, Quinn Simmons, Jhonatan Narvaez, Kasper Asgreen, and Tim Wellens by sitting on. He was racing for a podium place, not the win.

      I predict he will continue to suck the life out of Movistar by postponing retirement again next year.

      • Maybe I was watching different coverage but it seemed to me that Valverde was working about as much as Simmons and Narvaez, though more later in the break. The odd one out was Wellens, who was either sitting on or trying to break away. None of them had the urgency of Asgreen, perhaps because, as events would show, Simmons and Narvaez were already full gas. Valverde was holding something back, but clearly felt he was not catching Pogacar on a day like this, and better to salvage something than lose all. Those 250 points for Movistar will be valuable in the relegation scrap and the most he could realistically have gotten.

  3. “…any of his rivals in this summer’s Tour would try such a thing…”.

    Bernal, 3rd here last season, would – or at least I think so, given that he actually did, and more than once (last time, during his very last race before the accident, at the Vuelta).

    Which makes it all even sadder.

    The race was all a bit of QED when checked against my commentary about Pa-Ni preview.

    If you just take some of those huge riders away, there’s a clear lack of middle to high class competitors, and an ongoing generational shift.
    Valverde is a monstre in terms of genetical assets, but this year he’s 42. It’s a little absurd that he’s the one coming closer to steal the victory from Pogi (and he didn’t even come *that far*). At the same time, 50% of the top ten is made by riders born in 1997 or later, that is, well before their supposed prime (which, despite the general surfacing of golden boys, still sits clearly after 25 in statistical terms).
    At the same time, Wellens or Bilbao look like as well-known forces, one can’t see huge progress waiting ahead for them, which leaves us with only Asgreen and Petilli to represent a growing maturity of sort.
    The impressive performance of Simmons and Carlos Rodríguez, impressive athletes, yet still 20 or so, three years younger than Pogi (!), reinforces such a sensation.

    However, Pogačar made it as exciting and memorable as he could. He put his immense winning chances at risk taking the harder course to victory, and indeed probably came as close as he could to losing. He could have easily waited for Colle Pinzuto to avoid a long team chase which forced him to go too deep while the rest was saving energies. On several hard sections during the finale and approaching it, it looked like puntual effort by this or that chaser could take down large chunks of time. And if it wasn’t for Valverde’s attitude (clearly going for the safest possible 2nd place), a concerted chasing effort by the strongest group which formed behind, could have implied a real danger.
    He hadn’t such a weak team, even: two teammates as Ulissi and Covi consistently up there in the very selected 25 men peloton isn’t that bad. Only INEOS had a comparable firepower, whereas Quickstep, Movistar, Lotto or Bahrain got rapidly worn out fighting against circumstances.
    If he waited for Le Tolfe or so we might have *felt* that the race had had more suspense or had been more open, but it would have been a misleading sensation, a cognitive fraud of sort, given that the race would really have been even more deterministic than it ended up being.

    It was sort of a gratuit and arbitrary show which only added up to the race. I just hope this van-der-Poel-esque doesn’t end up exacting that same sort of early price too soon (but the level of the rivals, indeed, helped in making Pogi’s effort a little more “reasonable” or “moderate” – huge inverted commas required, of course).

    • Apart from the what if Van Aert, Van der Poel and Bernal had been healthy and present, there is the what if the crash hadn’t causes Alaphilippe and Valverde and their team mates to spend so much energy chasing? Or what if Pogačar, instead of being the top rider to escape with the least damage to his race, had been forced to chase?

      Top Ten:
      Tadej Pogačar 1998
      Alejandro Valverde 1980
      Kasper Asgreen 1995
      Attila Valter 1998
      Pello Bilbao 1990
      Jhonatan Narváez 1997
      Quinn Simmons 2001
      Tim Wellens 1991
      Simone Petilli 1993
      Sergio Higuita 1997

      I won’t ask anyone to pick the odd one out, but I’d like to point everyone’s attention to Attila Valter who was “the best of the rest” and quite possibly rode to the best result of his career in a high cachet race. He isn’t likely to begin snapping up wins, but I find his performance remarkable and expect him to be more visible in future races.

      • Attila’s long been one to watch – albeit not of the most glaring kind, more the sort of stealth pick by careful observers – and his pink spell last year just proved what many saw coming. At FDJ, expect an appropriate gradual growth… with a slight risk of stalling or growing stale along the way.

  4. Love Pogacar and his style! He loves to race and when he races, he always goes hard. Plus, he doesn’t pick the same race schedule template from other GC riders and it leads to some great results like this one.

    Hats off to him, the sky is the limit for this guy!

    • Bernal was 3rd in this race. I think this race is still rare for Froome era GC, but not that rare for current GC leaders. Roglic could probably do well if the road surface is smoother.

    • What’s interesting to consider is why Pogacar jumped at 50 km to go?
      Was it a pre-race plan, a DS suggestion or instruction, a feel for his rivals’ physical conditions, or something more base; a surge of youthful swagger?
      I think that’s why he’s enjoyable to watch at this point in his short career so far, he defies cold cycling logic and just goes for it.
      Which must also make it a nightmare for opponents to guess or read his intentions, unsurprising that no one else followed him yesterday. It looked the wrong thing to do.

      • Reportedly, he had planned a forcing on Monte Sante Marie because “there’s where the race usually takes shape”. Besides, he felt that a longer section was where he could put more pressure both on more explosive rivals and heavier ones (who often took the final win here against climbers, no matter GVA’s opinion).
        I’d add that he prepared the uphill surge with a downhill risky acceleration, in order to stretch the group and limit immediate close-range reactions, so it was no pure chance at all. Remember that he had already raced here 3 times.
        Also note that he didn’t think much about letting C. Rodríguez join him, which might suggest he liked the solo better.

      • I’m wondering when riders are going to realise that cycling’s tactics have changed. When a strong rider goes on one of these long-range moves, you have to go with them. Or the group behind has to learn that they must work together.

  5. “Still there was the scenery to enjoy is always pleasant although if you thought it looked nice, visit between May and October when it’s ten times better.”

    Very true, but from the air? There was a great helicopter take around 66 to 64 to go, beginning with an Imola-style ridge lateral view.

  6. “Like the Coppi-Merckx-Hinault eras this was impressive to record but not thrilling to watch in the moment.”
    “Races that trumpet his presence might come to regret it if today’s modus operandi becomes a fixture”.

    With a changing media context (mainly verbal narrative media as in radio and newspapers vs. TV), the effect of Coppi and Merckx couldn’t have been more different.

    The former’s era fostered cycling’s economic growth and internationalisation, the latter, after an early positive burst, saw declining interest and TV coverage loss in several countries – not in Belgium, of course – which led to national isolationism in the early 80s (imagine what we see in Portugal or Venezuela today, with strong local movements which depend on local sponsors, dominate some local races, but rarely cross borders… and apply that to, say, Italy).

    Cycling faced a terrible economic crisis which was overcome thanks to the opposite but equally useful contribution of isolationism, at first, and then the necessary internationalisation.

    What’s incredible is that in athletic terms Merckx’s was actually a golden era of cycling, as Coppi’s for sure, with a relevant number of top level rivals who, despite Merckx’s presence, could win enough to be considered among the best in history thanks to their gross victory score, no need to adapt to the Merckx factor: just think Gimondi (probably among the ten best ever in absolute terms), De Vlaeminck (arguably the strongest classic rider ever among pure specialists), Freddy Maertens (probably the most dominant rider ever seen, although for a short period), Zoetemelk (impressive consistence and longevity, if you think Valverde is going long, just check Joop), Ocaña (brutal all-around strength, Merckx’s true nemesis), and other all-time great figures like Tarangu, Baronchelli, Moser, Bitossi, Van Impe etc. etc.

    Several victories were hard-fought and sometimes Eddy even lost some, although most of the times you needed a DNS. But in sheer quantitative terms it was probably… just too much.

    It must be said that times changed again. Comparing the early 90s and the 2000s, it looks like that modern public is fond of serial winners, with an addiction to new historical records all the time, as if one needed the statistical confirmation to be sure you’re watching a true champion, the all-time best (all the time) and so on, which all became apparently more important than the actual level of competition.

    • Interesting, though I suspect worldwide economic factors played more of a part in cycling’s overall status as a business than did the achievements of each era’s dominant riders. Coppi rode thru an era of post war relief, gradually turning to opptomism and outright boom. Merckx caught the tail of the boom but operated in an an era of domestic unrest and strife over-shadowed by a hardening Cold War.
      As an Anglo, I like to draw a direct line from successful Anglophone riders of the 80s, (coupled with an excellent TV highlights package for the first time), to the British success this century, but suspect it couldn’t have happened without the sustained economic boom that ended with the 2008 crash. Cycling tried to use that boom to attempt its suspect globalization programme, but got lost in inevitable win-at-all-costs rampant capitalistic extremes.

      Unfortunately, I suspect cycling history may look back at the current era as a golden age as the sport is forced into decline due to global economic retrenchment and a new (hopefully) Cold War coupled with the ever increasing insular Nationalism we have seen in recent years.

      • Of course I agree, yet we’ve got enough specific information to know that Merckx was a factor, for instance as far as Giro coverage was concerned. Same goes for Armstrong and the Giro decline in the early 2000s. Or think the role of Anquetil and Poulidor to grant the rise in status for TdF: as you say, post war boom made the resources available, but a couple of national champions and their rivalry made it reasonable to invest greater and greater amounts in the race (also note the switch to commercial partners).

  7. What’s so good about this race is that both GC 3 week riders and classics specialists can win it. This is a unique scenario that makes the race head and should above nearly all other 1 day races.

    (That’s before you consider the scenery or gravel aspect.)

    • Liège and Lombardia. Although both have been lacking a more serious presence of cobble riders (as a subcategory of classics specialists) for the last 15-20 years.

        • By default, “the race which everybody can dream about winning” is open to any kind of rider, and historically that was more of an empirical truth, indeed, yet I’d say that the result you name says much more about Nibali than about the race, given that he’s been the one and only GC rider able to win or podium there – plus two further top-10, besides that victory and 3rd place – in the last *quarter of century*. Now a significant percentage of the total 112 editions of the race.
          Alaphilippe is still far from being an actual GC man.
          I hope Pogi will change that, too, but I’d call for some slight course change in order to stay loyal to the race’s own tradition. Vegni was radically against that, defending Sanremo is now definitely the sprinters’ Worlds and a cobble men race, if anything.
          However, we can’t complain too much about race quality in recent years (within its peculiar nature), hence I sure can’t say that changing its course is an urgent task.

  8. Impressive!! And what’s even more impressive is, he got the gap on a descent, on gravel – to use a MTB analogy, he ‘Sent it’. No taking it easy on loose surfaces, he just went, and kept increasing the gap….

    Apart from pan flat sprint stages, it’s hard to see what type of races he can’t win. He climbs, ITT, can descend, and has a decent sprint….the full all round road racer.

    I dare say he’d be competitive in a MTB XCO World Cup on the right course……

  9. As is often the case I’m probably in a minority of one but I can’t believe that with what we now know race motos are allowed to remain 10-20m ahead of the solo leader at speed, and closer than that on climbs, for extended periods.

    Almost surreal to watch Pogacar in extended head-on footage while Rodriguez was largely shown from beside or behind. I can’t help thinking people will look back and think some of these events were reduced to little more than exhibition races.

    Although the race was won definitively and by more than half a minute, any outside influence that makes it harder for a chaser to close an initial gap, or puts the leader that few more seconds ahead and thus out of sight, casts at least a slight shadow over the credibility of the result. At least to me.

    In my view close head-on coverage of the leader, breakaway, chasers and/or peloton should be consigned to history.

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