Tom Pidcock finally looks back. He’s been away for the best part of 50km and much of it solo. With 10km to go it seemed his time was up as his lead was reduced to around ten seconds. Only he didn’t give up and he didn’t even seem to look back, all while the chasers behind couldn’t commit between them.
A bright sunny day, no gloopy gravel nor gusting winds. The early breakaway of the day saw Alessandro De Marchi (Jayco-Al Ula), Sven Erik Bystrøm (Intermarché) and Ivan Romeo (Movistar) got clear, all solid riders and if we know De Marchi as a breakaway specialist, it was a chance to see 19 year-old neo-pros to watch Romeo on the attack.
Early there wasn’t much else to write home about, except for the achingly beautiful course. The race styles itself as “the most southerly of the northern classics” but this strapline could be blunter, think “the most beautiful of the classics” because of the rolling hills, the Montalcino vineyards and all those old farmhouses and villas. Although if you think it looks pretty in March, come back on a warm day in summer and it’s twice as good.
The sporting action picked up on the approach to the Monte Sante Marie sterrato sector, an 11.5km slog with several lengthy climbs. The Strade Bianche is a relatively new race and the peloton is still feeling how to race it, establishing the reference points and learning to spot patterns. Monte Sante Marie is becoming the place where the action goes down; it was where Tadej Pogačar went solo last year. This time you could see teams in train formation trying to pace their leaders into the best position for the start of the sector.
The first damage on the sector was the sight of Romeo losing contact with his two companions, presumably a parting moment of sweet sorry for the Movistar rider. Moments later Alberto Bettiol sprang out of the bunch and Andrea Bagioli and Tom Pidcock soon bridged across. Bettiol as a diesel workhorse made sense launching this far out, he can’t wait for the final sprint; Bagioli covering as a team mate for the likes of Alaphilippe seemed wise too. But Pidcock attacking from here? It looked like he’d ordered a bistecca fiorentina without knowing just how big the portion was. In his own words later on “that wasn’t the plan” but in the moment any questions were soon settled when Pidcock doubled down dropped the two Italians on a descent.
One of the attractions of this race – and they are legion – is that the final hour just isn’t too tactical, the course quickly reduces the number of contenders. The chase group behind Pidcock only saw a few teams with more than one rider; including Ben Tulett – and briefly Magnus Sheffield – for Ineos; Groupama-FDJ had Valentin Madouas and neo-pro Romain Grégoire making an amazing debut, Bahrain had Pello Bilbao and Matej Mohorič. Even Jumbo-Visma were down to just Attila Valter and Tiesj Benoot.
Pidcock going solo was a surprise. One thing he lamented during his cyclo-cross campaign last winter was that he just doesn’t have the brute force of Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel. So seeing him in time trial mode here was a surprise; you’d think he could surf wheels and use his lightweight build, handling skills and punch to perfect use on the final climb into Siena. Only there’s more to him and he was carving the gravel descents like a Super-G skier; behind rivals were visibly more cautious and some ill-at-ease, like skiers effecting snowplough turns.
Mathieu van der Poel briefly led the chase but his powerful attacks seemed nervy, he could accelerate but couldn’t press on. Soon he was on the wrong side of a split as the group fragmented and from then on his day was done. Instead the chase had Madouas and Grégoire, Valter and Benoot, Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) Andreas Kron (Lotto-Dstny), Davide Formolo (UAE), Pello Bilbao and Matej Mohorič (Bahrain).
Pidcock caught the two leaders and Bystrom didn’t last long. De Marchi was a passenger for longer but on the unnamed Sector 9 sterrato you could see him trying to shake his quads as if they were cramping and sure enough on the next rise he couldn’t follow. Finally Pidcock was in the lead solo.
With 20km go Pidcock had 20 seconds, the gap was falling, but only just. Pidcock wasn’t wilting, his upper body was beginning to rock more but his feet were spinning like he was riding the rollers. He just kept going and danced up the final Le Tolfe sterrato. Behind big moves by Tiesj Benoot and Attila Valter chomped into Pidcock’s lead, and with 10km go he only had 10 seconds – something confirmed with a stop watch, it wasn’t the TV graphics going haywire – but these chase moves also thinned the group which was down to Benoot, Valter, Madouas, Rui Costa and Mohorič.
Like the last openingsweekend Jumbo-Visma had numerical superiority but only just this time. They’d didn’t seem to be using it as well. If the victors get to write history, the losers risk having bloggers writing about them. This time Jumbo’s tactics didn’t work, but rather than blasting them for it, with hindsight we can probably say they were doomed because had Valter taken some monster pull to reel in Pidcock, we saw for real in Siena that Madouas proved stronger than Benoot. This time Jumbo-Visma were going to get beaten. The chase was a typical stand-off, each rider wanting the gap to be closed but needing to keep something reserve. Pidcock began to extend his lead in the streets of Siena, 10s, 15s and 25s by the time he started the final climb at the Fontebranda gate. He was clear while behind the chasers risked being swamped by the closing peloton but they held on to contest the podium places.
A thrilling edition held in spring sunlight. Tadej Pogačar’s romp a year was impressive but the suspense vanished once he got an infallible lead. Tom Pidcock launched in about the same place but it was all so different this time. There was tension all the way to Siena as he never had a big gap and it looked like he was going to be caught. But he never gave up, he protected his 10 second lead while the chasers supplied tension, trading attacks and cracking rivals but never quite able to get the breakaway back. Pidcock joins the likes of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel as a Strade Bianche winner, that feels logical. And yet he still seems impossible to catalogue as a rider, today’s ride also hints at more range too. We’ll see in the coming weeks.