Race Breakdown: Mathieu van der Poel trounced the world’s best riders across the gorgeous Tuscan landscape and blew away the survivors with a blistering attack and entered the Piazza del Campo alone to win the fifteenth edition of Strade Bianche. The blindly beautiful green countryside contrasted with the ochre summer-fried look we got the last time we visited the region in August.
World champ and Tour winner
The reigning World Champion, Julian Alaphilippe, and 2019 Tour de France champion, Egan Bernal, were the only two riders who could stay with Van der Poel after his searing attack with 12-kilometers to go. This impressive attack dropped the rest of the front group, which included the best riders in the world. Last year’s winner, Wout van Aert, despite looking like the strongest rider in the field mid-race, cracked with 12-kilometers to go and finished in a disappointing 4th place.
The Tuscan setting sparkled and Strade Bianche once again proved to be one of the best races on the calendar despite its relatively recent addition to the WorldTour.
Tuscany – Not too shabby
● Van der Poel proved he has the necessary tactical skill to win against the best racers in the (almost) biggest races. He sat back while Van Aert burnt himself out on the front and methodically pared down the group until he felt confident he could win on the final pitch. He is proving to be the best one-day rider in the world at the moment.
A powerful display from Van der Poel
● It isn’t clear if he was bluffing or legitimately in trouble when he appeared to be struggling to hold position between 70km-50km-to-go, but I was very impressed by his ability to meter his efforts and do just enough to make the front group until he was ready to start paring it down to a field he felt comfortable sprinting against. For a rider who has won with brute strength in the past, this was an impressive display of tactical finesse.
Still finished 4th in his first road race of 2021
● Interestingly, Wout van Aert was nearly dropped at almost exactly the same point in last year’s race as Van der Poel was this year, and both would go on to win. And as I pointed out in the race notes, Van der Poel tried to launch a race-winning move at the same point in the race as Van Aert did in 2020.
● I had thought the relative weakness of the Alpecin-Fenix team could hold Van der Poel back at Flanders and Roubaix, races where team strength is much more important, but they had three riders in the first two groups today, so perhaps they do have the strength to keep Van der Poel upfront and in position later this Spring.
Wout van Aert – Disappointed?
● Wout van Aert and his Jumbo team looked incredibly strong throughout most of the race, especially considering he just came off an absurdly difficult three-week training block at altitude in the canary islands, and in my race prediction on Friday, I thought this might blunt his top-end at Strade.
● Ultimately, this is a good showing for his first race of the year and he is clearly targeting Flanders and Roubaix later in the Spring.
● Bernal and Pogačar’s performances were incredibly impressive. No Tour de France champion has ever won this race, so the fact that Bernal was in a position to win with under a kilometer to go is fantastic and shows he is back after a disappointing 2020.
Pidcock – Great things to come
● Pidcock has had a very impressive week and he proved at Strade that he is the real deal. His 5th place finish is amazing for a 21-year-old and portends great things to come.
● Bernal appears to be recovered from the back issue that plagued him in 2020 and we can officially start penciling him in as a challenger for the overall at the Giro d’Italia. It is worth noting that Stage 11 of the Giro feature many of the same gravel roads that Bernal just thrived on.
Bernal – 3rd not bad for a Tour winner
● Ineos, a team that has long struggled with results in one-day classics, was the only team with two riders in the front group today. This is a great result for them, but it is interesting the one-day breakthrough has come from a rider who joined the team just a month ago, Tom Pidcock, and a grand tour leader, Egan Bernal.
● In the past, Ineos has attempted to develop classics-specific riders internally, but any promising prospect would end up setting pace in the Grand Tours instead of focusing on the Classics. It is fascinating that we have come full circle and one of their Grand Tour leaders is now getting better one-day results than a generation of Classics specialists on the team.
● To illustrate just how deep this field was, the final front group had riders ranked 2nd (Pogačar), 3rd (Wout van Aert), 5th (Alaphilippe), 6th (Van der Poel) in the Pro Cycling Stats Rankings. In addition to this was Tom Pidcock, 4th at 2021 Cyclocross Worlds, and Egan Bernal, winner of the 2019 Tour de France.
Michael Gogl – Surprising 9th
● Michael Gogl, who had a surprising 9th place here in 2020, impressed again by making that final front group and placing 6th. This is a huge result for his small;-budget Qhubeka ASSOS team and shows his breakout season in 2020 wasn’t a fluke and that he could be playing in the finales of these major one-day races for years to come.
● The top-ten supports the theory that the shift towards younger riders is here to stay. Jakob Fuglsang, in 9th place, was the first rider over 30-years-old.
Big effort for Mathieu
● Ultimately, I thought Van Aert was on the front way too much and it ended up costing him in the end. This is a chronic issue for him and it will be interesting to watch this bad habit for the rest of the Spring. I actually had this same thing in my race notes about last year’s Strade Bianche. He would go on to win that edition, but frankly the competition today was deeper and sharper today versus 2020.
● Greg van Avermaet made the front group, only to be dropped when things got serious with 50km-to-go. At 35-years-old and without a race win since 2019, it seems like the Olympic Champion is struggling to keep pace with the younger generation.
Not a bad ride from Quinn Simmons
For Further Consideration
● Before we start the discussion of whether Van der Poel is the second coming of Tom Boonen, I want to see if he can hold this sparkling form and also how he will perform at the significantly longer Milan-Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix. Remember, by the time Boonen was Van der Poel’s age, he had won three Monuments (including two consecutive Flanders titles), so Van der Poel would have to win two Monuments this season just to get even.
● Despite Pidcock’s impressive performance, the argument could be made that he wasn’t the most impressive young rider in the race. 19-year-old Quinn Simmons forced the first major selection, only fell out of the front group after a flat, and chased back onto the second group on the road. Ultimately his day ended when he went off the road with 19km-to-go in a corner, but it is hard to deny this was a highly impressive outing for the youngest rider in the race.
● Setting aside Bernal’s success on the day, it is strange that Ineos didn’t Bernal to Paris-Nice. He could have won the race and it would have served as better preparation for the Giro d’Italia.
Paris-Nice Stage 1: Gilbert Makes Things Interesting
Sam Bennett won the opening stage of the seven-stage Paris-Nice with an impressive sprint win over other world-class sprinters like Arnaud Démare and Pascal Ackerman. Démare finished a distance second-place, while Mads Pedersen, fresh off a big win last week at Kuurne-Brussells-Kuurne, came in third, proving he is still building form and further cemented his status as a Classics contender with a legitimate sprint finish.
Another win for Sam Bennett
● On paper, the stage was slightly dull and produced a formulaic sprint finish, but there was an interesting moment with 53km-to-go when the peloton got too close to the lone breakaway rider, and Philippe Gilbert attacked out of the main group and bridged up to the lone leader after being joined by a few other riders. This group was caught with 26kms-to-go, but small groups kept popping off the front as the sprinter’s teams struggled to control the race.
Life in the old dog yet
● The mid-race attack by Gilbert signals he is feeling incredibly strong and taking every opportunity to log hard training kilometers with less than two weeks to go before Milano-Sanremo. We seem to be heading towards a fantastic showdown where the old-timer will get an opportunity to fend off the upstart Van der Poel to complete the mythical Monument Sweep.
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #