Five talking points from Strade Bianche 2021
Van der Poel’s astonishing attacks
From the cobbles of the classics to cyclocross circuits across the world, we’ve already seen Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) do many impossible things on a bike. But today in Tuscany, he produced something the kind of which we’ve never before seen from him.
Whereas a lot of his success on the road so far has been primarily a result of his huge engine and ability to go long, today’s victory at Strade Bianche was based on two sudden, jaw-droppingly powerful accelerations.
The first came on the final gravel section, when the Dutchman got out of his saddle, upped the cadence, and obliterated the other six riders remaining in the lead group.
After a few minutes to get their breath back, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) managed to join him, but were both again left helpless when Van der Poel did exactly the same thing on the final climb to Piazza del Campo.
The fact that Julian Alaphilippe, a rider whose punchy kick has been peerless for the last few seasons, could not even come close to matching these accelerations demonstrated just how powerful they were. Cycling has never quite seen the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, and he continues to find new ways to astonish us.
Van den Broek-Blaak continues late-career purple patch with another Classics victory
For all the talk of Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), their Dutch compatriot Chantal van den Broek-Blaak has lately been just as prolific in the major Classics.
In just her third race since winning the 2020 Tour of Flanders towards the end of last season, Van den Broek-Blaak was again victorious today at Strade Bianche, attacking 6km from the finish in a move that was reminiscent of the solo attack she made to win the former race.
Although she has generally been seen as a supplementary rider to help set up attacks for team-mates like Anna van der Breggen, today she looked like SD Worx’s strongest rider throughout the race. Prior to her race-winning move, she’d already gone up the road on two previous occasions, firstly as part of a small, dangerous group that broke clear early on that also featured Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) and Mavi Garcia (Ale BTC Ljubljana), then later again with Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo).
Despite all these efforts, she still had the legs to attack 6km from the finish, once again with Longo Borghini on her wheel. Then on the final climb, despite not usually possessing as strong a punchy finish as the Italian, she managed to win the two-woman uphill sprint for victory.
The result made for another great day for the Netherlands, as Van der Poel’s victory in the men’s racing meant the exact same two Dutch riders who won last year’s Tour of Flanders were again triumphant today.
Diverse groups of extraordinary talent show why this is one of the year’s best races
One of the things that makes Strade Bianche so special is how, more than any other race on the calendar, it seems to appeal to every kind of rider.
In the men’s race this was the case this year arguably more so than in any previous edition, as a group of extraordinary quality formed the crucial selection.
Classics specialists Van der Poel, Alaphilippe and Van Aert were joined by Tour de France winners Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), along with prodigious youngsters Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) — plus 27-year-old Michael Gogl (Qhubeka-Asos), who must be recognised as a breakthrough talent to keep up with this lot.
With an average age of just 24, it was also notable for its youth, with Alaphilippe finding himself in the new situation of being the elder statesman in the group.
The nature of women’s racing, which is less specialised, means we’re more used to groups of this quality going clear together, but even then the talent at the front of the race was a sight to behold, with the SD Worx riders being joined by Van Vleuten, Borghini, Vos, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope), Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and, before an unfortunate mechanical, a very impressive Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal). The only major name missing (apart from the sprinters) was Lizzie Deignan, who did not start after coming down with a cold.
SD Worx triumph as Deceuninck – Quick-Step falter
The early signs this spring were that SD Worx and Deceuninck – Quick-Step would once again be the dominant teams in the women’s and men’s peloton respectively, but whereas the former put on another masterclass in Tuscany today, the latter were surprisingly below par.
With Demi Vollering in sixth, Van der Breggen third and Van den Broek-Blaak winning, SD Worx riders accounted for half of those in the top six, and they really made their numerical advantage count once the selection was made. While none of their rivers were necessarily the strongest in the race, together they were an unstoppable force, and worked well to shut down attacks from other riders, most notably a very dangerous-looking move from Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar).
There was no such cohesion in the chase when their rider, Van den Broek-Blaak, went up the road with Borghini, allowing the duo to go clear. Even then the team had another card to play, as Van den Broek-Blaak had the option of citing her team-mates in the group behind as an excuse not to take any turns, forcing Borghini to do all the work in the run-in to the climb, only to pass her in the sprint. It was a merciless tactic, but a very effective one that saw her and the team claim victory.
Deceuninck – Quick-Step would have been hoping for a similar show of numbers to counter the threat posed by individuals such as Van der Poel and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), but they were surprisingly absent at the business end of the race. Davide Ballerini and João Almeida both suffered mechanicals on the dirt roads, which might partly explain why they went missing, but you’d usually have expected the likes of Kasper Asgreen and Zdenek Štybar to have been more involved.
That left Alaphilippe isolated in the lead group, with Ineos Grenadiers outnumbering him with Tom Pidcock and Egan Bernal both present, and even Qhubeka-Assos and Alpecin Fenix possessing more riders in the chase behind, which was also devoid of any Deceuninck – Quick-Step riders.
Alaphilippe was nevertheless nearly able to win the race all by himself, only losing out to the might of Van der Poel. It might have been a very different race if he’d have had more team-mates to help him, however.
Monument or not, winning Strade Bianche is a huge deal
As is becoming an annual phenomenon, this year’s Strade Bianche was preceded by a debate over whether or not it should be considered as the sixth monument.
While opinions remain divided and no consensus has been struck, one thing that is for sure is that it’s a race the riders hold in great esteem, as shown by the competitive racing, and the celebrations at the line.
“It’s one of the races I really wanted to win”, said Van der Poel after claiming victory, and though his punches in the air upon reaching the finish line didn’t quite match the ecstasy with which he greeted confirmation of his Tour of Flanders photo finish last year, it was still the celebration of a man who knows he’s just pulled-off one of the best and biggest wins of his career.
Similarly, the hugs Van den Broek Blaak exchanged with her team-mates at the finish expressed powerful emotions, and her own celebrations would no doubt have been more vigorous were she not so clearly exhausted.
So long as the riders keep turning up and racing as hard as this, and so long as the dirt roads keep helping the brilliantly entertaining racing, it won’t matter what the official status of this race is.