The unofficial sixth Monument, one of the most beautiful and elegant races in the cycling calendar – and my second favourite race of the year. Yes, it was Strade Bianche, and edition 13 went mano a mano … a mano with Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) going under the flamme rouge together on that magnificent final climb into Siena’s main square. While the men had to duke it out on the final kilometre, Annamiek Van Vleuten (Michelton Scott) time trialled her way to a solo victory in the women’s edition of the race. A fantastic achievement considering that she is coming off a broken kneecap from last year!
Rider(s) of the RaceEmbed from Getty Images
As we saw last year, Wout Van Aert is almost made for this race, but for that final kilometre. He handles himself with aplomb, using his cyclocross skills to his advantage on those gravelled roads, and he has the race instinct to know when to go with the danger move. Last year, he followed Romain Bardet, this year he followed Fuglsang with 23km to go – Alaphilippe quickly made it three and they were off. He stuck with the duo for about 10km but another Birdsong dig uncoupled him from the lead pair. But when you get dropped by Fuglsang and Alaphilippe, where do you go? No man’s land, that’s where – but Van Aert worked to keep the gap to about 30sec while he regrouped.
With the larger, disorganised group over a minute behind him, he had some space and he used it wisely. When the lead duo starting to consider their individual options as they were nearing Siena, he rode hard to catch them – and go right past them, at least momentarily. They let him take them into the climb before exploding past him, but he was only ever going to get third in that group. But hot damn, he’s getting all that experience in his legs, he’s getting all that valuable knowledge of the race and the finish … surely it’s only a matter of time before he’s on the top step.
Meanwhile, in Astana aqua, Jakob Fuglsang was riding strong and fluid over the gravel, making all the right moves, including the one that split the race, and keeping one of the most explosive riders in his place (at least until the last minute). The Dane had the sun on his back today, looking like he could do no wrong, certainly looking the stronger of the pair on the steep inclines in the final 20kms. If he could have distanced Alaphilippe just a bit, he would have been off like a rocket and we would be celebrating the first Dane to win Strade this evening. In one of the closest finals for a few years now, he matched Alaphilippe until the Frenchman found that final acceleration in the final few hundred metres to take the win by just two seconds. It might have been second, but it was a sterling performance by a rider who, in the past year or so, has been racing with enormous confidence. And, as we can see from his comments after the race, with a lot of grace as well.
But it was, in the end, Julian Alaphilippe‘s day. Once the peloton was out on the road, you had to wonder how this was his first ever Strade Bianche, as it looked like this race was created to showcase his talents. With Lady Luck on his side, he didn’t suffer mechanicals or punctures that would put him out of position. He followed all the right moves – when the peloton split and he was in the first chasing group with his teammates Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar, he kept out of trouble and very much at the front, keeping the dozen or so riders working together to further distance those behind and to pull back the lone rider in front (Diego Rosa). And LouLou is a rider who is not afraid to work with a rival to distance everyone else in order to put himself in a race-winning position, confident enough in his own ability to take it to the wire.
Today, that talent and confidence made him the first Frenchman to win this race. It won’t be the last time we see him on that podium in Siena.
They who hesitate lose and Annamiek Van Vleuten‘s performance today proved this. The race was fast, it was feisty and it was only in the last 17km that the big split was made, with 11 riders taking the attacks to each other, one after the other. The final gravel sector of the race brought an opportunity for Chantal Blaak and Janneke Ensing to go clear of the group, only to falter on the steepest part, giving the alert Van Vleuten the opportunity to catch, clear and conquer as she kicked into time trial mode, quickly racking up the seconds as the chase group hesitated. They never saw her again as she crossed the finish line 37 seconds in front of Annika Langvad, who was followed in a few seconds later by Kasia Niewiadoma.
Men’s raceEmbed from Getty Images
1 Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) 4:47:14
2 Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) +0:02
3 Wout Van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma) +0:27
4 Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) +1:00
5 Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) same time
6 Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) +1:01
7 Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) +1:04
8 Simon Clarke (EF Education First) +1:08
9 Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) +1:12
10 Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) +1:21
Women’s raceEmbed from Getty Images
1 Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton Scott) 3:48:49
2 Annika Langvad (Boels Dolmans) +0:37
3 Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-Sram) +0:40
4 Marta Bastianelli (Team Virtu) +0:44
5 Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Bigla) same time
6 Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv) +0:51
7 Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) +0:52
8 Janneke Ensing (Sunweb) +0:54
9 Anna Van Der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) +1:28
10 Chantal Blaak (Boels Dolmans) +1:50
For full race reviews, see cyclingnews
Header image: ©GETTY Images/ Velo/Tim de Waele