First of all, Zdenek Stybar was highly touted as a pre-race favorite but it was still an impressive performance we saw in Siena yesterday. Coming into the finale he was in company of two riders who frankly have more of a palmarés than he has but in the end he didn't just play it smartly, he was probably the outright strongest on the day. The three approached the final climb with slightly different races behind them. Greg van Avermaet was the one who had raced most aggressively during the day, following and even initiating some probing attacks along the way without ever getting much separation. Valverde on his part was the guy who looked most invested in keeping the pace high in the final 10-15 kilometers for whatever reason.It might have been team loyalty as Movistar had done a massive amount of work to make the race for Valverde. It was an uncharacteristically active Valverde and in the end it may have cost him the win because the man who looked quietly confident was always Stybar.
In the early parts on the long gravel sections Stybar was an active protagonist making the big selection happen. At that point when the group also included the other favorites, Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, he looked like an outsider at best though. In the three man final selection when they approached that final hill he was clearly the most relaxed and calculating. Maybe he's had it all along since the CX days but these days at least he really has one of the most impressive bursts of explosive power in the peloton. He didn't go first and he panic and blow himself up when van Avermaet attacked. Instead he did what we almost assumed Valverde would do, he gradually closed the gap while keeping just enough in the tank to continue the push over and just after the crest of the climb. Where the Belgian almost came grinding to a halt after the top Stybar had the momentum to keep going just long enough to sweep past the eternally unlucky GvA and with that it was game over. You could say he was stronger than the BMC rider but also wonder if it just wasn't just as much better pacing and smarter riding. It can't just be a coincidence that GvA keeps ending up in these second places?
The whole race, apart from being good racing in itself, also offered lots of interesting angles for the classics to come. The enigma so far remains Sagan. Last year he wasn't as dominant as we have come to expect (Expect!? From a 25 year-old!) and the noises from the Tinkoff camp have all been about a man about to re-ignite this season and claim all the big wins that have been expected from him. Early signs seem troubling though, not least after yesterday when he faded out of the picture earlier than anyone thought. Still winless, it can't have been reassuring for the results oriented chiefs on Tinkoff-Saxo (Drunk Uncle Oleg) when he was dropped unceremoniously by guys like GvA and Vanmarcke, neither of whom should be at an advantage on these roads. Last year he was clearly above everyone else here, except for Kwiat. That did not look to be the case yesterday. Now either this a cleverly designed scheme to actually be peaked for the the monuments and go for the big wins or it's a sign that whatever troubles he had last year that took him down a peg to "very very good" from "supernova" are still there. If they are it spells trouble, because Uncle Oleg is paying for Supernova, nothing else.
As for Cancellara who also faded there may be more easy explanations. He's just come off a bit of illness and he also had a bunch of puncture problems that may have cost him a bit. Cance looks fitter than he's done in a long time so I'm assuming he will be fearsome in a few weeks. Yesterday he never looked really fully in the race, if you can say that about a guy who made the elite selection and finished top 20. He was loitering at the back and never really looked his commanding self. Commanding was instead the word for Sep Vanmarcke. No way did I think he would be a factor here but the man is on some roaring form and only had to surrender to gravity at the very end. And even then he was pigheaded enough to keep going. It all bodes for beautiful things in the classics if he can hold on to form.
On the sadder side the rough roads and fierce winds claimed their victims too. Most notably poor Simon Gerrans who was just returning from a collarbone break only to crash again and break his elbow. Doesn't seem too bad and it's unclear how long he will be sidelined. It would take a bit of luck I would think though if it isn't to affect his all-important Ardennes races. Another injury that may have an impact is Trek's Jasper Stuyven who suffered bad roadrash and a deep cut that required surgery to clean out. Should it affect his classics campaign it might be bad news for Cancellara as well. Much like previous years his Trek support looks pretty slim and losing a rapidly developing Stuyven would be a blow.
All in all it was a good but perhaps not great edition of the race. It had great racing but it didn't have a smackdown/showdown featuring two such prodigious talents as we had last year with Sagan & Kwiatkowski. That had us thinking we had seen the future of cycling, this just had us thinking we might have seen a future great spring campaign for Stybar and Etixx.
Showing us the future this time were instead the women who made the very most of their first edition of the Strade Bianche. While we didn't see their race the excitement was palpable from pretty much every corner of social media when they took the start early in the morning. Much like the men's race the race was split open for real as the race turned north on the long gravel sector at the halfway point. A group of 10-13 women formed that would contest the win. Rabo/Liv, Boels and Bigla all had cards to play there and again it was this years dominants Boels-Dolmans who held trumps. Sending Megan Guarnier, their perhaps strongest climber, on the attack from far out put them in the driver's seat once again in a race.
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It was a move that could have set up her teammate Lizzie Armitstead for a win as the others had to chase but the fighting Guarnier was instead able to hold on and take a deserved and popular solo win while Armitstead once again mopped up second place in the group dash up to the square in Siena. It's a role she may play more times than she's perhaps comfortable with in this stacked Boels squad but for now I think she is happy to play along as long as keeps winning as much as she does herself too.
The conclusion of the race has to be that as expected this is pretty much the exact race that the women's calendar needed. It was selective and elevated a slightly different cast than we are used to seeing. Megan Guarnier and fourth placed Moolman are riders who have very few other chances to really shine and it was good to see them for once able to put the dagger to some of the endlessly competitive rouleurs in the peloton. We need more of that, not less to get a more diverse peloton. Hopefully RCS saw this as a successful trial run and will make this a returning event. In the end it will of course be a financial issue and I wish I could say this was a slam dunk in terms of exposure but as usual it didn't look as easy as that. Social media yes, it was a remarkable success and it must have had a tremendous penetration as far as those channels reach but mainstream media might be more limited. We got racereports in the usual places, RAI showed the good summary above but I wouldn't say it got so much more coverage than races that don't run parallel to a men's race. I thought for instance that we would have rare race pics to publish but that didn't happen. In the end it's hard to gauge what the RCS considered the measurement of success for this thing. If it was the sporting quality then from what we can see it was a huge success, they even got a podium place for the premiere Italian rider Elisa Longo Borghini which has to help. In terms of exposure who knows what they were hoping for, hopefully they were realistic. There is something tremendously strong to build on here and with any luck they will see that and look for ways to make the race even more visible and not just see it as a short term cost.