If you are so stubborn as to deny the season-opening significance of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, well have I got a curtain-raiser for you... Saturday’s 16th(ish) running of the Strade Bianche Classic. Nicknamed the “southernmost northern classic,” the Strade Bianche is the sport of cycling’s hippest new sensation, a race which evolved from weird, handlebar-moustachey cosplay theater to an event of Monument-level respect and admiration in about the time it takes a terrier to eviscerate a squeaky toy. Of course, few terriers and their squeaky toys have the marketing cachet of the Chianti region of rural Tuscany, which is why we watch this race and not dogs tearing up stuffed lambs on TV. And despite its newness, the biggest things in the Strade Bianche word cloud are “sixth monument,” and now “Tadej Pogačar.” Because as much as the race’s stature has been on the upswing, the world’s most important rider is poised to kick that to another level.
A glance at past maps and the official description of this year’s course suggests that the route is identical to 2021. If it ain’t broke, don’t interrupt your awesome Tuscan life stylings to fix it. There are still 11 sectors of white gravel roads totaling 63km of dust in your face (get on the front if you don’t like it). Importantly, the race includes the same distance and the same rhythms, with punchy climbs slowly wearing out the lesser riders and making for many potential places to launch a race-winning (or losing) attack. The weather is expected to be cool and relatively dry, although rain today and tomorrow may keep the dust down and make for a slightly faster race than past editions.
In other words, previewing this race is next to pointless in terms of the course. It’s the race you always thought it was. Who wins is just a conversation about the riders and teams.
The headliner — literally, in this case — is the appearance of Tadej Pogačar. Now 23, the UAE leader and double Tour de France champion is making his fourth appearance at the race and finished seventh last year, following a 13th place in 2020. He is quickly becoming something of a Merckx-like patron of the peloton, which is remarkable considering the sport is awash in historic talent. There are a lot of articles listing a lot of riders who could possibly win this race — past winners like
Wout Van Aert [NVM, he’s in Paris] and Julian Alaphilippe and Tiesj Benoot, or Pidcock or Valgren or Van Avermaet or Valverde or Wellens or Fuglsang. The articles all boil down to “maybe they will win, maybe they won’t.” With all due respect, it’s not a very interesting topic.
What is interesting is Pogačar, and whether he is ready to colonize the classics after having taken full control of the stage racing realm. The Strade Bianche has been won exclusively by guys with little in the way of stage racing palmares. Exactly two grand tour winners have ever graced the podium in Siena, and one of those is Valverde, whose stage racing chops are limited to whether the Vuelta wants to hand him a win.
The other is Egan Bernal, who took third last year. The fallen Colombian star made it to the finale with Mathieu van der Poel (also not starting this year) and Alaphilippe, before watching van der Poel rocket up the slopes of Siena’s old city like he’d been shot out of a cannon. Bernal went on to win the Giro d’Italia, and otherwise looked like the former Tour winner we hoped to see, after back problems and all the other 2020 weirdness set him back.
Bernal’s presence at the head of the race should give Pogačar fans/FSA DS owners a huge boost of confidence regarding tomorrow. After all, Bernal was the youngest Tour winner since 1909, before Pogačar came along a year later and lowered the age bar by half a year. Anything Egan can do, Tadej can do better? Sure. And that is why Pogačar will win Strade Bianche.
Too simplistic? OK, fine, I agree, but there is nothing more anyone can say about who will have that extra gear tomorrow apart from naming all the riders who have looked strong in the last two weeks. Van Aert is the other obvious pick, [UPDATE: or would be, if he were here] but just as he was able to get free of the pack in the Omloop last week, so too was Pogs able to scamper up the Jebel climbs in the UAE Tour to dispatch his rivals. Wout’s win was more impressive, given that he had to make his escape stick with 12km of solo riding, but whatever, the Strade Bianche course finishes after a climb, and unless Pogačar has company and can’t handle the tight turns into the Piazza, then his UAE performance is a perfect preview of what he can do tomorrow.
The real issue here is whether being a grand tour winning type of cyclist is really the full package of skills needed to win this race. Pogačar has a few classics victories to his name, including last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Giro di Lombardia editions — the two monuments most closely associated with grand tour winners. The other three have tended to exclude the climbers, but oddly enough of the three it is Milano-Sanremo that has seen its share of the grand tour greats break through for the win — Nibali, Bugno, Kelly, Fignon, Moser, Merckx... it’s not a lot, but they aren’t extinct from the rolls. And sure, none of those particular grand tour winners is nicknamed “the Eagle of [wherever]” but they do prove a point, that the greats can be great in the classics.
The Ronde van Vlaanderen is the race that feels most like the Strade Bianche: punchy climbs and rough surfaces. So does that tell us anything about grand tour guys? Flanders is often raced by the May and July contenders but rarely with much gusto; more like guys doing cobbles handling stress tests in years when the Tour goes up near Lille. Rarely has a grand tour winner shown up atop the Flanders podium; just Bugno and before him Merckx, with Kelly and Moser taking minor placings. Only Nibali and Armstrong and Valverde have even been caught sniffing around the front of the race lately.
But de Ronde is not a good comparison to the Strade Bianche anyway; it is something like 80km longer, riddled with bruising attacks, and punctuated by endless 90 degree turns, which inflicts a completely different rhythm of stops and starts that in no way resembles a grand tour mountain stage or even a medio montagne event. So the lack of climbing stars winning Flanders tells us very little about what could happen with Pogačar this weekend. Even the shorter events in the Vlaamse Ardennen, like E3 whachamacallit, don’t help us, thanks to the same stopping/starting thing. And the stars of summer don’t deign to ride it anyway.
So what race out there can give us some insight?
- Paris-Tours? Oddly enough, the final hour has some resemblance and includes rough roads, but no finishing, selective climb.
- Gent-Wevelgem? Not unless you have it finish on top of the Kemmelberg.
- One of the Italian fall classics, short of Lombardia? Maybe Coppa Bernocchi? The Giro dell’Emilia is tempting because of the finish, but that race climbs quite a bit more than Strade does.
- Brabantse Pijl? Now maybe we are talking. The final circuit includes some short, punch climbs, and since it’s Belgium I am confident that the course contains a requisite number of 90-degree turns. But it’s not as dependent on them as De Ronde, and the finishing kick is a 1.3km power climb to top off the race. Nothing as steep as the 12% half-km climb to the Piazza del Campo though. And of course how many grand tour contenders take the start at Brabantse Pijl? Not enough, that’s for sure.
I am at a bit of a loss here, and maybe the answer is simply that Strade Bianche is a one of one. If it is, then history tells us that only Egan Bernal was able to break through and become a grand tour winner who makes it into the business end of this race. And like I said, if Egan can do it, Tadej can too. That is why he is my pick to win.