Rejoice! The women’s WorldTour season is about to begin! And with one of the most exciting races on the calendar too. Nothing says “it’s time for big-time racing” like the white dirt roads of Tuscany. It feels like just yesterday the peloton was restarting the WorldTour season in the blistering heat of the Italian summer. In fact, it was only a few months ago that Annemiek van Vleuten came out of seemingly nowhere to pass the breakaway and continue on to victory in the Piazza del Campo.
This year’s Strade Bianche was looking like it would be a muddy extravaganza, but as we draw nearer to the event the weather predictions are more subdued. With a 24% chance of rain and temperatures averaging 54°F/12°C, the weather may not be as much of a factor, but for the sake of epicness, viewers at home can hope the original weather predictions come back around.
Starting and finishing in Siena, the 136 km course features eight sectors of gravel ranging from 1.1 km to 9.5 km in length. The peloton will encounter their first dirt experience 17 km into the race while the last comes with 13 km to go. In total the women race 31.4 km of gravel.
There are six noteworthy climbs on the course, although the entirety of the course is like a bread knife, with rare opportunities to take your mind off the efforts. The first climb that will significantly impact the makeup of the peloton comes midway through the race and is on gravel, the San Martino in Grania. This section is up and down and lasts 9.5 km, the longest of the gravel sectors.
The Colle Pinzuto near the end of the course is where we could see the tactics heat up. Leah Thomas will remember this section from the time a spectator, trying to give her a push after she dropped her chain, actually knocked her off her bike in 2020. It became a major talking point after the race.
Finally, the 500-meter long 13% climb to the finish along a narrow cobbled street is where the race has seen it’s most dramatic moments. Last year, Mavi Garcia looked like she could almost top the then-world champion Van Vleuten, only to get distanced on this final test to the line.
Because of the challenging nature of the final kilometre, the race tends to come down to a lone leader. Megan Guarnier, who won the first edition of the race, finished 37 seconds ahead of her then-teammate Lizzie Deignan. The following year Deignan won by three seconds over Kasia Niewiadoma. 2017 saw the smallest margin of victory ever when Elisa Longo Borghini beat Niewiadoma by only two seconds.
The riders to watch
With the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the legs of the peloton, and now that we’ve seen the live stream of the opening cobbled event for the first time ever, there is some indication of the riders that will contend at Strade Bianche this year. A lot of the names are the same as years before. Maybe it’s because the professionals love Strade Bianche, and once on the podium the race will forever be a target.
Kasia Niewiadoma, Canyon-SRAM
Kasia Niewiadoma has been on the podium four out of the last five years but has never stood on the top step. At this point, if she were to win, the whole peloton would probably want to give her a hug (although the UCI would prefer they didn’t). Strade Bianche is Niewiadoma’s penguin. They should go together, but for some reason, it’s never worked in Niewiadoma’s favor. She’s been within 2 seconds of throwing her arms in the air, so close, yet no dice.
In a press release on the team’s website, Niewiadoma voiced her continued aim of winning the Italian one-day: “This is the year to win Strade Bianche. I’ve been targeting this race for so many years.”
“I’ve got a lot of different scenarios in my head of how we can win this race,” Niewiadoma said. “I want to feel like I’m in an attacking mode. I want to gain my confidence knowing I can decide how I want the race to go.”
Niewiadoma rode well at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where her teammate Hannah Barnes finished fifth in the sprint. The race in general should bring confidence to Canyon-SRAM and will hopefully propel Niewiadoma to the Strade Bianche victory she has always dreamed of.
Elisa Longo Borghini, Trek-Segafredo
Elisa Longo Borghini, who won Strade Bianche in 2017 and was third in both 2015 and 2018, will be a fighting factor in Saturday’s race. The Italian was aggressive at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, attacking multiple times in the final 20 km. Although her moves were fruitless, the effort did not go unnoticed. Those kinds of tactics are better suited for a race like Strade Bianche, where one must always have one foot forward to win.
Longo Borghini will also be the out-and-out leader of Trek-Segafredo, given her form at the Omloop and with Lizzie Diegnan absent from the start list.
Anna van der Breggen, SD Worx
Winner of the 2018 edition of Strade Bianche and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad just a week ago, Anna Van der Breggen is the favorite to cross the line first on Saturday. The world champion was dominant in Belgium, setting a pace on the front of the peloton that split the race into pieces and then heading off to win alone with 14 km to go.
Van der Breggen seems like she is on another level of fitness than the rest of the peloton. Perhaps because it’s her final year of racing, and she wants to throw everything at it.
The course and style of Strade Bianche also suit Van der Breggen perfectly. She is a tactical master with the form to back it up, making her the biggest threat on the start line.
Additional SD Worx riders who could throw down include Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (her first race with her new team) and Demi Vollering (especially after her impressive performance in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad).
Annemiek van Vleuten, Movistar
After a disappointing start to the 2021 season, Annemiek van Vleuten will be keen to show off on Saturday. The defending champion of Strade Bianche for the last two editions, Van Vleuten has yet to win a bike race in 2021. Granted, she has only raced the one so far, but by this time last year she was already rolling in victory medals.
Having been a “rider to watch” for every race she’s started since 2016, Van Vleuten has the physical and mental ability to win Strade Bianche this year. There are, however, a lot of unknowns about her form at the moment. It seems unimaginable that someone of Van Vleuten’s ability would get caught out like she did at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. All the more reason to keep one eye on the action and one eye on Van Vleuten on Saturday.
Another Movistar rider to keep an eye on is Leah Thomas. Thomas was third last year in Strade Bianche after making it into the breakaway and then recovering from the incident mentioned above.
A few other names to think about …
Amanda Spratt (Team BikeExchange), who finished Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the lead group, could factor in Saturday’s race. It’s unclear as of yet where her form is, but the rolling hills of Tuscany could give more insight into that.
Jumbo-Visma has yet to throw Marianne Vos into a road race, but it’s fitting the Dutch superstar will start her road season with the first WorldTour event. She has finished sixth, seventh, and 17th in previous editions.
Although Mavi García had a phenomenal race last year at Strade Bianche where she finished second, her form is unknown in 2021. Her new teammate Marlen Reusser, however, was very active in Le Samyn on Tuesday. Reusser had an impressive 2020 season and may not be a favorite for the victory on Saturday, but could play an active role in the race.
FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope has two riders to watch on Saturday: the fan-favorite Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and the home-country favorite Marta Cavalli. Ludwig is always aggressive and entertaining in the hilly races and will no doubt continue her ways on Saturday. Cavalli, on the other hand, was able to hang onto the peloton as they climbed the cobbles in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and finished ninth on the day. Strade Bianche is one of her favorite races. In fact, you can hear her talk about it on Friday’s episode of Freewheeling (stay tuned).
How to watch
Strade Bianche will be available to watch live on Eurosport and GCN+.