Returning to the cool conditions of early spring this year, the 2021 Strade Bianche marks the start of the Women’s WorldTour and an early chance for the new and reshuffled teams to make an impression in the increasingly competitive field. The seventh women’s edition of the young ‘Classic’ – which throws up dramatic images of riders shrouded in the dust clouds kicked up on the gravel roads of the Tuscan hills – could potentially deliver a three-time winner if defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) gets her way.
We take a look at the prospects of the European champion to extend her winning streak and the riders who’ll be most likely to stand in her way.
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As a rider who has won the past two editions and has the ability to take victory on just about any terrain, there is every reason for all eyes to be on Annemiek van Vleuten. Plus, after starting with a rare misstep at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, her first race with new team Movistar, the European champion has even more reason to want to log that first victory of the season.
Last year, when it looked like Mavi Garcia (Alè BTC Ljubljana Cipollini) had the race won with a solo attack, Van Vleuten bridged across to the chase and went on to catch the Spanish rider. Garcia worked valiantly to try and hold Van Vleuten’s wheel to the end but had no response to an inevitable but decisive attack in the steep final kilometre. In 2019, she got away earlier, on the 18 per cent slopes of the eighth and final gravel sector about 12 kilometres from the line, to take victory. Van Vleuten is the only repeat winner at the women’s event, which is heading toward its seventh edition. Given the race plays to both Van Vleuten’s time trial and climbing strengths, it seems there is every possibility of lifting that tally even higher this year.
- Team: Alé BTC Ljubljana Cipollini
- Age: 37
The solo attack and well-deserved second place at last year’s race make it inevitable that Mavi Garcia’s name will be on the tip of the tongue when talking about potential contenders. The 37-year-old Spanish rider not only impressed with her 40-kilometre break in the 2020 edition, which at times looked like it could well net her victory, but also with the tenacity and strength she displayed to stay in contention when caught by the powerful Van Vleuten.
That Strade Bianche was also far from the only impressive performance of 2020 from the rider who joined the pro ranks from duathlon in 2015. She claimed both Spanish road titles, a second at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, two stages and second overall in the Tour de l’Ardèche and a top 10 on the overall in the Giro Rosa.
The double world champion is one of the rare riders who already has a victory to her name in 2021, securing the win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with her solo to the finish in Ninove. That early victory is unlikely to dampen her enthusiasm for more, as given she is in her last season as a professional cyclist before retiring. It will be her last chance to take another victory at this prestigious event and even the tally with regular rival Van Vleuten.
She won in 2018, and even her very worst result when crossing the finish line at the Piazza del Campo in Siena still put her within the top 10. The question, as always though, is which card will the power-packed SD Worx play. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was yet another perfect demonstration of just how spoilt for choice they are and after losing the top spot on the Women’s WorldTour team ranking to Trek-Segafredo last year, they are bound to want to start on the front foot in 2021.
Joining SD Worx, which usually fronts up to races spoilt for choice, is a move that Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio has said will give her more latitude to risk everything to win, and Strade Bianche is often a race that favours the brave. The new esports world champion has finished as high as fourth at the event, taking her best result in the first women’s edition back in 2015.
The South African rider also has a couple of top 10 results in recent years but with the responsibility of being the sole team leader, and cautious racing removed perhaps, we will be more likely to see her using her climbing ability to its best advantage and racing up that final steep ascent into Siena at the front of the pack.
- Team: Trek-Segafredo
- Age: 29
Elisa Longo Borghini stood on the podium during the very first edition of the race, won in 2017, and has placed in the top five every single year except 2019 when she didn’t line up because she had the flu. The proud Italian rider revels in the home race and, as her results demonstrate, it is one that suits as the steep final climb and tricky run into the line pretty much guarantee it won’t come down to a group sprint. That’s a good thing for the rider who tends to get shuffled back in a bunch finish and is far more likely to get the opportunity to throw her hands into the air in victory at the end of a solo effort.
The 29-year-old rider also has another former winner on her team, Lizzie Deignan, and the power of Ellen van Dijk, who has a top 10 of her own. They’ll provide handy alternatives for Trek-Segafredo as well as support for Longo Borghini. She is the rider most likely to be jockeying for the podium as the race works its way through the final thin and winding stretch of the historic course, that finishes at the centre of the powerful Renaissance city of Siena.
So close so many times, Kasia Niewiadoma is well overdue for a break that sees her make it all the way up to the top step of the podium at the race over the white gravel roads of Tuscany. The 26-year-old came second in 2016, second in 2017, second in 2018 and third in 2019, but while she thrives in the tough and hilly conditions, and tricky descents, she’ll be glad to say farewell to the heat that came with the later time-slot last year. Overheating in the hot Tuscan conditions in 2020, she was forced to abandon. However, she was far from the only rider to suffer in the heat, with only 45 riders finishing within the time cut.
This year, with the early forecast for temperatures reaching 12 degrees Celsius and a 50 per cent chance for rain, the scene is set for a return to those podium appearances and perhaps even that illusive win.
- Team: Team BikeExchange
- Age: 33
The leader’s mantle at the Australian-based team has been passed to Amanda Spratt with the departure of Van Vleuten, and with good reason. The 33-year-old rider has been a consistent performer at Strade Bianche – with two top-10 finishes to her name – and she’s got what it takes to do well on the punchy ascents and steep final climb. Plus, she’s got a formidable squad behind her, the same team that helped set Van Vleuten to victory the past two years, and she won’t be the only option.
Lucy Kennedy is actually the rider from the squad with the highest result in the race, having placed fifth in 2018 in her first year on the Australian-based squad. In the same year, now teammate but then Alè Cipolinni rider Janneke Ensing, rolled over the line in sixth and then came Spratt in seventh, her best result at the event so far.
- Team: FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope
- Age: 25
The 25-year-old Dane, despite her young age, has four years of top-10 finishes in the race behind her. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is still hunting for her first victory on the Women’s WorldTour and this is a race that definitely suits her punchy style, plus she has the stamina to outlast most of her rivals in the race through the Tuscan hills. She has a solid team behind her, including the handy gravel rider, Brodie Chapman, and the 21-year-old French rider Evita Muzic, who won the final stage of the Giro Rosa last year.
Fortunately for the French squad, which pulled out of the GP Le Samyn earlier this week because of a suspicion of COVID-19 within the team, said on Twitter that this wouldn’t prevent them from being at the start of Strade Bianche as the group for the Italian race was quite distinct.
Marianne Vos will start and deliver her debut road race with her new team at Strade Bianche. It’s a race that has so many elements that suit her, from the gravel surfaces where the seven-time cyclo-cross world champion’s bike handling skills stand her in good stead and those punchy hills where she can put on such a powerful turn of pace.
The Dutch rider, with the most impressive list of wins in women’s cycling, hasn’t managed to break into the top five at Strade Bianche yet, with sixth last year, seventh in 2019, and 17th in 2017. Except for the COVID-19 interrupted year in 2020, the races were her first road event after her post ‘cross season break, but with the cancellations during the early-season calendar this year she won’t be alone in not having done much road racing yet.
The German rider was the first leader of the Women’s WorldTour last year, starting out with a win in Australia and then holding the youth classification lead right through to the end of the COVID-19 interrupted year. The young rider already has two top 20’s at the Strade Bianche to her name.
Lippert’s ability to use the climbs to launch an attack – which netted her that first Women’s WorldTour win at the women’s edition of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race – could also work to her advantage at Strade Bianche. In fact the 16th place she got last year, despite suffering an untimely mechanical just as the race was taking shape, shows just what a threat she could be at this race if everything falls into place.