At his third time of asking, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) stormed to victory at Strade Bianche after a 13-kilometre attack on Saturday. The Belgian rider upgraded his two third place finishes, beating Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) and Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) to the line at the Piazza del Campo in Siena.
“Today was one long day of suffering and nobody felt that great. The heat was exhausting but I really focussed on hydration and keeping cool and, in the end, I got something left,” said Van Aert.
“I really fell in love with this race two years ago and it was my goal to win. I’m 25 and I’ve already done it. I’m really happy.”
In contrast to previous years, the coronavirus pandemic meant the Piazza del Campo was almost silent as he crossed the line with his hands in the air. It took nothing from a fine performance from Van Aert, who showed he had made the most of this uncertain time in world sport.
Van Aert was part of a select group of riders when he decided to make his move on a downhill section with 13 kilometres remaining. He knew all too well from previous appearances at the one-day race that you could lose a lot of time on the final rise to the line and an advantage over his contenders could only be a good thing.
The gap over the chasers was never that large for Van Aert but he paced himself perfectly and he there was no repeat of his 2018 cramp problems, a potential issue in the Siena heat. Formolo and Schachmann looked as if they may have the Belgian in their sights at one point, but he utilised another downhill section to keep them behind as he approached the finale.
“Maybe there was not really a guy that I had to be afraid of in the last uphill but I think the attack is always the best offence,” Van Aert said.
“I knew from the previous edition that attacking is never a disadvantage here and I started attacking in a downhill and came with a little advantage on the steep part. From there, it was a man-to-man fight and it worked.”
How it unfolded
Despite the onerous heat – 36°C was reported at the start – riders were keen to go on the attack from the start on the 184km race which featured 11 sterrato sectors of varying lengths and difficulties.
The main break established itself over the opening 20km, with Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) leading the way. The Swiss rider was joined by teammate Nicola Bagioli, Quentin Pacher (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), Iuri Filosi (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè), Corné Van Kessel (Circus-Wanty Gobert) and Benjamin Declercq (Arkéa-Samsic).
Astana led the peloton a minute further back, working for last year’s runner-up, Jakob Fuglsang. By the fourth sector of sterrato, things had broken up in front, with Pellaud going it alone, 30 seconds up on his companions.
By the 60km mark, the peloton had knocked off the pace, leaving the break to extend their advantage to 3:30 at the fifth sterrato sector. The chasers didn’t last much longer out front, with the peloton bringing them back at the sixth sector shortly after the climb to Montalcino, just over 100km from the finish.
The peloton upped the pace shortly after, drawing Pellaud back to within 30 seconds. Astana continued to set the pace at the head of the peloton, while a handful of big favourites suffered bad luck just after the feed zone. Both Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) punctured, while Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) was involved in a crash.
Simon Clarke (EF Pro Cycling) had ventured out alone heading into the second longest sterrato sector of the race, the 8.8km Monte Sante Marie at 55km to go. He left behind a thinned-out ‘peloton’ of only around 20 men before being chased down by a group of four on the gravel, before the main group came back got back to the front shortly after.
Monte Sante Marie saw the peloton fall apart, with 2019 runner-up Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) emerging out front, yelling at the leading camera moto for kicking up dust in front of the group. The Dane was chased by seven men – Van Aert, Formolo, Schachmann, Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), and Michael Gogl (NTT Pro Cycling).
The front group pushed their gap out to nearly two minutes with under 40km to go, as riders also took an opportunity to take one last fill of water bottles and food to sustain themselves to the finish.
A chase of three riders emerged with Zdenk Śtybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Brent Bookwalter (Mitchelton-Scott) and Michaeel Gogl (NTT Pro Cycling), who fell back from the initial lead group on the gravel sector.
The trio partway closed the gap to within 1:30 and looked committed to making the full bridge as the five riders up front settled into a rhythm. As the gap closed even further to 1:06, however, the chase broke apart with Stybar pushing ahead and then seconds later followed by Bookwalter.
Following the next gravel sector, Schachmann made a strong attack with Van Aert quickly jumping on his wheel over a short climb. The two cleared the front group with just a few kilometres before reaching the foot of the Colle Pinzuto sector that included a 15 per cent climb at the end.
Fuglsang bridged across to Van Aert and Schachmann, as did Bettiol and Formolo, while Van Avermaet was distanced and later passed by Stybar and then Bookwalter.
Bettiol made a powerful move on the first short climb, kicking up dust behind him, and although he gained a few metres, Van Aert pulled him back into the fold.
The last gravel sector, Le Tolfe, was the opportunity Van Aert was waiting for to launch another huge attack on the 18 per cent climb that led back onto the tarmac with 12km to go. As the gap to Van Aert grew uncomfortably large, Schachmann put on a chase with Bettiol, Formolo on his wheel, while Fuglsang was distance in the flurry of late-race efforts.
The three chasers powered over the steep city-street climbs, and eventually losing an exhausted Bettiol, but could not manage to close the 17-second gap to Van Aert.
Van Aert, comfortable in a time-trial-like position, with his arms resting on his handlebars, powered through the final three kilometres knowing he had the race in hand. All the Belgian had to do was ride up the deserted final climb into Siena town centre and into an equally empty Piazza del Campo to claim the victory.