Top 10 Riders to watch at the Strade Bianche

Top 10 Riders to watch at the Strade Bianche

Pogacar, Van der Poel, Pidcock and Alaphilippe among the big names ready to compete in Tuscany...

Only six months after the (delayed) 2020 edition took place, this year's edition of Strade Bianche is back in its original calendar spot this Saturday.

Whilst it's only the 15th edition of the Tuscan race - famous for its white gravel sections - the Classics newcomer is already among the most prestigious races on the calendar. While not a 'peak' race like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, it's still hotly contested and attracts a stellar line-up year after year.

It's no different this year, with a star-filled start list that includes no less than 4 x  Grand Tour winners and 8 x Monument winners, plus many more big hitters too...

See below for Avenir's Top 10 picks to keep an eye on during the 184-kilometre race, which starts and finishes in Siena, Tuscany.

Mathieu van der Poel

Mathieu Van Der Poel

  • Team: Alpecin-Fenix
  • Age: 26
  • Race record: 15th in 2020

The Dutchman struggled last year and took time to find his best form on the road but he heads to this year’s edition of the race as the rider to beat. The win in the UAE Tour, his flamboyant ride in Kuurne, and his heroics in Le Samyn all suggest that the Dutchman is flying right now.

His tactics may have been surprising at times but he can back himself from almost any scenario. The ride in Kuurne ended in disappointment but, as we noted in our conclusions, Van der Poel was only a few brushstrokes away from looking like a genius.

Strade Bianche will need a different approach to what we've seen already and it will be interesting to see how many of his teammates can survive into the latter phase of the race. Losing Silvan Dillier, who broke his collarbone at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, was a major blow but there’s depth to this squad and they've stacked their team with riders utterly devoted to their leader's cause.

Wout Van Aert

Wout Van Aert

  • Team: Jumbo-Visma
  • Age: 26
  • Race record: Defending champion, never been off the podium

He hasn’t raced on the road in almost five months but everything – from his previous record to his recent Strava times – suggests that the Belgian will be a force to be reckoned with this weekend. Van Aert’s the perfect athlete for a race like Strade Bianche, with his cyclo-cross skills, raw power, and acceleration almost unbeatable.

Last year he was untouchable in the race and then carried that form through the rest of the season with wins at almost every turn. If he can hit the ground running then expect a similar run through Milan-San Remo and the rest of the spring.

It's worth noting that his team needs a performance from one of their leaders right now. George Bennett's national championships win and Jonas Vingegaard's victory in the UAE were great and will have sparked morale, but having a leader impose himself on a WorldTour race of such magnitude will spread genuine confidence through the entire squad.

Tom Pidcock

Tom Pidcock

  • Team: Ineos Grenadiers
  • Age: 21
  • Race record: Debutant

The British squad arrives with a fired-up Egan Bernal and a bruised but capable two-time winner in Michał Kwiatkowski, but it’s Pidcock who draws the attention after his impressive debut at Belgium’s Opening Weekend.

Saturday marks another first for the young all-rounder and will likely see him given a protected role within the squad. The course looks perfect for his aggressive nature and this will be another test of his tactical maturity. He was brave enough to admit publicly that he didn’t employ the best use of his legs in Omloop but given that he’s such a quick learner – and used that newfound experience to generate a podium in Kuurne – he could be a key role on the dirt roads of Strade Bianche.

He undoubtedly has one of the strongest teams in the race around him and, with so many qualities in their ranks, it will be interesting to see Ineos look to empower their one-day squad with their new approach of aggressive racing.

Julian Alaphilippe

Julian Alaphilippe
  • Team: Deceuninck-QuickStep
  • Age: 28
  • Race record: Winner in 2019

The World Champ heads to Italy for the first time since securing the rainbow stripes and, after an impressive set of displays in both the Tour de la Provence and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the form is clearly on the rise.

Strade Bianche will also be Alaphilippe's first showdown with both Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert since last year’s Tour of Flanders, when the trio were a cut above the opposition and only a crash ruled the Frenchman out of the finale.

Whether or not the same three riders can provide such dominant displays as they did in De Ronde remains unclear as it's early in the season and form can be deceptive. However, the sheer presence of all three only adds to the drama and cements Strade Bianche's status as the first blockbuster event of the Italian season.

With Zdenek Štybar and João Almeida operating on the flanks, the Belgian squad have options but this is very much a team geared around bringing Alaphillipe to the key sectors as fresh as possible.

Tadej Pogačar

Tadej Pogacar

  • Team: UAE Team Emirates
  • Age: 22
  • Race record: 13th in 2020

Tadej Pogacar in the UAE Tour leader's jersey (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

The Tour de France winner has made Strade Bianche one of his early-season tests ever since climbing into the WorldTour in 2019 and, while his results have been moderate rather than thrilling, he deserves to be included on our list.

He’s won a stage race already this year, is climbing exceptionally well for March, and given his pedigree and growing stature is a shoo-in for pre-race favourite status. With Davide Formolo, second last year, the team from the Gulf have options.

Michal Kwiatkowksi

Michal Kwiatkowski

  • Team: Ineos Grenadiers
  • Age: 30
  • Race record: Winner in 2014 and 2017

A late crash in Trofeo Laigueglia threatened the Polish rider’s participation but all indications on Thursday are that at the two-time winner will take to the start line. His form ahead of Wednesday's crash was solid, with second overall in Bessèges and two top-10 rides during the race itself.

One of the canniest riders in the field, Kwiatkowksi doesn’t need to be firing on all cylinders in order to be a competitive force and, with such a deep Ineos line-up, he can afford to sit back and let the race develop around him before deciding on his precise role. Whether he’s an out-and-out leader or a super domestique, the former world champion remains a force over the dirt roads around Siena. The only question mark surrounds his health after his fall.

Jakob Fuglsang

Jakob Fuglsang

  • Team: Astana-Premier Tech
  • Age: 35
  • Race record: Second in 2019 and two other finishes in the top 11

For a rider who struggled for road wins throughout most of his career, Fuglsang has discovered an incredible knack for winning major one-day races in the latter stages. In the last two seasons alone he’s won two Monuments, and Strade Bianche is a race that suits his skillset perfectly.

He can handle the nature of the dirt roads better than most, and the stop-start nature, as well as the constant regroupings that occur, offer him ample chances to power away when the opposition start to fade or watch each other.

Last year, he was one of the strongest in the race and while the form this year is steady rather than striking, the Dane remains a blue-chip contender for this weekend. Backing up Fuglsang is a dependable squad but they won't be expected to make the race at any stage.

Romain Bardet

Romain Bardet

  • Team: Team DSM
  • Age: 30
  • Race record: Second in 2018

Just a single day of racing for the Frenchman so far in 2021, with a subdued outing in Omloop coming after a winter in which he looked to redefine his race ambitions and goals for the future. How all of that works out in the long-term remains unclear, although the Giro is in his plans for May.

It will be worth watching how Bardet settles into his new role at DSM, where leadership often rotates and personal ambitions are frequently sacrificed for the greater good. In theory, the 30-year-old should flourish in his new surroundings, and his decision to race Strade Bianche brings back fond memories of his epic second place in 2018. Bardet is a rider with excellent one-day capabilities and, if he’s on form, Strade Bianche is the type of race in which he can fully express himself.

Bauke Mollema

Bauke Mollema

  • Team: Trek Segafredo
  • Age: 34
  • Race record: 76th in 2019

Mollema is one of the most underrated riders in the WorldTour and arguably Trek’s best leader since the days of Cancellara – and that's with Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali being thrown into the conversation.

His record in Grand Tours is inconsistent but in the one-day arena he has popped up with several key wins that include Il Lombardia, San Sebastián, Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli, and of course most recently Trofeo Laigueglia. After a quiet start to the season in Bessèges, he has found early season form and taken two wins already.

Not only that, but he played a pivotal role in the team’s GC success at Haut Var. The dirt roads might not be his natural habitat but his most recent races in Italy stretching back to 2019, have delivered: 5th, 4th, 5th, 53rd, 7th, 1st, 4th, 1st.

Alberto Bettiol

Alberto Bettiol

  • Team: EF-Education Nippo
  • Age: 27
  • Race record: 4th in 2020

It’s been a subdued start to the season for the Italian but all indications are that he will head to the race even though there’s little or no pressure resting on his shoulders.

Fourth last year, Bettiol has the needed experience and the pedigree to be a contender in Strade Bianche and the American team will be built around his needs. Bettiol certainly doesn’t have a favourite tag for the race, but alongside the likes of Simon Yates, Greg Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde, he has the quality to turn it on at the flick of a switch.

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 Photos & Credits:  Bettini / Getty / Team DSM / Jumbo Visma / D Benson