Many of the best Spring Classics contenders travel to Italy this week for Saturday’s Strade Bianche. With Mathieu van der Poel still out of action due to his back injury and Wout van Aet opting for Paris-Nice, which starts on Sunday, this year’s race is wide open.
The weather is cold but dry in Tuscany this week and so the gravel roads will be compact, dusty and fast. Strade Bianche includes 63 kilometers of dirt roads spread across the 11 sectors of the 184-kilometer race, making it a unique and spectacular event.
The route is also packed with a myriad of short, steep hills through the fields and vineyards, creating one of the hardest days in the saddle, yet one most riders are happy to endure. It is like combining the climbing of Liège-Bastogne-Liège with the dust and dirt of the Paris-Roubaix, all wrapped up in Tuscan history and breathtaking beauty.
We’ve picked 10 of the best to keep an eye on during this year’s Strade Bianche, which starts and finishes in Siena.
We will have a separate preview and special pre-race features for the women’s edition of Strade Bianche.
- Team: QuickStep-Alpha-Vinyl
- Age: 29
- Race record: Winner in 2019, second in 2021
The world champion deserves top billing, even if he is still not yet at peak form.
Alaphilippe is not targeting the cobbled Classics this year and so has opted for a more laid back start to the season in the hope of peaking for the Ardennes. However, as the World Championships in Leuven reminded us, the Frenchman should never be ignored and always seemed inspired by the hard but spectacular racing of Strade Bianche.
His bike handling skills are superb and his experience of victory in 2019 and second place last year means he knows how to ride Strade Bianche. If Alaphilippe avoids punctures and mishaps, then expect him to be a threat.
- Team: UAE Team Emirates
- Age: 23
- Race record: 7th in 2021
Tour de France winners are rarely Classics contenders, especially in races that include 60km of gravel. But Tadej Pogačar has already proved he can do far more than collect yellow jerseys. Indeed, he is a major favorite for Strade Bianche, who everyone else will fear.
Such are Pogačar’s abilities, he could attack from long range, go solo on the steep late sections of gravel roads or even surge away on the last climb up to central Siena.
He raced cyclo-cross during the winter and appears to have the bike skills to handle the Tuscan gravel, while the UAE Team Emirates squad will again be at his service.
Pogačar only recently recovered from COVID-19 but that did not stop him from winning the UAE Tour for a second year last week. He perhaps went deep to win but has cleverly spent several days recovering in the warmth of the UAE before returning to Europe.
- Team: Ineos Grenadiers
- Age: 22
- Race record: 5th in 2021
Anything that Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert can do, Tom Pidcock can do too. He is now cyclo-cross world champion and seems on track for a great Classics season on the road as part of Ineos Grenadiers’ new Gen-Z squad.
Pidcock only made his WorldTour debut in 2021 but he already seems comfortable in any race he rides. He finished fifth in last year’s Strade Bianche on his debut, joining the big-name selection, only to run out of legs in the final.
“That was pretty cool. A few more races and miles in the legs and I’ll be there soon,” Pidcock said last year, fully aware of his potential for the Classics.
He admitted to making mistakes in the Opening Weekend but will surely have learned from them and be more determined come Saturday.
- Team: Trek-Segafredo
- Age: 20
- Race record: 54th in 2021
The 20-year-old American arrived in Tuscany on Monday and has already been out training on the gravel roads of Strade Bianche.
He has made the race one of his major goals of the spring and is likely to be team leader for Trek-Segafredo. Last year he impressed for much of the race, with the strength to join the key selection, only for a puncture and slow wheel change to wreck his chances.
Simmons has been training at altitude in the USA in recent weeks and tested his racing form with 16th in the hilly Drôme Classic in France. There is no reason, if things go his way, why Simmons cannot be a contender with the big three listed above on Saturday.
- Team: Jumbo-Visma
- Age: 27
- Race record: 1st in 2018
Tiesj Benoot will be team leader at Jumbo-Visma in the absence of Van Aert and he has all that is needed to step up and continue Jumbo-Visma’s run of success in the Classics.
The softly-spoken rider from Ghent does not have the charisma of Van Aert but he won Strade Bianche in 2018 with a solo attack on the wet dirt roads that distanced Romain Bardet and a young Van Aert.
He has only ridden Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne so far this season but seemed in great form in both races after attending the Jumbo-Visma altitude camp on Mount Teide.
Benoot is a Classics rider but has a lighter build and the climbing ability needed to win Strade Bianche. If he falters or suffers a mechanical problem, then Jumbo-Visma also have Tom Dumoulin and the USA’s Sepp Kuss.
- Team: Lotto Soudal
- Age: 30
- Race record: 13th in 2021, 10th in 2019, 3rd in 2017
Lotto Soudal are on a roll after the need to score ranking points for the 2023 WorldTour inspired some urgency and hunger in their racing.
Wellens is always ready to do his bit for the Belgian team and dispatched Alejandro Valverde to win the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana race at Challenge Mallorca and then finished second overall in the Tour de la Provence.
Illness forced him to miss Omloop Het Nieuwsblad but the team insists it was not COVID-19 and hope he can be back to his best for Strade Bianche. He has the class and talent to win on Saturday, perhaps as the bigger-name riders watch each other.
- Team: Team DSM
- Age: 31
- Race record: 2nd in 2018
Romain Bardet loves to race and so, like many other Grand Tour riders, he is always enthusiastic to line-up for Strade Bianche and experience the thrill of racing on the gravel. Whatever his result on Saturday, Bardet will enjoy a glass of quality Chianti and savor his race.
“Strade Bianche is hard for everyone; you can not hide, you can not lie, because at the end it’s all about the energy you have in your legs and everyone finishes totally empty. That’s something I love. I really enjoyed Strade Bianche , “he said after his second place in 2018.
Bardet battled with van Aert in the rain behind eventual winner Tiesj Benoot in 2018. He has only ridden the UAE Tour this season but he can be a threat yet again.
- Team: Israel-Premier Tech
- Age: 36
- Race record: 5th in 2020, 2nd in 2019
His rivals often forget it but Jakob Fuglsang is a former mountain bike racer and so has the natural bike skills and confidence to target Strade Bianche.
He finished just two seconds down on Julian Alaphilippe in 2019 and has almost always been in the thick of the race.
In 2020 he was overly aggressive and blew up in the August heat when Strade Bianche was rescheduled to the summer. But any rider who can win Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia like Fuglsang has done can also win Strade Bianche.
- Team: UAE Team Emirates
- Age: 23
- Race record: Debut in 2022
Alessandro Covi is considered one of Italy’s best next-generation talents. His neo-pro years were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but he has impressed in early 2022 and has the form to be a contender at Strade Bianche alongside team leader Tadej Pogačar.
Covi won the Vuelta a Murcia, using his fast finish, and then showed his climbing skills on the steep finish to win stage 2 of the Ruta Del Sol, which was similar to the final climb at Strade Bianche.
He also likes to race cyclo-cross in Italy during the winter and so has the bike skills to go with his climbing. He and Pogačar could give UAE Team Emirates two riders in the select group that emerges at Strade Bianche and thus give them a massive tactical advantage.
- Team: Bora-Hansgrohe
- Age: 24
- Race record: Debut in 2022
Sergio Higuita has never ridden Strade Bianche but that does not mean he can not be a protagonist. The Colombian climber is on fire in early 2022, winning the national road race title and more recently the final uphill finish at the Volta ao Algarve.
He beat fellow Colombian Dani Martinez and the USA’s Brandon McNulty on stage and showed he was not afraid to fight for the win when he clashed and crashed with Tobias Foss on stage 2.
Higuita is a climber but his low center of gravity and bike skills give him an advantage on the gravel roads. If you are looking for an outsider, he is your man.
Other names to watch:
Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious), Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën), Michael Gogl (Alpecin-Fenix), Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).