Strade Bianche Breakdown: Mathieu van der Poel Makes His Case for the Title of World's Best Rider

Mathieu van der Poel makes the opening argument his case for the best rider in the world at the strongest-ever edition of Strade Bianche & Gilbert keeps things interesting at Paris-Nice

Mathieu van der Poel trounced the world’s best riders across the gorgeous Tuscan landscape and blew away those who dared stay with him via a blistering attack on the climb to Piazza del Campo and entered the majestic square alone to win the fifteenth edition of Strade Bianche. The blindly beautiful green countryside contrasted with the ochre summer-fried look we got the last time we visited the region in August.

The reigning World Champion, Julian Alaphilippe, and 2019 Tour de France champion, Egan Bernal, were the only two riders who managed to stay with Van der Poel after a searing attack with 12-kilometers to go but were dispatched when the Dutchman decided to put the hammer down on the steep pitch in Sienna with a few hundred meters remaining. Last year’s winner, Wout van Aert, despite looking like the strongest rider in the field mid-race, finished in a disappointing 4th place.

The young kid on the block, Strade Bianche once again proved to be one of the best races on the calendar despite its relatively recent addition to the WorldTour.

Strade Bianche Race Notes:

71.8km-The peloton hits gravel sector 7, lots of nervous riding heading into this. Van Aert’s Jumbo team is massing at the front with Van der Poel right behind them. Looking at the screenshot below, it is easy to see why it is so important to stay at the front on the narrow, gravel roads and how the race-winning moves can go at any moment.

70.6km-Crash at a turn by Ineos rider (Sivakov) shows how tricky these roads are

70.1km-Pogacar has a mechanical problem and his race could be over here.

69.7km-This gravel is much more compact than it was in August when the last edition ran. This means the race is faster but makes it harder for small groups or single riders to get away.

69.5km-It is chaos at the back at the peloton, which shows why everyone was fighting so hard to be at the front

65km-Van der Poel looks to be struggling snd going backward in the peloton 

64km-Pogacar chases back on during an incredibly hard part of the race. This is super impressive and shows he is on great form.

53.5km: A small group with Davide Formolo and Greg van Avermaet has gotten a 20-something gap off the front. Wout’s Jumbo team is massing at the front as they get ready to enter a new gravel sector. 

52.5km: Van Aert is down to one teammate as the groups are just about to be welded back together

52.1km: Quinn Simmons, the 19-year-old American, is trying to force something off the front of this group. Impressive riding but I have to imagine he would be better off saving energy in the group. The onus isn’t on him to break this race up.

51.9km: Van der Poel is caught out in bad position but makes an impressive effort to bridge up through the dropped riders.

51.8km: Alaphilippe attacks and it blows up the peloton, which has been hanging by a tread after Simmons’ move. Van Aert comes to the front here to push the pace personally, likely in an effort to distance the out-of-position Van der Poel.

50k.5m-Van der Poel’s effort to bridge up proves to be key since the larger group immediately blows up and an elite group goes clear. In retrospect, this is where he wins the race. 

Wout is doing A LOT on the front here. He is obviously really comfortable on the gravel descents and really pushing the pace, but this is possibly too much (we now know that he likely did too much). You can see in the screenshot below how much the peloton has been thinned since just 2kms prior. Also, on the downhill in the background, you can see that the chase group has shattered and only small groups remain.

49.6km-This is the key moment of the race. Those who didn’t quite make the front group are chasing on a flattish section and need to catch on before the next climb. Greg van Avermaet is dropped from the front group. The race over for him.

48.8km: The two groups are almost within touching distance, but at this point of Strade, even this small of a gap can be too much to close. And even if they can, they’ve been working harder than the front group and will suffer on the next climb.

47km- Van Aert is still drilling it on the front to drive open the gap between the groups and pare down the selection upfront, but you have to wonder if this is too much work for him at this point.

42km-Van Aert is doing by far the most amount of work on the front here, which has opened the gap to 23-seconds, but man, he is going to pay for this later. Oddly enough, Van der Poel, who I’ve said has poor in-race tactics, is riding very shrewdly and hiding in the group as much as possible, only coming through to take enough turns to keep the peace.

The cream has risen to the top here, we have two Tour de France winners, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogacar, as well as the best one-day racers in the world. This is a beautiful moment for pro cycling.

38km-Quinn Simmons suffers a flat tire and struggles to get a wheel change from the Shimano neutral car. This shows the downside of disc brakes, which can significantly slow down wheel changes.

37.9km-The chasing group has almost pegged the front group back. You can see in the screenshot below just how close the two groups were at this point.

29.7km-But the chase group can’t quite nail back the leaders and the gap hovers around 10-seconds for a long time. It seems like every time the camera shows the leaders, Wout is driving the pace. He seems paranoid about this race coming back together after his team worked so hard to keep him up front all day, but you wonder if he’d be better served just sitting in and waiting (like Van der Poel).

30km-Van der Poel is working in front while two of his teammates chase in the second group, which is technically very bad tactics, but if he really thinks he is the strongest rider in the race, it could be advantageous to just keep the group as small as possible instead of letting it balloon. It is also debatable if his two teammates would be of any help at this point.

23.2km-Alaphilippe attacks on a gravel climb and we can see Van Aert is in immediate trouble.

23.1km-After an initial attempt to hold the wheels, Van Aert appears to completely implode as Pidcock, who was dropped earlier, rides past him.

18.4km-Van Aert recovers enough to catch Pidcock and then pulls the duo back to the leaders, but it is hard to imagine him having enough left to challenge on the steep finishing climb after this episode. Back in the chase group, Quinn Simmons, who impressively rode back into the chase group after his disaster of a wheel change, rides off the road and his day is over.

13.2km-Van Aert makes a big effort to lead the group into the final gravel section, which starts with a downhill. The 2020 champion attempts to use the downhill to build up a buffer so he can hang on before the next climb, but as soon as you start busting out these tricks, it’s already game over.

12km-Van der Poel throws down a searing attack on a small rise and only Alaphillipe can stay with him. This is almost the exact same spot where Van Aert threw down his race-winning attack in 2020 and I would be shocked if Van der Poel hasn’t studied that.

10km-Bernal has somehow found the strength to bridge up to the two leaders and it is clear we will have a group of three duke it out on the climb to the Piazza del Campo.

5km-Bernal is working with the others, which is strange since his teammate Pidcock is chasing behind, but in reality, Bernal is likely just attempting to salvage a podium finish and knows that if Pidcock has been dropped twice before that he won’t be able to win on the steep finishing wall.

3km-Van der Poel, clearly nervous about taking Alaphilippe to the final climb, attacks on a downhill. He gets a gap, but Alaphilippe doesn’t panic, knowing Bernal is desperate for a result here, so he sits back and lets Bernal pull them back up the Van der Poel.

1km-Alaphilippe leads the trio into the start of the climb, which seems like an odd position to chose since he is vulnerable to an attack, and sure enough, Van der Poel attacks right away.

500m: Alaphilippe and Bernal are able to hang on to the first attack, but it proves to simply be a probing move, as Van der Poel winds it up again close to the top and immediately pulls out a massive gap.

Final Top-Ten

Takeaways:

  • Van der Poel proved he has the necessary tactical skill to win against the best racers in the (almost) biggest races this season. He sat back while Van Aert burnt himself out on the front and methodically pared down the group until he felt confident he could win on the final pitch. He is proving to be the best one-day rider in the world at the moment.

  • It isn’t clear if he was bluffing or legitimately in trouble when he appeared to be struggling to hold position between 70km-50km-to-go, but I was very impressed by his ability to meter his efforts and do just enough to make the front group until he was ready to start paring it down to a field he felt comfortable sprinting against. For a rider who has won with brute strength in the past, this was an impressive display of tactical finesse.

  • Interestingly, Wout van Aert was nearly dropped at almost exactly the same point in last year’s race as Van der Poel was this year, and both would go on to win. And as I pointed out in the race notes, Van der Poel tried to launch a race-winning move at the same point in the race as Van Aert did in 2020.

  • But before we start the discussion of whether he is the second coming of Tom Boonen, I want to see if he can hold this sparkling form and also how he will perform at the significantly longer Milan-Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix. Remember, by the time Boonen was Van der Poel’s age, he had won three Monuments (including two consecutive Flanders titles), so Van der Poel would have to win two Monuments this season just to get even.

  • I had thought the relative weakness of his Alpecin-Fenix team could hold Van der Poel back at Flanders and Roubaix, races where team strength is much more important, but they had three riders in the first two groups today, so perhaps they do have the strength to keep Van der Poel upfront and in position later this Spring.

  • Wout van Aert and his Jumbo team looked incredibly strong throughout most of the race, especially considering he just came off an absurdly difficult three-week training block at altitude in the canary islands.

  • Ultimately, I thought he was on the front way too much and it ended up costing him in the end. This is a chronic issue for him and it will be interesting to watch this bad habit for the rest of the Spring.

  • I actually had this same thing in my race notes about last year’s Strade Bianche. He would go on to win that edition, but frankly the competition today was deeper and sharper today versus 2020.

  • But, I certainly wouldn’t say all hope is lost for Van Aert. This is a good showing for his first race of the year and he is clearly targeting Flanders and Roubaix later in the Spring.

  • Bernal and Pogacar’s performances were incredibly impressive. No Tour de France champion has ever won this race, so the fact that Bernal was in a position to win with under a kilometer to go is fantastic and shows he is back after a disappointing 2020. 

  • Pidcock has had a very impressive week and he proved at Strade that he is the real deal. His 5th place finish is amazing for a 21-year-old and portends great things to come.

  • However, the argument could be made that he wasn’t the most impressive young rider in the race. 19-year-old Quinn Simmons forced the first major selection and only fell out of the front group after a flat.

  • Bernal appears to be recovered from the back issue that plagued him in 2020 and we can officially start penciling him in as a challenger for the overall at the Giro d’Italia. It is worth noting that Stage 11 of the Giro feature many of the same gravel roads that Bernal thrived on.

  • Despite Bernal’s success on the day, it is strange that Ineos didn’t Bernal to Paris-Nice. He could have won the race and it would have served as better preparation for the Giro d’Italia.

  • Ineos, a team that has long struggled with results in one-day classics, was the only team with two riders in the front group today. This is a great result for them, but it is interesting the one-day breakthrough has come from a rider who joined the team just a month ago, Tom Pidcock, and a grand tour leader, Egan Bernal.

  • In the past, Ineos has attempted to develop classics-specific riders internally, but any promising prospect would end up setting pace in the Grand Tours instead of focusing on the Classics. It is fascinating that we have come full circle and one of their Grand Tour leaders is now getting better one-day results than a generation of Classics specialists on the team.

  • To illustrate just how deep this field was, the final front group had riders ranked 2nd (Pogacar), 3rd (Wout van Aert), 5th (Alaphilippe), 6th (Van der Poel) in the Pro Cycling Stats Rankings. In addition to this was Tom Pidcock, 4th at 2021 Cyclocross Worlds and Egan Bernal, winner of the 2019 Tour de France.

  • Michael Gogl, who had a surprising 9th place here in 2020, impressed again by making that final front group and placing 6th. This is a huge result for his small;-budget Qhubeka ASSOS team and shows his breakout season in 2020 wasn’t a fluke and that he could be playing in the finales of these major one-day races for years to come.

  • The new wave is here to stay: Greg van Avermaet made the front group, only to be dropped when things got serious with 50km-to-go. At 35-years-old and without a race win since 2019, it seems like the Olympic Champion is struggling to keep pace with the younger generation.

  • And the youth at the top of the leaderboard confirms this shift. Simon Clarke, in 8th place, was the first rider over 30 (34-years-old).

Paris-Nice Stage 1

Sam Bennett won the opening stage of the seven-stage Paris-Nice with an impressive sprint win over other world-class sprinters like Arnaud Démare and Pascal Ackerman. Démare finished a distance second-place, while Mads Pedersen, fresh off a big win last week at Kuurne-Brussells-Kuurne, came in third, proving he is still building form and further cemented his status as a Classics contender with a legitimate sprint finish.

  • On paper, the stage was slightly dull as produced a formulaic sprint finish, but there was an interesting moment with 53km-to-go when the peloton got too close to the lone breakaway rider, and Philippe Gilbert attacked out of the main group and bridged up to the lone leader after being joined by a few other riders. This group was caught with 26kms-to-go, but small groups kept popping off the front as the sprinter’s teams struggled to control the race.

  • This move by Gilbert signals he is feeling incredibly strong and taking every opportunity to log hard training kilometers with less than two weeks to go before Milano-Sanremo. We seem to be heading towards a fantastic showdown where the old-timer will get an opportunity to fend off the upstart Van der Poel to complete the mythical Monument Sweep.

  • If Bennett navigates the crosswinds and gets another win on today’s Stage 2, he will further his case as the world’s best sprinter. Wednesday will see the GC riders who survived the difficult echelons to stretch their legs on the Stage 3 time trial. I expect Primoz Roglic to put some distance between himself and the rest of the GC contenders.