Strade Bianche 2020 was quite interesting and it’s always fun to digest the interplay of a small group at the end of a race. For those of you who don’t know, Strade Bianche is a UCI World Tour race characterized by sectors of white roads (‘strade bianche’ in Italian) and short steep pitches. This year’s race was marked by 37.4C (99F) temperatures and a dry, windless day. It’s hard to guess everyone’s fitness on such a unique course, but many riders like Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, and Mathieu van der Poel found themselves out of the action early. Both Alaphilippe and van der Poel suffered early flats and were not able to ride back into the field.
60km to Go in Strade Bianche
At 60km to go, the front group of 24 approached Sector 8: Monte Sante Marie in what the commentators had already claimed would be a decisive point in the race. Simon Clarke hit out early in a solo attack with the intention of giving his teammate, Alberto Bettiol, a free ride through the difficult sector. Four riders followed Simon Clarke only to be swept up quickly by the rest of the peloton as Sector 8 started. The five riders off the front were immediately shoved out of the back of the field and out of race contention.
Stybar pushed on the front with 52km to go, splitting the front group in half, leaving some 10 riders left to contend the day. Bettiol did a great job in this sector to maintain a good position while not pushing the pace. He was quite eager to hold his position and undoubtedly used a lot of energy to secure his spot in the final group. Wout van Aert and Greg van Avermaet meanwhile hid well in the back of the front group of the split.
When Jakob Fuglsang attacked at 49.2km to go, the rest of the field gave him some space, which was the right decision. Although Fuglsang is a strong rider, there were 5 riders behind all willing to cooperate to bring him back. A 1v5 at 50km to go is not ideal and he eventually sat up to accept his position in the lead group of six. The commentator kept giggling after saying ‘sextet’.
Following the Sector 8: Monte Sante Marie, there was a slight lull in the pace. This is a good opportunity to work out the current tactics of the race. There are six riders in the front group and a chasing group of three at 90 seconds. When the lead group is twice as large as the chase group, the lead group should stay away as long as a moderate pace is maintained. There should be no concern that your front group will get bigger. Looking at each rider in the field during the road kilometers following Sector 8, we can try to assess their current situation:
- Van Avermaet is sitting towards the back, not eager to pull through, having trouble sticking to the wheel in front of him, struggled to show himself on Sector 8. Speculation that he is fatigued.
- Schachmann has energy, but seems a bit frivolous with the use of it. On Sector 8 he bridged up to Bettiol and Formolo only for them to sit up and allow van Aert and van Avermaet to join back in.
- Bettiol is equally energetic. Showing a lot of power and aggression, he’s certainly in the mindset of attacking and pushing. He was at the front of the group all the way through Sector 8.
- Van Aert struggled to stay at the front on Sector 8, but is hiding well. Not grimacing like van Avermaet. It’s hard to diagnose the quality of his legs at this point.
- Formolo is doing the best out of the group at hiding his energy levels. Riding very passively, but still pulling through when needed.
- Fuglsang skipped some pulls after his attack, which is reasonable, but trying to hold off a group of five for any period of time is likely to cause some fatigue in the legs.
Tactically, it’s likely that Fuglsang and van Avermaet are out of the race. I’m concerned about Schachmann and Bettiol’s energy use. They both seem eager, but we are still some 40km from the finish. Van Aert and Formolo are the unknown quantities at this point.
The Building Tension
At 21.6km to go, Schachmann attacked and van Aert followed. This was a good attack from two riders at the back of the field. It almost looked coordinated. It was brought back almost exclusively by Bettiol, which was a mistake. He used his energy to provide a benefit for the other riders in the group. The best option would have been to try to follow right away, but I believe he was nervous that no one else was going to pull them back. Van Avermaet was in the process of getting dropped, Formolo was playing cagey, and Fuglsang likely had bad legs at that point.
After they were brought back, our understanding of the race changed. Van Aert was willing to be aggressive and likely had good legs. And he used those legs to his advantage. The camera missed that van Aert attacked into the last dirt section which consisted of a short steep downhill into a short steep uphill. You can see in the distance of the camera that van Aert goes off the front and uses his bike handling skills to hit the descent very hard and Bettiol, the rider directly behind him, was unable to follow.
The Decisive Finale of Strade Bianche
This attack, of course, defined the end of 2020 edition of Strade Bianche and we can see why van Aert won:
- Van Aert earned a free 10 second gap from his bike handling skills on the downhill of the course.
- Bettiol responded to the attack, but was not able to close the gap. This was likely due to his attack some 6km earlier or the effort of bringing back the Schachmann/van Aert attack. Schachmann caught Bettiol but tried to attack around him instead of them working together.
- Formolo finally tried to contribute to the chase only to find Schachmann and Bettiol had exhausted themselves already, leaving a 1v1 between van Aert and Formolo. Even so, as Formolo attempted to claw back van Aert, Schachmann refused to be dropped. This left Formolo in a position where he would lose to Schachmann if he pulled van Aert back.
Van Aert likely had the best legs on the day anyway, but used his bike handling ability to create a decisive gap at the end of the race. Some notes on the actions of the riders:
Successes and Mistakes
- Van Aert never defended except one short effort to bring back Bettiol at 18km to go. Every bit of energy he used was to attack or stay in position. He also did not show his face to the wind until the last 25km of the race.
- Bettiol was excited to race, but that was his undoing. He found himself closing gaps for other riders and putting in half-strength attacks in the final 20km. This is in opposition to van Aert committing to one attack and finishing the race with it.
- Schachmann seemed so strong, but unfocused. He had so much energy, but I don’t believe he applied it in the best situations.
- Formolo should be happy with his result, given he doesn’t like racing on the dirt roads. He was so passive during the race. By the time he decided to use his legs, the race was already won by van Aert.
So, congratulations to Van Aert! Unlike last year where he cramped on the final climb en route to a third place finish, this year he stands on the top step at Strade Bianche. I’m guessing this won’t be his only top tier performance this year.
Strade Bianche Post Script:
- Peter Sagan had a Joker “Why so serious?” mask on for his interview. You know he’s the bad guy right?
- Other interviewed riders had medical masks on, but almost no riders had a mask for the teams presentation.
- The Astana team car hit the Bora-Hansgrohe car from behind at just under 60km.
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