Bewley abandons men's race
Sam Bewley (Mitchelton-Scott), the 33-year-old Kiwi, has abandoned the race. Not entirely sure why, but can only assume he was caught up in the earlier crash that also involved riders from Trek-Segafredo and Israel Start-Up Nation.
Women's race is heating up
Shortly after the riders completed the tough San Martino in Grania section of gravel, and the chasers latched back on. Only for further attacks to go off the front, a seven-rider group featuring Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling), who spoke before the race about her desire to pull off a big win here today, has gone off up the road.
Nicola Bagioli (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec), Quentin Pacher (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), Iuri Filosi (Bardiani-CSF-Faizane), Benjamin Declercq (Arkéa-Samsic) and Van Kessel — all riders from Pro-Continental squads — have bridged over to Pellaud, with the group now leading by around two minutes.
Select group forming in women's race
Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), a former winner at Strade Bianche, is well-positioned on the wheel of one of her old team-mates Anna van der Breggen ( Boels-Dolmans). Both know each other's strengths inside out, but neither will be wanting to gift the other anything today.
That leading group has now reduced to just 20 riders. As predicted, the San Martino in Grania section did some real damage. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) is is this group, as is the great Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) who has yet to win here at Strade Bianche — one of the few races the Dutchwoman has not won.
Crash in the men's race
There has been a crash in the men's race involving riders from Mitchelton-Scott, Trek-Segafredo and Israel Start-Up Nation, but it doesn't sound like it was too serious. It will act as an early warning to riders, however, who will need to keep their wits about them today.
Pellaud has been joined at the front of the race by another five riders.
Women's race reach the halfway point
The women's peloton has reached the fifth of eight gravel sectors in their race — San Martino in Grania, 9.5km — which features a number of short, steep climbs. Already the bunch has started to split, lining out with many of the pre-race favourites at the right end of proceedings.
Early attack in the men's race
The duo of Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) and Corne Van Kessel (Circus-Wanty Gobert) wasted little time today and clipped off the front fairly swiftly after the flag dropped before gaining an advantage of around 20sec. However, Van Kessel was soon reeled back in by the bunch leaving the 27-year-old Swiss hanging out in the front all on his lonesome.
And they're off . . .
The men's race is under way. In fact it started a few minutes ago but I somehow missed it. As mentioned earlier in the — quite long-winded — description of the route, the opening 18km of the course is on nice smooth asphalt and we're not expecting the real action to kick off for sometime yet.
Calm before the storm
This will not be the last picture we see today of the dust clouds that will cause all sorts of issues for riders and their support teams.
The peloton is making its way towards section five, while the men are in Siena minutes away from the start of their race.
The heat is on . . .
By the way, it is extremely hot out in Tuscany today. As you would expect at the beginning of August. At the moment it is around 34°, but forecasts suggest the mercury may rise further and nudge that up to a sweltering 37°. The extreme heat is likely to play a huge part in the outcome of both races today.
Not only will riders need to hydrate, which can be difficult when team cars are way behind you as they, too, navigate the tricky and at time treacherous course, but the dry chalky roads will cause dust to to riders' lungs which can be unbearably uncomfortable.
Some riders, of course, naturally cope better in the heat than others which, to be totally honest, I had not even considered when I made a few selections for the men's race. But who did I pick? Find below a few riders to watch out for, but here's the full list. Just want to add the caveat that in reality I could have selected any one of 30 riders for today's race, especially given that we have no idea about the form of anybody. Oh, and the betting odds — for thoase that care about these things — were correct when the article was originally published.
And the women's race? Oh that's easy: Annemiek van Vleuten.
Mathieu van der Poel (Hol)
Age: 25 | Team: Alpecin-Fenix
Best result at Strade Bianche: Van der Poel will make his debut in 2020
It will surprise few to discover that Mathieu van der Poel is the overriding favourite to win on his Strade Bianche debut on Saturday. The three-time world cyclo-cross champion has the power, bike handling skills and the ability to quickly recover between efforts required to prevail on the white roads of Tuscany. Little wonder the bookmakers's extremely short odds.
Best odds to win: 43/10
Julian Alaphilippe (Fra)
Age: 28 | Team: Deceuninck-Quick Step
Best result at Strade Bianche: First — 2019
The defending champion had originally planned on skipping the race, but here is. Coming just a week before Milan-Sanremo — another race he won in 2019 — the race may yet again provide the launchpad for what was an unforgettable season for the Frenchman. Team-mate Zdenek Stybar (14/1) is another possible winner, as is youngster Kasper Asgreen (66/1).
Best odds to win: 4/1
Wout Van Aert (Bel)
Age: 25 | Team: Jumbo-Visma
Best result at Strade Bianche: Third — 2018, 2019
The talented all-rounder, and another three-time world cyclo-cross champion, has finished third in his two previous appearances and will be desperate to improve on that. Endured a terrible crash at last year's Tour de France, but appeared to be recovering well during the cyclo-cross campaign. Odds of 14/1 are too generous for a rider of Van Aert's ability. Best odds to win: 14/1
Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol)
Age: 30 | Team: Ineos
Best result at Strade Bianche: First — 2014, 2017
By his standards, endured a disappointing season in 2019. Will be hoping the race he has won twice can provide the perfect platform on which to build a foundation for the coming season. Is out of contract at the end of the year which could give the Pole added motivation going into the restart. The race may also suit Italian team-mate Gianni Moscon (80/1).
Best odds to win: 18/1
Jakob Fuglsang (Den)
Age: 35 | Team: Astana
Best result at Strade Bianche: Second — 2019
Lost out to Alaphilippe in Tuscany last year, but the Dane went on to enjoy his best season yet with victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a maiden grand tour stage win at the Vuelta a España. May be too much to expect the 35-year-old to repeat last year's efforts, but in Alexey Lutsenko (20/1) has a team-mate who may slip beneath the radar and challenge.
Best odds to win: 9/1
Trek-Segafredo Women: We was robbed
Incidentally, the women's Trek-Segafredo riders here today are all using their spare bikes after there was an overnight operation from some thieves. A short and brief missive from the team this morning, read thus: "Six Trek Émonda of the women's team were stolen in the night. The thieves broke through the roof of the truck and took the bikes. The riders will still start the Strade Bianche on spare bikes."
And that leading group has increased to around 40 riders.
Lucy, or unlucky strike out?
After passing through the village of Lupompesi, Omer Shapira was caught on sector three of gravel before a group of 13 riders counter-attacked and put some space between themselves and the bunch.
Shapira takes early lead in women's race
Omer Shapira (Canyon-Sram), the three-time Israel national champion, has taken the lead in the women's race as the peloton approaches the third gravel section of the day. The 25-year-old has managed to gain around 30sec on the peloton, but there's a long way to go yet.
So, what does the course look like?
At just 184 kilometres long — the women's course is 136km — Strade Bianche is far from the longest one-day race in the calendar, that honour befalls next weekend's Milan-Sanremo which clocks in at a massive 299km, however it bites.
Profile of the men's race
Featuring 63km of gravel roads that are raced on undulating — and at times viciously steep — terrain, Strade Bianche is deceptively tough. There may be no long climbs, but in places reach gradients of up to 18 per cent. I've previously said to understand this race you must imagine Paris-Roubaix crossed with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with a bit of a cyclo-cross course thrown in for good measure. Do that and you are somewhere close to understanding Strade Bianche.
Anyway, the 63km of gravel road — slightly fewer in the women's race — are made up of 11 sectors, (eight for the women) all of differing lengths and levels of difficulty.
After setting out from Siena, the riders will be treated to 18km of lovely smooth asphalt before reaching the race's first sector of gravel which is relatively benign at just over 2km long. This dead straight road which is slightly downhill should not test the riders too much, but will give the debutants at this race their first taste of the white roads in racing conditions.
Map of the men's race
Following a brief return to the asphalt, a slightly tougher stretch of gravel awaits the peloton. At just below 6km — 5.8km, to be precise — section two will provide the riders their first challenge as the road ramps up towards Ville di Corsano at gradients that go above 10 per cent.
Two further sections follow at 32.4km and 42.7km respectively, clocking in at 4.4km (section three) and section four that is named La Piana which is 5.5km long. Neither feature any climbs that appear too tricky, but will play their part in softening up anybody that has not brought their best legs to the party.
The second climb of the day, the Montalcino — 4km long at five per cent average gradient — precedes section five which is 11.9km in length. A short 1,000-metre stretch of asphalt punctuates the course, before section six which is slightly shorter at 8km. Both sections are relatively tough, but are not expected to cause too many issues.
By this point in the race, it is widely expected that if they have not already done so the key players will start to position themselves in preparation for what follows just beyond the feed zone at the 100km mark.
Section seven, which begins in San Martino in Grania and is 9.5km in length is where the race, traditionally, really starts to take shape. With numerous little kickers, there are plenty of opportunities here for those feeling strong to press hard and apply the pressure. Towards the end of the long stretch of gravel there is a further twisty climb before the descent, on asphalt, towards section eight. Positioning here may be key, and while you or I — probably — would take advantage of the smooth surface and freewheel for a couple of kilometres, the stronger riders will do nothing of the kind. Similarly to Paris-Roubaix, attacks can often follow immediately after gravel sections.
Next up is the most famous, and feared, section of the race. With 130km of racing in the legs, section eight which is 11.5km begins in Ponte del Garbo before heading towards Monte Sante Marie. It may look beguiling in photographs and on television, but trust me this rolling stretch of road is really, really, hard to ride. With numerous short and steep climbs — and descents — this is widely regarded as the hardest gravel section of the race.
The following 20km may all be on asphalt, but the road continues to rise and fall, just as riders’ ambitions may do as their exertions start to take their toll. There’s a further 300 metres of gravel, though not long or decisive enough to be considered an official ‘section’. Next up is a horrible 800-metre stretch — section nine — that will feel like riding up a wall as the road’s gradient goes well into double digits. With just over 30km of the race to go, the selection will either have been made, or is very much in the post.
Final 20km of the men's race
The penultimate sector of gravel — section 10 — may only be 2.4km long, but the Colle Pinzuto climb tops out at 15 per cent in gradient, before the final gravel section of the day follows a few kilometres later. Again, it is a short one but section 11 features a vicious climb at 18 per cent. That’s going to hurt, but the race is far from over yet.
With 12km of the race remaining, those still in with a chance of winning Strade Bianche will have to keep their cool in the August heat. Numerous short climbs pepper the run-in back towards Siena before they arrive at the old walled city.
Final 3km of the route
On entering the city beneath the Fontebranda Gate, the leading riders will hit the large paving slabs that are seen all across the city of Siena. Now within the city walls, riding along the narrow streets and under a kilometre from the finishing line in the famous old Piazza del Campo — where the medieval Palio di Siena horse race ordinarily takes place each July and August — the road rises one last time.
Twisting finale into Piazza del Campo
At around 500 metres from the line the steepest stretch of road along Via Santa Caterina cruelly tops out at 16 per cent — it was here that did for Wout Van Aert in 2018 when the young Belgian cramped up — before the road takes a sharp right. A left-hand turn is followed by a right hander before the riders, finally, arrive in Piazza del Campo.
Providing the riders have any horse-power left in their legs, once they have navigated a short descent they can gallop one last time for the line on one of the few pan-flat stretches of the entire course, which is a measly 30 metres long.
Coronavirus strikes again
Speaking of absentee riders, it was reported on Friday night that Silvan Dillier had tested positive for coronavirus and so the classics and time trial specialist that finished second to Peter Sagan at the 2018 edition of Paris-Roubaix was pulled, leaving his Ag2r-La Mondiale team a rider short on the start line in Siena.
"I feel really s----- mentally," the 29-year-old Swiss told publication Blick. "I am the healthiest person on earth. I've had more tests in the past few days and they have all been negative.
"The whole health system is a damn joke. In my opinion, it is borderline to simply imprison healthy people," Dillier added.
The news will have come as a huge blow to Ag2r-La Mondiale who claimed a second place at the race through Romain Bardet in 2018, with Dillier expected to lead the French team here today.
Just to let you know, I shall endeavour to do my best to keep you up to speed with the women's race, but seeing as I cannot see live images just yet those posts will be intermittent at best. Hopefully once the race reaches the business part of the day — when Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) rides the pack off her wheel to claim a second successive Strade Bianche title — I will be on hand to let you know.
One rider that will not be contesting the race, however, is Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC-Liv). The South African crashed heavily during her reconnaissance ride of the course and needed 60 — yes, sixty — stitches.
"I've been looking forward to this day for many months, but Strade Bianche 2020 is just not meant to be for me," Moolman-Pasio tweeted this morning. "Bad crash in training yesterday, and 60 stitches later means I'm out of today's race. Wishing my CCC Liv team the best of luck and strong legs! Thanks for all well wishes."
Another rider that has not started the women's race today is Ella Harris. The 22-year-old New Zealand rider was another to crash during a training ride on Friday. Her Canyon-Sram team tweeted:
Unfortunately Ella Harris won’t start @StradeBianche today after breaking her hip in a training crash yesterday. Ella will soon undergo surgery. We‘re sending her the best wishes for a full and speedy recovery.