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There was a decisive moment late in Saturday’s thrilling edition of Strade Bianche when nearly a dozen of the world’s best riders were off the front with everything in play.
Defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten and Marianne Vos, who’s never won on the white roads of Tuscany, were reeled in after attacking on sector 8. With about 12km to go to the wall leading into Siena’s historic piazza, everyone took a moment to look around to see who had numbers.
Van Vleuten and Vos didn’t have teammates. Trek-Segafredo and FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope each had two.
One team — SD Worx — had four, representing one-third of the elite front group of 11.
"Yesterday we made a plan" pic.twitter.com/jhvVCo8AJq
— Strade Bianche (@StradeBianche) March 6, 2021
From the helicopter TV shots, it was hard to tell. Anna van der Breggen was donning the rainbow jersey. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio was decked out in the South Africa’s national champion’s jersey.
Race report: Chant van den Broek-Blaak delivers victory
But the Dutch team was there in numbers with its new purple swaths in full view to its rivals. Strade Bianche was their race to lose, or, as how it soon played out with brilliant tactics in the closing kilometers, to win.
“We wanted to take control of the race,” SD Worx sport director Danny Stam told VeloNews. “It went exactly how we planned it. We wanted a hard race, and to open it up early.”
Flying start to 2021 for SD Worx
SD Worx is flying in the early races so far in 2021. Van der Breggen won in her season debut in a spectacular solo victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the new-look team, with a new title sponsor taking over for Boels-Dolmans, roared into the 2021 WorldTour season opener intent on winning the race.
When the “dirty dozen” was clear after racing across the dusty gravel roads, SD Worx had stacked the deck in its favor, and it was only a question of which one of them would win. In fact, the team is so deep right now that it was a surprise even to eventual winner Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
“The victory came unexpected for me,” said van den Broek-Blaak, who confirmed she will retire at the end of 2022.
“This victory is from teamwork,” she said. “We had four riders in the final group, so we had to play our numbers. It was my job to try.”
Also read: Big winners and no losers at Strade Bianche
Indeed, van der Breggen is so feared right now in the bunch that her mere presence opened the door for van den Broek-Blaak to make her move with just over 6km to go. She attacked, and Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini was quick to follow her wheel.
Once she bridged out, van den Broek-Blaak all but sat up. SD Worx was popping off attacks to weaken their opponents to set up van der Breggen, so there was no way van den Broek-Blaak was going to work.
Enjoying the Strade Bianche one more time?
Watch the summary of the beautiful race in Tuscany won by Chantal Blaak and also with leading roles for Anna van der Breggen, Demi Vollering, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Elena Cecchini and Niamh Fisher Black.https://t.co/4sUAiPFAkI
— Team SD Worx (@teamsdworx) March 7, 2021
Longo Borghini kept pulling to widen the gap to 20 seconds in the hope that she would have the best of van den Broek-Blaak on the final climb. Behind them, everyone else in the chase group not dressed in SD Worx colors knew the numbers were stacked against them. Van den Broek-Blaak followed team orders, and sat on Longo Borghini’s wheel as the pair neared the final climb into historic Siena.
“I was not frustrated or irritated,” the Italian said. “I just wanted to try to get van den Broek-Blaak to go, and sometimes you have to try and get the other one to work. I absolutely knew that she would not work with me as normally I drop Chantal on a climb like this.”
Once the leaders hit the red kite, van Vleuten jumped from behind and was quickly marked by van der Breggen. Up ahead, van den Broek-Blaak pounced with her winning move at just over 500m to go on the steepest ramps of the final run into Siena’s famous Piazza del Campo.
“With one kilometer to go I could feel she broke and I still had something left in the tank,” van den Broek-Blaak said. “It was not really the plan for me to win today, we have such an amazing team. I felt super good, and it comes unexpected.”
It was a huge victory on typically what would be unfavorable terrain for van den Broek-Blaak, the 2017 world champion and last year’s Tour of Flanders winner.
A card for every scenario
With so much firepower coming into 2021, SD Worx has several cards to play in every scenario. The fearsome presence of van der Breggen will open the door for more attacks like van den Broek-Blaak’s well-played ploy in the coming classics.
With van der Breggen lurking in the front group, when one of her teammates attacks, they have no responsibility to work if a rival team manages to bridge across a rider. And if no one manages to link up, they have a free ride to the line. Van der Breggen, of course, has carte blanche to move when she wants.
“We know Anna can finish these climbs, and we have the numbers with other riders who are good enough to make a final to the end,” Stam told VeloNews. “We raced pretty open, with the idea that Anna should save for the last climb.”
Strade Bianche Kadınlar yarışını, harika bir atak sonrası Chantal van den Broek-Blaak kazandı.#StradeBianche
— Cyclist Türkiye (@CyclistTR) March 6, 2021
Longo Borghini paced across second, with van der Breggen putting the finishing touch on the SD Worx tactical masterclass with third.
Two-time defending champion van Vleuten trailed across in fourth, but the new Movistar rider was more pleased with fourth than she was last week at Omloop, where she finished an uncharacteristic 21st.
“I had everything I needed, I just wasn’t able to finish it off,” van Vleuten said. “I am especially satisfied with the fact that I didn’t make any mistakes after a really disappointing Omloop, when I lost sight of the front due to a bad position.
“I am very proud of how I reacted during the race, always in a good place and doing what I needed to do,” she said. “It’s not far away. It will be there soon.”
Stam said the team’s rivals should expect more of the same as the calendar heads into the major classics in Belgium and France.
“Of course, you know there are other favorites, but we have such a strong squad, and we don’t have to rely too much on other people,” Stam said. “We race our own race. We are trying to do it that way.”
Racing continues with the three-stage Healthy Ageing Tour (March 10-12) in the Netherlands and a pair of one-days in Belgium before the next WorldTour stop at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda on March 21.