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Strade Bianche: Tadej Pogačar hammers solo on the gravel to take historic win

The Slovenian Tour de France champion adds victory at the burgeoning Italian event to his classics wins at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia.

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Unstoppable and simply in a league of his own, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) put in a jaw-dropping performance to win Strade Bianche with a near 50km solo break on Saturday.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) were second and third from the shreds of a chasing group.

Pogačar attacked on sector 8 of the white gravel at Monte Sante Marie with a first acceleration sounding out his rivals before a second monstrous attack brought him clear of a world class peloton.

“I tried to do my best effort on Santa Maria, the climb,” Pogačar said. “Nobody followed, so I had to do it alone, and be fully committed.”

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Despite blustery conditions, and the fact that he crashed earlier in the race, Pogačar put a full minute into the chasing pack within fewer than 6km of racing, and by the time he completed the sector on which his attack was formed his lead approached a staggering 1:20.

The might of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Trek-Segafredo, and Movistar were left stunned and unable to respond.

There was a late fightback from the remnants of the field with Asgreen and Valverde forming a late chase duo inside the final 10km but by then the race was all but over. The pair reduced Pogačar’s gap to 50 seconds with 7.4km to go, and although the Slovenian looked ragged as he fought obvious discomfort with his back injury from his fall, he entered the last 2.5km with a 57 second lead.

The iconic win in Strade Bianche adds to Pogačar’s growing one-day palmares that includes Lìege-Bastogne-Lìege and Il Lombardia.

Coming into the race Pogačar was an obvious favorite after his UAE Tour win and his ever-improving one-day pedigree but his long range attack was something else. His attack came after a flurry of moves from the likes of Julian Alaphilippe but when the Tour winner put in his second decisive attack his lead never looked threatened.

“I went early and I didn’t know until 5 kilometers if I was going to make it,” Pogacar said. “I am super happy to have pulled it off. My energy was going lower and lower in the final, but I managed to go until the end.”

A huge crash took down Julian Alaphilippe and many others at about 100km out. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Blustery starts and a major crash

The race began in cold temperatures but with little chance of rain under clear skies. The opening forays saw a group of nine riders kick clear, including Lilian Calmejane (AG2R Citroën Team), Marco Brenner, Davide Martinelli (Astana Qazaqstan), Leon Heinschke (Team DSM), Simone Bevilacqua, Sergio Garcia (Eolo-Kometa), Taco Van Der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), Edoardo Zardini (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli), and Samuele Zoccarato (Bardiani-CSF).

The leaders established a near-four-minute lead and it looked as though the race had reached a relatively calm footing. However everything changed as the race dipped inside the final 100km of action.

Winds had been predicted before the race, and they had been a feature in the early phases and the women’s race earlier in the day, but nothing prepared the men’s peloton for what they experienced on sector 5 when a huge gust of wind turned the race on its head.

World champion Alaphilippe was at the front of the race and well positioned  when the strong winds from the righthand side blew an Alpecin-Fenix rider into his path. There was nowhere for the Frenchman to go. Alaphilippe went over the handlebars and into a ditch while the resulting fall and the continued winds caused carnage with dozens of riders hitting the deck. Among them were top-favorites Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) and Victor Campenaert (Lotto-Soudal), who both abandoned soon after.

The crash left Alaphilippe over two minutes down through the end of the fifth sector but by the time he and a large group navigated the Pieve a Salti sector the gap was down to less than a minute, while the remnants of the break was still a further minute up the road.

With Alaphilippe’s team chasing it was Bahrain Victorious who took up the pace-setting duties at the front of the peloton with Pello Bilbao in mind. Also in contention at that point were Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).

With the help of his team and other riders waylaid by the crash, Alaphilippe made it back to the main field with 76km to go, just before sector 7 of San Martino. At that point, the break was down to just Heinschke, Brenner, Van Der Hoorn, Calmejane, and Zoccarato, who had a lead of 52 seconds with 69km to go.

Back down the road and Lotto-Soudal was in a determined mood. They took over from Bahrain-Victorious and the Belgian team reduced the quintet up front to just a 25-second lead. A headwind allowed the break to extend the gap to back over a minute but they had to do it without Heinschke, who was dropped on one of the many short climbs that peppered the sector.

Pogacar surveys the damage after his first attack. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The race ignites as Pogačar attacks from long range

On sector 8 of the race Lotto-Soudal put the hammer down for a second time and with 52km to go the break was finally caught.

As soon as the catch was made Alaphilippe accelerated on a small incline. The move stretched the leaders with Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) among the first to respond. Once the pace slowed Wellens attacked on a short downhill. This move strung out what was left of the peloton with Alaphilippe and Simon Clarke (Isreal-Premier Tech) quick to match the Belgian.

A second kick from Alaphilippe followed before Pogačar put in his first move off the front. The first attack from the Tour de France winner was easily matched but a second volley with 50km caused serious issues for those hoping to follow.

Alaphilippe tried in vain but only Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) was able to mount an initial challenge, holding the gap at 15 seconds with the main field a further eight seconds adrift.

With 42km to go Pogačar had a gap of 1:10, an extraordinary feat given the firepower still in the peloton, while Rodriguez sat at 35 seconds behind the UAE Team Emirates rider.

Kasper Asgreen chased solo for a time, then later linked up with Alejandro Valverde. But it was too little, too late.

With 24km to go Rodriguez was finally reeled in but at that stage, and at the start of sector 9 the gap to the Trek-Segafredo led peloton stood at 1:22. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) saw his afternoon end early with a rear mech mechanical as Quick-Step tried to breathe life into the race on the short punchy climb that concluded the sector. At that point Alaphilippe was distanced as the gap to Pogačar dropped to 59 seconds with 21.9km to go.

Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step) accelerated at the crest of the climb with Quinn Simmons (Trek Segafredo), Valverde, Welllens, and Narvaez following the Tour of Flanders winner. Meanwhile Kuss crashed out of contention before Pogačar hit sector 10 with 19km to go.

Asgreen managed to put a slender lead into the rest of the chase group, and ate into Pogačar’s lead for the briefest of moments with the gap down to 58 seconds. But with 13.4km to go, the Tour winner had just one more sector and the final climb remaining.

Asgreen was soon joined by Valverde and the pair managed to bring the gap down to 45 seconds at one point but Pogačar ended up with a healthy enough buffer to celebrate his win and send a huge message ahead of Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.

Results will be available once stage has completed.

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