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In a pre-taped interview, van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) said he was amazed by punishment dished out by the Italian semi-classic course during a recent reconnaissance ride.
“Most people forget there is a lot of altitude here,” van der Poel said. “When we did a recon here a few weeks ago I was surprised by how hard the race actually is. There are a lot of climbs — steep climbs —and it’s never easy. Never can you just be in the wheel and enjoying sitting out of the wind. I think it’s a really hard race.”
Van der Poel is on the shortest list of favorites heading into the first WorldTour race in four months, despite his newbie status at the event. It’s easy to see why — Tuscany’s short, punchy climbs are reminiscent of the ones at Amstel Gold Race, which van der Poel won in stunning fashion in 2019. Plus, the course’s gravel sectors, with their loose and slippery corners, cater to van der Poel’s impeccable bike handling skills from his cyclocross and cross-country mountain biking background.
On Thursday, two-time winner Michal Kwiatkowski — who won the 2014 edition in his own Strade Bianche debut — tapped van der Poel as a favorite, citing the Dutchman’s impeccable bike handling skills and the course’s loose, dusty corners.
After riding the course on Friday afternoon, van der Poel confirmed that the sun-baked dirt sectors are, indeed, treacherous.
“It’s one of the hardest races there is — it’s really technical, actually, especially because of the conditions,” van der Poel said. “It’s [to] the advantage of the guy who can really handle his bike well because it is really slippery.”
Van der Poel enters the WorldTour opener having just completed a two-week altitude camp in the French ski resort La Plagne, where he rode soaring climbs and even set a Strava record on the famed Tour de France climb Col du Petit Saint-Bernard.
Strava segments aside, van der Poel acknowledged that Strade Bianche represents a great unknown for himself and the other riders in the peloton. Nobody knows for sure how their legs will react after such a long break from racing. The last time van der Poel raced his bicycle was at Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve back on February 23.
“I think we have to see during the race how the legs are — it’s going to be hard for everyone,” van der Poel said. “The first race in a long time, and it’s going to be hard conditions, it’s going to be some special conditions with the heat predicted. I’m looking forward to it but it’s not going to be easy.”
Plus, conditions for Saturday call for soaring temperatures and sunshine, which represents a departure from the race’s traditional March conditions. Van der Poel said the heat and humidity are likely to impact the race. Pre-race favorites are unlikely to play their cards too early, due to the suffocating heat.
The Dutchman named longtime cyclocross rival Wout van Aert as a rival for Saturday, but said that he also expect’s the race’s lineup of top climbers to factor into the finale. Defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick Step) is another favorite, alongside last year’s runner-up Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo).
Also on the list of contenders are the cobblestone classics riders such as Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg van Avermaet (CCC Team), and breakaway specialist Tiesj Benoot (Team Sunweb).
Even the final kick to the finish in Sienna’s Piazza del Campo appeared to surprise van der Poel with its sheer pain. The race has often come down to a test of wills on the steep and narrow lane, which ascends for nearly a kilometer before the downhill sprint to the line.
“If you go against the real climbers it’s going to be very difficult,” van der Poel said. “It’s very steep and quite long, actually. I think in an ideal case I would go there alone, but it’s going to be really hard.”