Roundtable: Benoot, van Aert, and the muddy chaos of Strade Bianche

Strade Bianche was an epic battle in the Tuscan mud. We sound off on the race's key moments and what it can tell us about the classics.

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Saturday’s Strade Bianche delivered mud, rain, and plenty of excitement. Winner Tiesj Benoot played his cards perfectly. Romain Bardet showed that a Tour de France favorite can also factor into a hard, one-day classic. And Wout van Aert gave the cycling world one of its most dramatic moments ever, as he cramped on the final climb to Siena and had to remount his bicycle on a slippery road.

Let’s roundtable!

What were the keys to Tiesj Benoot’s victory?

Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Impeccable timing. His moves came at the right moments, first to go with Pieter Serry, then to bridge across alone to the two leaders, and then in his final attack. It was a dream scenario and he played it perfectly. Incredible to think it was his first win of his career. If he races this smart during the remainder of the spring, it won’t be his last.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: When Benoot chased up to Bardet and van Aert, it was key that he did it alone, so he didn’t have to worry about bringing another rival up to the front of the race. Also, he timed his winning attack perfectly — the toughest climb before the fast pavement to the bottom of Siena. But here’s one key that he couldn’t have controlled: Bardet and van Aert’s attack at around 46km to go. It was essential for Benoot to have them up the road, both as a carrot to chase and a couple of strong riders to draft.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: Patience. We’ve often seen Tiesj Benoot burn his matches by attacking from too far out, without the requisite group of strong riders up the road. These attacks often burn him out before the race finale (think last weekend’s Omloop). So to see him wait for the early move of strongmen, and then attack up to them, showed that he’s learned some patience. Will he apply this lesson in the future? Who knows.

Dane Cash @danecashBenoot made the perfect move at the perfect point in the race, but his tactics weren’t the only thing that propelled him to the win. His legs deserve a ton of credit. He quickly opened up a big gap on Bardet — a highly underrated one-day racer — and van Aert and maintained it all the way to the line. It was a well-timed attack by a rider clearly in terrific form.

What was the most memorable scene from this year’s race, and why?

Andy: How can you not say van Aert? Rarely will a third-place garner so much praise and attention. The kid looks to have the chops to be a player in the classics. It will be interesting to see how long his legs last going into his ambitious spring classics racing schedule.

Spencer: Van Aert collapsing on the pavers in Siena after finishing third. Brakethrough Media’s photo essay captures the agony of that steep finish after 184km of rain and mud

Fred: Obviously the video of Wout van Aert struggling with leg cramps on the final climb. The Twitter video shows the drama. Ironman has the dramatic videos of Chris Legh and Julie Moss, and now Strade Bianche has Wout van Aert.

Dane: It’s got to be van Aert on the final climb. Strade Bianche gives us awesome images of riders caked in mud every year, but this was something else from a rider who did everything in his power Saturday to win over a legion of new fans.

Which rider wins if he plays his cards differently?

Andy: Valverde looks to be hitting incredible form for the classics, but seemed a bit hesitant to take any risks. He was likely a marked man to try something earlier. That the leaders stayed clear to challenge for the win is a testament to their collective strength against the mass of favorites chasing.

Spencer: Valverde looked like he had the legs to win the day. Perhaps if he’d followed Bardet’s attack in that moment of indecision, he would have had a shot. That said, he was probably a marked man (if anyone could tell it was him beneath that sheen of white mud).

Fred: You have to wonder how much energy Romain Bardet burned when he had to chase up to the front group or leaders prior to his decisive attack. It was an impressive ride from Bardet, of course, but he did appear to be caught out. Would that extra energy have helped him stay with Benoot? Doubtful.

Dane:  No easy answer here because the endgame plays out totally differently if there are multiple heavyweight names staring at each other in the last few kilometers. Valverde is probably the best answer, considering how strong he looked in the finale. If he were there with Benoot or in a small group with Benoot and a few others, he could probably outpunch everyone on the climb into the Piazza del Campo.

What lessons about the upcoming classics did we learn from Strade Bianche?

Andy: This could be a classics season full of surprises. So far, we’ve seen new and different winners across the major races. That trend could very well continue. Van Avermaet, Sagan, and Gilbert enter the northern classics as the top favorites, but it’s clear that the classics field is deeper than ever before. It’s also worth noting that once we hit the longer, six-hour-plus races, those familiar faces should bubble back to the top. The ability to perform in that last hour of racing in a 250km race is often the decisive factor in the northern classics.

Spencer: This is a weird race because the GC guys like Bardet and Valverde are mixed in. Would Sagan and Stybar have battled on the climb to Siena without the skinny climbers in the mix? Did van Aert get a free ride because Bardet was feeling frisky? Strade Bianche isn’t so simple — and that’s why I like it. I will say that Sagan needs to sharpen up in time for Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders. He didn’t look that impressive, and neither did Van Avermaet for that matter.

Fred: This race confirmed that Bora-Hansgrohe has built an impressive army for Peter Sagan at the Classics. Sagan was not on his best day. Yet he had Daniel Oss, Marcus Burghardt, and Gregor Mulberger in that front group to control the pace and chase down attacks. The old days of Sagan freelancing in these races is finally over.

Dane: The podium gives us plenty to chew on. Tiesj Benoot announced himself as a hot prospect way back in 2015 but he seems to have finally taken a big step forward. Romain Bardet, who has finished inside the top 15 in five straight Liège-Bastogne-Liège appearances, made yet another statement that his one-day chops are legit. Watch out for him in the Ardennes. Van Aert, who already made us take notice at the Omloop, confirmed his potential as a classics rider on some gnarly terrain.

Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, and Michal Kwiatkowski were all non-factors in the finale. What should we read into this?

Andy: Of those names, it’s been hardest to read Van Avermaet. He simply hasn’t been looking as sharp as he was last year in what’s he’s shown so far. It’s funny for a Flandrien, but he said he hates racing in cold and rain (maybe that helps explain his amazing Rio ride in 2016 Olympics). Sagan was solid in his first race since January and will be hitting all cylinders when it really counts. He’s never won Strade Bianche, and this year obviously wasn’t his best outing. Conditions made it extreme for everyone. Kwiatkowski obviously didn’t have a good day, but he’s looking sharp for the upcoming battles.

Spencer: Sagan was close enough to the front that I’m not too concerned about his form. Van Avermaet and Kwiatkowski, however, were pretty far back, which doesn’t bode well. Perhaps it was the weather (that was GVA’s excuse), or maybe they just shut things down when they realized a win wasn’t in the cards. Either way, my Magic 8-Ball says “Reply hazy try again.”

Fred: We shouldn’t read too much into it. The rain and heavy roads meant only the most motivated riders were going to feature in this race. My guess is Sagan, GVA, and Kwiato simply lacked the desire, given those conditions. They’re saving their legs for the cobblestones. Instead, we had a cyclocross champion, a Classics specialist looking for his first win, and a Tour favorite with nothing to lose.

Dane: At the risk of delivering a cold take instead of a spicy hot one: Last week I cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about Lotto-Soudal after their failed Omloop attacks left them empty-handed. Well, let’s just say that I’m glad I did. This week, I’ll caution against drawing too many conclusions about the trio of pre-Strade Bianche favorites. It’s just one race, with the main events of classics season still weeks off. I expect all three of them to be in shape for their objectives.

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