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How good? Fire up FloBikes.com and watch the replay of last week’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and you will see a star rider and her teammates exert their will on an entire race. SD Worx filleted the peloton into a bite-sized front group of 30 riders, minus defending champ Annemiek van Vleuten. Then, SD Worx controlled the predictable attacks until teammate Demi Vollering bolted from the bunch to force the other squads to work — van der Breggen herself chased down the only attempt to bridge.
— OmloopHetNieuwsblad (@OmloopHNB) February 27, 2021
When the eventual counterattack came on the Muur van Geraarsbergen, as it does every year, van der Breggen and Amy Pieters made the move, ensuring that SD Worx had the numbers. And when the peloton caught back at the base of the Bosberg, van der Breggen went away for good.
— OmloopHetNieuwsblad (@OmloopHNB) February 27, 2021
Cycling can be a chess match, and at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, SD Worx had all of the right moves. It’s something we’ve seen again and again from the Dutch team.
It’s worth revisiting SD Worx’s show of force as we head into Strade Bianche, another punishing race with plenty of hills. Make no mistake, Strade Bianche is an altogether different beast than Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, with its endless number of ascents and rough gravel roads. You can see the course profile and maps below — it’s simply a harder race than Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Still, I’m convinced that the hilly route and power riding sections will again cater to SD Worx’s team strength. Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio can climb, and van der Breggen appears to be at or near her top form. I’m putting all my lunch money on Anna van der Breggen to win.
But this is bike racing, of course, and we can always expect the unexpected. Flat tires, crazy weather, and unpredictable tactics are just some of the elements that can spoil the SD Worx party on Saturday. There are also a number of inspired rivals who would love to upend SD Worx’s control. Below, I’ve called out six riders who are most likely to challenge SD Worx this weekend. I’ve also spelled out the specific scenario that — in my humble opinion — would springboard each rider to victory.
Annemiek van Vleuten
It’s weird to think of Annemiek van Vleuten as an underdog, right? She is, after all, the two-time defending champion at Strade Bianche, and one of the most successful riders of her generation. Still, van Vleuten’s curious absence from the front group at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad raises some red flags. Her explanation via social media was simply that she was out of position. Uh, OK? If we chalk her Omloop finish (21st, 2:22 down) up to that, and assume that van Vleuten is just as strong as she’s ever been, then she presents the biggest challenge to SD Worx. Not only that — if van Vleuten is firing at full gas, she’s the favorite to win. We’ve seen her attack to victory from 12km out and inside the final 2km. If Strade Bianche were a video game, then an on-form Annemiek van Vleuten is the proverbial cheat code.
But that’s assuming a lot! Van Vleuten is on a new team after spending five seasons in the Orica/Green-Edge/Mitchelton program. And there’s potential here that van Vleuten and her new squad are just requiring a few weeks to iron out the wrinkles in the racing relationship.
Pathway to victory: Van Vleuten’s path to victory is pretty simple. She attacks up the Le Tolfe climb, drops van der Breggen and everyone else, and then solos into victory — just like the Annemiek van Vleuten of 2019 would have done.
Elisa Longo Borghini
Elisa Longo Borghini forms one half of Trek-Segafredo’s Voltron-like attack force, with Lizzie Deignan — who is not racing on Saturday — providing the other punch. It will be interesting to see how Trek plays its cards on Saturday with one primary leader, and other cards like Lucinda Brand and Audrey Cordon-Ragot as well. Longo Borghini is unquestionably strong right now — she led the charge of the Muur at Omloop and just lacked a few punches to follow van der Breggen on the Bosberg. But she’s not at the same level as van der Breggen.
Pathway to victory: It will need to be a tactical fight that sees Longo Borghini match van der Breggen on the final climbs and then come into the last push to Sienna in good position. She has the explosive attack to get a gap on a steep climb like the one to Piazza del Campo. If Longo Borghini can accelerate right at the top and get a gap, then she could win.
Niewiadoma has stood on the podium at Strade Bianche four times without reaching the top, and the Polish rider seems to have all of the qualities needed to thrive at the race. She’s a top climber and the head of one of the most experienced squads in the Women’s WorldTour. She also has the explosive punch to drop her rivals on short and steep hills. Look no further than her victory at the 2019 Amstel Gold Race for proof of her explosive power — she topped both van der Breggen and van Vleuten at that race. But Niewiadoma lacks the same speed on long and sustained uphills, and in many occasions, the grinding power of the two Dutchwomen has simply been too much.
Pathway to victory: Like Longo Borghini, Niewiadoma’s pathway to victory involves surviving the late attacks to reach the base of the climb to Piazza del Campo with the lead riders. Then, Niewiadoma needs to unleash her explosive attack at precisely the right moment to catch van der Breggen and others off guard, and then hold her gap to the line. It’s not out of the question.
The cycling world is ready for a big Amanda Spratt win without Annemiek van Vleuten by her side. Spratt takes control of BikeExchange for the hilly classics like Strade Bianche, but her biggest strength still likes in her team. On paper, BikeExchange has one of the deepest rosters in the bunch, and the power that Spratt lacks compared to van der Breggen and van Vleuten could be made up for with teammates. If there’s a bigger bunch that comes into the final 20km, I’m keeping my eyes on Amanda Spratt. She knows how to surprise big groups and break away, and she’s stretched a few of those moves to the line.
Pathway to victory: BikeExchange gets four riders in the front group and then Spratt attacks on an innocuous section of road and van Vleuten and van der Breggen hesitate, allowing her to get a small gap that she holds to the line.
Mavi Garcia’s second place last year was hardly a fluke, as Garcia blossomed into one of the top riders in the bunch, with a score of wins and close calls. None was as close as Strade Bianche, where she stretched a 40km breakaway into a final duel with van Vleuten on the climb to Piazza del Campo. Garcia was gassed for the final battle but still hung on for second. She’s a tough climber who can also time trial. The big question will be how she’s improved in the short 2020-2021 offseason.
Pathway to victory: I don’t envision the women’s peloton allowing Garcia to break away again this year, so she’s going to have to win the old fashioned way. Like Spratt, Garcia could benefit from a lull in the action that could allow her enough room for a mid-range attack.
How could we compile a list of potential winners without including Marianne Vos? Vos has never won Strade Bianche, and on paper, she may not have the strength on long, grinding climbs to survive the terrain. Still, Vos is the most experienced rider in the pack, and she’d love to grab a big win for her new Jumbo-Visma outfit.
Pathway to victory: It’s no easy ask for Vos, who isn’t at the same climbing level as van Vleuten and van der Breggen. Still, if she can get to the base of Piazza del Campo in a lead group, and then play her tactical cards correctly, anything is possible.