Grand Tour stars spoiling Strade Bianche for Classics riders.

Strade Bianche is one of the most prestigious Classics on the spring calendar but the new generation of Grand Tour riders who also like to race aggressively have invaded the Classics riders’ terrain and are starting to steal their thunder.

Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën), who has raced Strade Bianche twelve times and finished a close second in 2015 behind Zdenek Štybar and again to Michał Kwiatkowski in 2017, has the climbing ability to handle the hilly parcours. However, subtle changes in the sport and the emergence of aggressive and technically skilled climbers have greatly reduced his chances of success.

“Strade Bianche is one of my favourite races but in recent years it has become more and more difficult to compete with the climbers,” Van Avermaet told Ann Brackman of the Belga news agency.

“My best chances here are perhaps over. I’ve noticed in recent years that it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete against the ‘climbers’.

“In the early editions of Strade Bianche, there were a lot of Classic riders at the start, but in recent years a lot of very good climbers also perform well and that doesn’t make it any easier for me. I’m still a guy of 75-77 kg. You have to drag that up all those climbs.”

Van Avermaet’s morale no doubt dropped when he saw this year’s start list.

“Mathieu [van der Poel] or Wout [van Aert] aren’t riding the start, but all the other toppers are there,” he pointed out.

“Tadej Pogačar is the strongest rider of the moment and then you have [Julian] Alaphilippe and [Alejandro] Valverde, among others. I can name 20 names that could win Strade Bianche.”

Van Avermaet endured a difficult 2021 season but finished third at last Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad after a defensive ride.

He might go for a very different tactic at Strade Bianche.

“Of course, I still believe I can do something, otherwise you have to throw in the towel,” he said. “I just have to race differently than before, take the initiative less and that apparently also leads to results, as in the Omloop.

“But Strade Bianche is a very different and tough race, the strongest rider wins and everyone always ends up in their place.”

The 184km race includes 63km of gravel roads spread across 11 sectors but Strade Bianche is very different to Paris-Roubaix or even the Tour of Flanders. The ever-rolling hills of Tuscany mean Strade Bianche includes 3,100m of altitude, much of it on steep dirt roads, with the descents almost as equally as testing.

The hills and gravel roads of Strade Bianche combine to create a unique parcours that has allowed Grand Tour winners like Pogačar, Richard Carapaz and Egan Bernal to take on the heavier Classics riders.

In the early editions of Strade Bianche, Fabian Cancellara powered over the climbs to win in 2008, 2012 and 2016 but since then, the Classics riders have often been eclipsed and defeated. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) won in August 2020 and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won last year but they have proven they are above and beyond the normal tag of Classics contenders.

Last year, Bernal duelled with Van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe, while Romain Bardet got the better of a young Van Aert on the final climb to the finish in 2018 behind winner Tiesj Benoot. Peter Sagan has twice finished in Strade Bianche but in recent years, as riders peak higher for shorter spells of racing, it has become almost impossible for Classics riders to be at their best to handle the climbs of Strade Bianche and still be on form at Paris-Roubaix, which has now moved to the weekend after the Amstel Gold Race, further stretching the spring. Indeed, Van Aert has opted to miss this year’s Strade Bianche, using Paris-Nice to build up to the Classics in the hope of winning big at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Perhaps only Julian Alaphilippe has the breadth of talent to fight for victory at Strade Bianche and then peak again for the Ardennes Classics but even he has been forced to carefully select his goals this spring and does not yet seem at his best.

Pogačar has different goals and different race programmes. He can target Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo after peaking for the UAE Tour, using his bike skills to create a special combination of ability.

Richard Carapaz, Jakob Fuglsang, Sergio Higuita, Miguel Angel Lopez, Pello Bilbao, Ruben Guerreiro and Sepp Kuss have similar talents if not the same form as Pogačar. They will make it hard for Classics riders like Michael Matthews, Van Avermaet, Quinn Simmons, Gianni Moscon and Kasper Asgreen to compete, while only Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) currently have the form to be a threat to the climbers in a straight fight without punctures, crashes and crosswinds.

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