Before the 2023 edition of Strade Bianche, riders buzzed around the team buses. Mechanics made adjustments to tyre pressures, they added sandpaper in bottle cages to stop them falling out, riders discussed team tactics, some looking more nervous than others. Some had stem notes spanning halfway down their top tubes, with notes about when crucial sectors would pop up, or when it was time to eat and drink, or possible moments to attack. Cycling is becoming more and more about this crucial attention to detail and leaving no stone unturned when it comes to preparation, relying on science and numbers to dictate team tactics or race preparation.
For Tom Pidcock, who won this year’s Strade Bianche, his confidence ahead of the race relied, quite simply, on two black cats that had crossed the road in front of him, two days in a row. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad luck,” he said after the race, “but it gave me this feeling.”
It’s a feeling that Pidcock explains he’s had before, one that tells him that there are good things to come. “I used to get this feeling a lot when I was a junior where I just know the headspace I'm in, the state of mind I’m in and the shape I’m in is all just going to play out right and this week I had that. I felt good, I felt confident and happy. I knew that today something good was going to happen.”
Image: Chris Auld
When asked how he knew that attacking with 51.5 kilometres of the race remaining was the right decision, Pidcock replied: “I didn't really mean to attack. I was just pushing and I found myself alone.”
Attacks aren’t really supposed to be made by accident, but Pidcock appeared to have a such a feeling in Strade Bianche that he didn’t really need to think, it’s like he had a true belief that he would take victory, despite the fear of the chasing group closing in on him later in the latter kilometres of the race. “There were a few times where I thought maybe that it was stupid, especially when it came closer to the finish. I thought that I might have shot my shot too early, but it worked out,” Pidcock explained.
The British rider’s move was reminiscent of Tadej Pogačar’s brave solo attack at Strade Bianche last year – in fact, he started to accelerate just one kilometre after the Slovenian did in 2022. Naturally, comparisons are being drawn between the two riders, though Pidcock is quick to silence any questions about this.
“Considering he probably could have won every race he did this year if he wanted to, then I don’t think we’re the same. I want to compete with him like everyone, he’s a phenomenal athlete and he’s setting the standard in cycling,” he said.
Image: Zac Williams
Regardless of whether Pidcock himself believes he’s on par with Pogačar, it’s true that they both have a similar style of racing on instinct. “I wanted to go and I saw a good opportunity,” Pidcock said, after Strade Bianche, and it all seems so simple when he puts it like that.
And maybe it is. Despite the heavy focus on aerodynamics, technological advancements and perfect preparation that riders go through to give them the edge on race day, races like Strade Bianche today remind us that really, all of those elements can never replace the core of bike racing, which is about being opportunistic and believing in the chance you have to win.
Even those close to Pidcock such as his teammate, 21-year-old Ben Tulett, recognised the winning feeling that Pidcock describes as having in the week leading up to this race. “To win a race like Strade you have to be in such good condition, but he was quietly confident and that really paid off today. He believes in himself a lot,” Tulett said after the race.
This belief that Tulett describes is something that Pidcock needs to keep hold of in order to keep winning, and keep doing things differently. For example, when many riders would have spent their winter doing strict power-based efforts, Pidcock filmed a viral video of him going for the Strava record on a descent in Los Angeles; “just a bit of fun,” as he describes it. When most riders might rely on power data to tell them if they’re in good shape ahead of a race, Pidcock goes on feeling and seeing two black cats.
Image: Chris Auld
Pidcock’s Strade Bianche victory sits as his biggest one-day result in his career so far and is another sign, if anyone needed one, that the British rider’s calm but confident approach to racing and his multi-discipline calendar is working well for the 23-year-old. Now he’s secured such a big one-day result, questions arise straight away about when his focus will switch to winning the general classification of a Grand Tour.
While riders are normally forced to focus on either GC ambitions or results in the Classics, Pidcock’s approach and performance today at Strade Bianche tells us that he is a rider who is never going to be prepared to do things in the normal way, regardless of the questions and pressure around him. That's what makes him a special athlete.
“I don't have to choose, do I?” was his blunt response when asked about how he would balance his future goals. As cycling gets more complicated and everything from kit to training is evolving, Pidcock’s to-the-point simplicity is refreshing. He felt like he was going to win Strade Bianche today, so he attacked when he wanted to, and, sure enough, he took victory. If Pidcock has this ‘feeling’ again for the rest of the spring Classics, his rivals have something to fear.
“There's a long way to go, but to already take the win takes pressure off,” Pidcock said of the rest of the season. "We can race openly but also with confidence. If I don't win another Classic this year, I’ve won one, so it's already successful but for sure I want to take this form into more races.”
Cover image: James Startt