Strade Bianche is always a tough race to predict, with an undulating route that can suit both one-day racers and climbers who we’d normally expect to see fighting for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. The gravel paths and dust clouds add another layer of complication: crashes, mishaps and punctures are common on the white roads, so it doesn’t always come down to the strongest rider on the day, luck has to be on the winner’s side too.
With two of the key pre-race favourites, Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar, deciding not to take part in Strade Bianche this year, the men’s race could be slightly more open for a tighter-fought battle for victory. The likes of Tom Pidcock, Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe sit at the forefront of pre-race favourites, but there are some other names to keep an eye out for who have already shown their form earlier this season.
For a race so suited to his strengths, it’s somewhat surprising that Tom Pidcock has only competed in Strade Bianche once before in his career. This was back in 2021, where the British rider finished in fifth place amongst an elite group of contenders – an impressive performance on debut. Pidcock relishes the steep climbs and is well-suited to them thanks to his light weight and slight physique. The Ineos Grenadiers rider is also likely to excel when it comes to the technical demands that gravel places on riders, his winter of riding cyclocross will have ensured that Pidcock has kept his skills sharp.
Pidcock at Omloop het Nieuwsblad 2023 (Image: Nico Vereecken - Pool/Getty Images)
At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend, Pidcock looked to be in stellar form, despite it being a race with parcours that are not particularly suited to his strengths. The increased number of elevation metres in Strade Bianche compared to the roads of Belgium will play into the hands of the Brit and he’ll be supported by a strong line-up for the Ineos Grenadiers as well. Michał Kwiatkowski is in the British team’s roster and he is a rider who has won Strade Bianche twice before in his career, so knows exactly how the race should be ridden. He could be another option for Ineos if something goes wrong for Pidcock on race day. American rider Magnus Sheffield will also be an asset to the team as a rider who is suited to the hilly Classics, winning Brabantse Pijl last season. With such established riders around him and his current physical form, Pidcock has a good chance of winning Strade Bianche this year. Will this be the race that gives him his reward for cutting his ‘cross campaign short last winter?
Julian Alaphilippe is former winner of Strade Bianche after taking victory in 2019 and the Frenchman also finished second in the 2021 edition behind Mathieu van der Poel. These results firmly put him on the list of pre-race favourites for Strade Bianche year on year. The Soudal - Quick-Step rider had a difficult season in 2022, suffering from various bouts of illness and injury and having subpar results (by the two-time former world champion’s own high standards.) However, it appears that Alaphilippe is gradually returning to the rider that many of us recognise him as, able to produce those stinging attacks when the gradient kicks up, unafraid to race aggressively. His recent victory at the Faun-Ardèche Classic where he outsprinted David Gaudu to take the win is proof of this, and Strade Bianche will be the first test to see if Alaphilippe can repeat this sort of performance in a higher-quality field.
Soudal - Quick-Step’s performances so far in the opening Classics means that they are in dire need of a strong result (even if only just to stop them receiving the wrath of team manager Patrick Lefevere). Alaphilippe will be hoping that he can give this to the team on the roads of Italy this weekend, but he is going to need to be in superb form to outclass the likes of Pidcock and Van der Poel. Alaphilippe’s racecraft and tactical nous is often something he can use to his advantage, and he will also be aided by his talented team-mates – including Mauri Vansevenant, another strong puncheur.
Mathieu van der Poel
Newly-crowned cyclocross world champion Mathieu van der Poel opens his 2023 road campaign with Strade Bianche, a race he won emphatically two years ago. The Dutchman’s stinging attack through the dust with 12 kilometres of the race remaining in 2021 was a move that will go down in Strade Bianche history – it created the decisive breakaway of Van der Poel, Egan Bernal and Alaphilippe who rode together until the closing kilometres. Van der Poel delivered another blow on the final climb up to the finish line in Piazza del Campo which secured him the race victory, allowing him to cross the line with time to emotionally celebrate. When Van der Poel is in the sort of form to produce these powerful attacks on climbs, it’s virtually impossible for his rivals to match him, so if he’s able to do it this weekend, the Alpecin–Deceuninck rider has every chance of taking victory.
Van der Poel on his way to winning Strade Bianche in 2021 (Image: CorVos/SWpix)
However, the fact that Van der Poel is yet to race so far on the road this season could be his downfall – will his racecraft be as sharp as those who started in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last weekend? The Dutchman also has a slightly weaker team to support him when compared to the likes of Jumbo-Visma and the Ineos Grenadiers, so this might hinder his chances of winning if he finds himself isolated in the final throes of the race. There is also the ongoing question of Van der Poel’s health when it comes to injuries; he has complained of back pain during the cyclocross season and it’s yet to be seen if this will affect him in a road race that will run for almost five hours.
Jumbo-Visma have undoubtedly been one of the teams to watch in the opening races of the season. They dominated both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last weekend with incredible strength in numbers, each rider on the team seemed to be in winning form. However, it was Tiesj Benoot who took the spoils for the team in yellow and black at Kuurne, winning the sprint from a breakaway which contained both him and his team-mate Nathan Van Hooydonck (who finished in second place.) Although he was admittedly helped by having a team-mate in the group with him, for Benoot to win at Kuurne is proof that the Belgian rider has had a solid winter of training which has put him in good stead for the opening of the season.
Benoot has a history at Strade Bianche, winning the 2018 edition, a result which remains as one of the biggest victories of his career. That year saw a mud-soaked, wet edition of Strade Bianche and Benoot emerged into the Piazza del Campo almost unrecognisable, caked in dirt and freezing from the rain. Although the weather forecast is looking more favourable for the 2023 edition, Benoot’s result in 2018 is proof that he is very well-suited to the terrain in Tuscany; he is lightweight but powerful enough to punch up the climbs. Jumbo-Visma’s line-up also features Jan Tratnik who is another strong rider that could either support Benoot or be in contention for victory himself. Although they will be weakened by the loss of Wout van Aert, this does mean Benoot should have undisputed leadership for Jumbo-Visma at Strade Bianche this year which could give him more motivation than ever to perform.
While he may not have the history of results in Strade Bianche when compared to some of the others on this list, Matej Mohorič’s palmarès in his career so far mean he can’t be counted out for victory. The Bahrain-Victorious rider will need to approach the race in a different way to the likes of Van der Poel and Pidcock – he can’t rely on dropping them on the steep climbs, but he can look for opportunistic moments to attack the race and go for a solo attempt at victory. Mohorič has won in this way on multiple occasions, perhaps most memorably at Milan-San Remo in 2022, and could do it at Strade Bianche if everything goes to plan for the Slovenian rider on the day.
Mohorič at Omloop het Nieuwsblad 2023 (Image: Nico Vereecken - Pool/Getty Images)
In the past, perhaps some of the steep inclines in Strade Bianche have been too much for Mohorič, but his performances at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad tell us that the 28-year-old is currently flying when the roads kick up. He was the second man from the peloton to crest the crucial Muur van Geraardsbergen and this is a climb that mimics the qualities of those that he will face at Strade Bianche. Mohorič won’t be afraid of the technical downhills or sketchy corners on the gravel roads either, he’s known for his supreme bike-handling skills and demon descending. Supported by Pello Bilbao, who is an impressive climber, Mohorič could be a force to be reckoned with at Strade Bianche.
As Mohorič stormed up the Muur van Geraardsbergen last weekend, there was another rider who was just ahead of him when the peloton crested the climb and that was UAE Team Emirates’ Tim Wellens. After switching from Lotto-Soudal to UAE Team Emirates for the 2023 season, Wellens has already got plenty of race days in his legs this year. He took a stage win at the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta del Sol during a busy period of racing in Spain but seems to have really come into his own on the cold cobbles of Belgium. As well as performing well at Omloop, Wellens got himself into the winning breakaway at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, although was eventually outnumbered and outsprinted by his companions, finishing in fifth place.
These results are strong indicators of Wellens’ form, though, and he’s finished in the top-15 at Strade Bianche on four occasions so far in his career, including coming third in 2017. Wellens has a strong team around him with the likes of Davide Formolo, who finished second in Strade Bianche in 2020, and Alessandro Covi, another strong Italian climber.
Aside from the main contenders, there are a couple of outsiders who could be in with a shot at taking victory at Strade Bianche. Aleksandr Vlasov of Bora-Hansgrohe opened his season well in Valencia and could perform well in Strade Bianche if he is motivated for a result. Pello Bilbao finished fifth in Strade Bianche last year so could also be one to watch for Bahrain-Victorious alongside Mohorič, he’s already opened his win tally for 2023 with a stage victory in the Tour Down Under.
Ruben Guerreiro celebrates after winning stage four of Saudi Tour 2023, (Image: Alex Broadway/Getty Images)
Valentin Madouas of Groupama-FDJ finished third at the Tour of Flanders last year and could be well-suited to the route of Strade Bianche, while the strong Italian climber, Lorenzo Rota of Intermarché-Circus-Wanty, might also be in with a shot of an outside result. Alberto Bettiol of EF Education-EasyPost could also be one to watch, he’s a former winner of the Tour of Flanders and likes the punchy climbs of Strade Bianche. Ruben Guerreiro could be Movistar’s best shot at victory – the Portuguese rider finished 15th last year and looked to be in good form earlier in the season, winning the overall general classification at the Saudi Tour and performing well in Spanish stage race, O Gran Camiño.
We think that Mathieu van der Poel will take victory at the 2023 edition of Strade Bianche. The Dutchman proved his form throughout the cyclocross season and we know that he is well-suited to this race after his victory in 2021.
Cover image: Marco Bertorello/Getty