Saturday’s Strade Bianche was the first UCI Men’s and Women’s WorldTour race of the year in Italy. Held on the famed white roads of Tuscany, the race saw better conditions than the wet and muddy ones where Wout van Aert (Jumbo – Visma) made a big splash by finishing third last year.

A successor was sought for last year’s winners Anna van der Breggen (Boels – Dolmans) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto – Soudal). Both riders were there to defend their titles.

Could they take two in a row?

Elite Women’s Strade Bianche Donne

After several early attacks that included Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) and Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb), among others, the lead selection in the Elite Women’s race dwindled to 10 riders inside 20km to the finish in Siena. The group included some of the race’s big names, including Marianne Vos (CCC – Liv), Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Chantal Blaak (Boels – Dolmans), Anna van der Breggen (Boels – Dolmans) and last year’s runner-up Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon // SRAM).

With 12km to go, similar to  last year, it was a section of the iconic white gravel where the race’s biggest moment occurred. Annemiek Van Vleuten (Mitchelton – Scott) accelerated up a gravel climb, and no one seemed to be able to follow the defending Time Trial World Champion.

Behind her, the group of strong riders gave chase and tried to close the gap, but they were unable to do so.

Van Vleuten held the move and won her first race of the season in a race she very much wanted to win.

“I thought maybe this race was a bit too early because I only had 10 weeks of training after I broke my knee in the World Championships in Innsbruck. But I worked really hard because this race was really on my wishlist to win one time since it’s one of my favorite races,” Van Vleuten said after the race.

As Van Vleuten said, she had a knee fracture because of a crash in last year’s road race at the world championships. Van Vleuten fought back though. She trained the past winter with her male teammates hoping to be ready to battle for victory in April again. In her first race of the season (the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) she already finished fourth and in her second race, which was the Strade Bianche, she already took the win.

Danish mountain bike star Annika Langvad finished second riding for Boels – Dolmans and Polish rider Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon // SRAM) finished third, putting her on the podium for the fourth straight year. Vos was in the final chase and finished seventh.

Ruth Winder (Trek – Segafredo) was the top American in 11th.

Full results are available here.

Highlights are available from the UCI.

Last weekend, one of the stories from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was the neutralization of the Elite Women’s race 30km into the race. This weekend, one of the ongoing stories with Women’s road racing is the disparity in payouts between the Women and the Men. As Cycling News pointed out before the race, the Elite Men’s winner took home €16,000, while the combined purse for the Elite Women was €10,260.

Elite Men’s Race

Four riders went into the early breakaway: Nico Denz (AG2R), Diego Rosa (Team Sky), Leo Vincent (FDJeux) and Alexandre Geniez (AG2R). Every rider in that breakaway would get caught eventually. Rosa was the last survivor. He got caught on 36 km from the finish.

It was Belgian rider Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) who opened the finale. He accelerated on the Monte Sante Marie gravel road. The peloton split and a chasing group (Diego Rosa was still leading at that point) formed.

Wellens and last year’s winner Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Jakob Fuglsang and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Pro Team), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Wout Van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma), were a few of the chasers.

Thirty-six kilometers from the finish, the last survivor of the breakaway, Rosa, got caught and the chasing group became the leading group.

Twenty-three kilometers from the finish, on a next gravel road, Danish ride Fuglsang decided to attack. Wout Van Aert followed the Rio 2016 Olympic Games silver medalist. When the two had created themselves a little gap, French rider Alaphilippe realized the danger of the attack and closed the gap on his own. Soon the three leaders had a 30-second advantage.

On the penultimate gravel road, which was going uphill, Van Aert couldn’t keep up with Fuglsang and Alaphilippe, who are both climbers. Fuglsang tried to get rid of Alaphilippe on the last gravel road, which was going uphill as well but didn’t succeed. At the end of the last gravel road, Van Aert was 30 seconds behind.

Towards the last climb which led to the finish on the Piazza del Campo, the two leaders started looking at each other. Their pace dropped which allowed Van Aert to close the gap right before the start of the climb. On that climb, Van Aert took the lead, but when Fuglsang attacked, he didn’t have anything left anymore in return. When Fuglsang made it to the top, he had Alaphilippe in his wheel.

The Frenchman attacked, created a little gap and held that gap towards the finish. Fuglsang finished second, Van Aert finished third for the second year in a row.

Full results are available here.

“It was a really hard day,” Alaphillippe said after the race. “It’s a really special race that I wanted to win one day. To win in my first participation was really special. My teammates did a really good job today. We all did our responsibilities and made no mistakes.”

“The suffering was quite the same as last year,” Van Aert said about his third-place finish. “In the last half hour of the race, I was in pain. I just lost the connection with Julian and Jakob. From then on, it was a long way of suffering. I’m happy that I survived and remained able to make the podium.”

For a run-down of the race, check out the always-great How the Race was Won from Cosmo Catalano.