Ahead of the 2016 season, I named Strade Bianche as one of “the best races you might not be watching” alongside De Branbantse Pijl (still always awesome) and, erm, the Arctic Race of Norway (can’t win them all). In the years that have followed, Strade Bianche has undisputedly become a blockbuster day on the calendar.
Its brutality is deceptive on route profiles. In the sunshine, it’s a bright and beautiful jaunt through Tuscany. In the rain – which approached bitter hailstones in 2018 – it is reduced to a sludgy war of attrition. Unfortunately for fans (as well as Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens) the forecast tomorrow is dry and breezy. However, showers early in the week should provide some testing sections. I expect some action by the time we hit Monteaperti.
The early slot in the calendar also means there is very little notable form to study. It’s easily popular enough to attract a host of big names, but arrives too early in the season to be a natural fitness peak. It’s a race that encourages big, bold, individual performances over carefully crafted gameplans. What I’m saying, essentially, is that it’s a great race to have a bet.
And my winner is…
Matej Mohoric @ 25/1
I can’t believe we’re at this stage already, but I’m glad Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock aren’t riding. With their cross backgrounds, they would eat up the current peloton on this punchy gravel route.
Instead, I’ll plump for Matej Mohoric who I still believe is well suited to this race, despite not yet cracking the top ten (best finish 11th in 2018). His form is as good as most on offer, continuing his wonderful 2021 with a high finish at Valenciana and a front-group 17th at Omloop. His team are steady if not spectacular, but I expect Pedro Bilbao to go deep alongside him. I’ll be very surprised if Mohoric isn’t around the top ten this year, and his price is tasty – even for EW backers.
Keep your eyes on…
Jakob Fuglsang @ 50/1
It’s easy to say the Jakob Fuglsang of 2019 is long gone but he starts 2022 as the biggest fish at Israel Premier-Tech and they will be desperate for results from him. Anything close to that stunning 2019 form – seriously go back and watch the 2019 race and how he threw everything at a smoking hot Alaphilippe – would put him in contention for big honours. I don’t think Fuglsang would have signed for Israel Premier-Tech without the intention of challenging for a few more wins. 50/1 is very nice indeed.
Alessandro Covi @ 18/1
By pairing Alessandro Covi with Tadej Pogacar (priced 5/2), UAE will pose the loudest opposition to race favourite Alaphilippe. Whilst Pogacar has everything needed to add this race to his collection, Covi is far more interesting and much more Just Pro Cycling. The young Italian is poised for a huge season following his 2021 breakout and is bound to love the twisting climb to the Piazza del Campo at the race’s conclusion. If Covi’s in the leading trio instead the final kilometre, I would fancy him to land a huge win for Italy. Perhaps only naivety could stop him.
Sergio Higuita @ 33/1
The last rider to keep an eye on is Sergio Higuita, in lovely new Bora colours. He won uphill in Portugal two weeks ago and is flanked by a strong climbing team. I can’t see him not being in the front side of any major selection.
The no-hoper who I have hope for…
Andrea Vendrame @ 400/1
You simply can’t list Andrew Vendrame at 400/1 and not expect me to act. Unfortunately, he is a distant third choice behind Greg van Avermaet and Benoit Cosnefroy for AG2R, but that could change on the road should either race captain show signs of a February leg-bonk. He’ll also be blessed with freedom to get into the early move.
Unfortunately, the women’s race isn’t priced up anywhere that I can see, but my money would be on Demi Vollering. The young Dutch all-rounder is poised to take Dutch cycling into the next generation but faces one major problem: the current generation are refusing to disappear into the sunset. Instead, Annemiek Van Vleuten looked directly into the sun, commanded it to rise again, and promptly took another Omloop title. Thankfully, Vollering has toppled Van Vleuten before (in Liege) and will no longer be in awe of the 39-year-old. She should also be quicker than her, although the predominantly uphill finish is somewhat of a leveller. It’s not easy riding for SD Worx, and Vollering also faces competition from within her own team in the form of Lotte Kopecky and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
The romantic pick is three-time runner-up Kasia Niewiadoma, although her form seems a step lower than the race favourites. I’ll give experience the nod and choose the flying Marta Bastianelli as my Italian selection, although the emergence of a new home-soil hero would always be welcome.