It would be hard for anyone for forget Anna van der Breggen’s victory at last year’s Strade Bianche; her solo attack to claim glory under the treacherously cold and wet weather conditions, and covered in sticky mud from head to toe. The new world champion is set to race the kick-off to the Women's WorldTour in Siena on Saturday, but she said the dry conditions will make the race more tactical, and so tougher for her to defend her title.
"I don't like the cold but nice weather makes the race less hard," Van der Breggen said at the opening press conference on the eve of the race.
"If the bunch is bigger, you face different challenges and a more tactical race. You have to attack at different places and use different strategies."
Van der Breggen attacked a small lead group with roughly 20km and the steepest climbs to go last year. She increased her lead to just under a minute on the way to the finish line, winning ahead of Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Elisa Longo Borghini (then Wiggle High5). It was less about tactics and more about pure attrition, and more than half the field either finished outside of the time limit or didn't finish at all.
Wet or dry, Strade Bianche is a young race, only five years old, and so it is hard to predict outcomes with its limited history.
It has been the first race on the Women's WorldTour since the series' inception in 2016. Despite it only being five years old, it has quickly become one of the more popular events on the calendar because of its unique parcours and gravel sections in and around Siena, Tuscany.
"This is a really special race," Van der Breggen said. "We can't compare it with any other one. The town is beautiful. Every cyclist likes to ride in Italy. Here with the gravel roads, the ups and downs, it's a great race to start the WorldTour season. I always love to compete here."
This year's Strade Bianche features 136km that include 30km of gravel spread across eight sectors; Vidritta (2.1km), Bagnaia (5.8km), Radi (4.4km), La Piana (5.5km), S.Martino in Grania (9.5km), Monteaperti (0.8km), Colle Pinzuto (2.4km) and Le Tolfe (1.1km). And there are very steep climbs, with up to 18 per cent pitches.
Van der Breggen said that due to the difference in weather compared to last year, the dry gravel sections might make it seem like a new race altogether.
"The gravel sections feel so different than last year," she said. "It will change the racing at 100 per cent. One year ago, because of the cold I had to wear gloves, this year it's nice and sunny."
Given its position on the Women's WorldTour, the event also attracts the highest calibre of teams and riders. Van der Breggen will face riders like Niewiadoma, who has placed second on three occasions and will be looking for a victory. There is also Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), who has returned to racing from a serious knee injury but is showing strong form after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) and Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) are joining the peloton after successful cyclo-cross seasons and will be looking to transfer their strengths back onto the road. And the newly launched Trek-Segafredo team will be looking for an early WorldTour win.
"There are more and more competitive teams in women’s cycling," Van der Breggen said. "It'll make the race even more exciting tomorrow.
"Trek's new team looks really strong; CCC as [Ashleigh] Moolman moved to this team; Canyon has really strong team; Mitchelton has strong team here … I can name more and more teams. It’s good for the race."