Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) took her first victory and, with it, the lead in the UCI Women's WorldTour in her first race of the 2018 season at Saturday's Strade Bianche. Attacking with Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) on the penultimate gravel sector with 18 kilometres to go in the 136km race and continuing solo when Longo Borghini suffered a mechanical, Van der Breggen proved she was the strongest in a race held in extreme weather conditions.
When Cyclingnews spoke with her after the podium ceremony, Van der Breggen was exhausted, but happy.
"It was such a hard race, one of the hardest races I ever did," she said. "But if you win a race like this, it is special. I will remember this for the rest of my life."
The Dutchwoman revealed that the Boels Dolmans team had no specific tactic for the race. "I don't know if you can have a fixed plan going into a race like this. We tried to be at the front with as many riders as possible. It is one of the strengths of our team to have so many strong riders."
World champion Chantal Blaak played on this strength when she went on the attack in the second half of the race, freeing her teammates of the responsibility to chase. And when Blaak had been brought back, Van der Breggen was ready to take over.
"I noticed that it was difficult to make a difference on the really steep parts on the gravel sections," she explained. "It was hard, like clay, gripping your tires. I attacked when I felt a good moment in between those parts and then just tried to go as fast as possible.
"I was so empty at the finish line. I almost couldn't climb the podium, so it was good for me that the race wasn't any longer. I am really happy to win this one, and I want to thank my team. They kept me motivated, brought me hot tea and jackets. Chantal Blaak did great today, as did the rest of the girls, and that is important for a win like this."
Last year's winner Elisa Longo Borghini had her share of back luck with a puncture on the longest gravel sector as well as an unfortunate mechanical in the finale that made her lose contact with Van der Breggen. Nevertheless, the Italian champion was upbeat after the race.
"In this race you can expect some mechanicals, but I had more mechanicals than I expected," Longo Borghini said. "That is racing, it happens. I tested my shape, and in the end, I was better than expected, so I am satisfied. I tried to stay with Anna, but something got stuck in my wheel, and she dropped me. And when you lose Van der Breggen, you never come back, she is so strong."
After two second places at this race in the last two years, Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) had vowed to fight with all she had to make it to the top step of the podium. She attacked onto the penultimate gravel sector but missed the move of Van der Breggen and Longo Borghini. On the final gravel sector Niewiadoma took up the chase of Van der Breggen on her own and caught Longo Borghini, but victory eluded her yet again.
The 23-year-old chose to look at the positives and praised her fellow racers for braving the conditions.
"I think it's my destiny to always be second in the Strade Bianche," she said with a smile.
"It was an extremely tough race, and I have a huge appreciation for every rider who managed to finish today. Hell is not enough of a word to describe the conditions today. I'm super happy to be on the podium. My family is here, they were cheering me on, and it also gave me extra wings to fight until I drop. And I really felt ready to drop after the finish line."