The weather dominated the build-up to the 2018 Strade Bianche and the sloppy dirt tracks duly served up one of the most memorable editions in the Italian Classic's short history. At the end of 184 thrilling kilometres, Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), caked in mud, dropped down into Siena's Piazza del Campo to finish off a spectacular solo victory.
The young Belgian, touted as a future star ever since his fifth place finish as a neo-pro at the 2015 Tour of Flanders, finally has his first professional win, and it was fully deserved.
Attacking from a large chasing group in the long stretch between the eighth and ninth sectors of the eponymous strade bianche, Benoot looked mightily strong as he made his way over to the leading duo of Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Wout van Aert (Veranda's Willems Crelan).
When he accelerated away on the final sector, the two simply had no response, and from there he just had to keep it together on the final hike through the streets of Siena, where he was celebrating well in advance of the line.
The elation soon turned to exhaustion, telling the story of the race as Bardet and Van Aert came in behind to grab podium places that few would have predicted. Bardet is best known as a Grand Tour climber but animated this race with an attack on the punishing eighth sector where he was joined by Van Aert, the 23-year old three-time cyclo-cross world champion who more than justified the growing excitement over what he could go on to achieve on the road.
They spent many of the final 50 kilometres out front but Benoot, who proved his suitability to this terrain with eighth-place finishes in the past two editions, was simply too strong for them both.
"It was really nice. In Belgium the journalists get crazy when a young guy makes nice results, so I had some pressure to have a first win," the 23-year-old said in his post-race interview.
"I always said it would be there one day, and I won't win a lot of races, but when I win it can be a big one. I was already two times eighth here, so I knew this race suits me really well. Eventually it turned out well today."
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) came home fourth, followed by Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain-Merida) and Rob Power (Mitchelton-Scott), but it was one minute 42 seconds after Benoot that one of the big pre-race favourites crossed the line. 2015 champion Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) finished seventh, followed by world champion Peter Sagan in eighth. They and last year's winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) essentially marked themselves out of the race as teammates went up the road in pursuit of Bardet and Van Aert but never made it.
The Benoot show
Sectors 7 and 8, from kilometres 110 to 140, were billed as a crucial phase of the race, and so it proved. The race was already in pieces, however, after a hectic start to proceedings saw the peloton split in two – with just 70 riders left out front – as early as the second sector.
Things settled down into something resembling a familiar pattern as a 10-rider breakaway went clear from that front peloton but by the end of sector 7 – 9.5km in length – they were brought back and the race was on.
A new group of 10 was soon away, containing Kwiatkowski, Van Aert, and Valverde but then things were blown apart on sector 8, the hardest of the race at 11.5km and with steep climbs and stiff descents. Sagan and Benoot made it up to the leading group but it was more surprising to see Bardet bridge across on his own. More surprising still was the fact that the Frenchman went straight to the front of the group and attacked.
He has the motto ‘take the risk or lose the chance’ printed on his bike and, while few would have expected his move to shape the race to such an extent, Van Aert went with him and they were away. The rest of the group looked around at each other, allowing the dropped riders to reform into a larger chase group of around 25, with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) the highest-profile absentee.
Back on the tarmac, Benoot made his first move, attacking and dragging a group of nine clear. Crucially, Kwiatkowski had two teammates there in Gianni Moscon and Salvatore Puccio, while Sagan had Gregor Muhlberger and Stybar had Pieter Serry. The five-star favourites, therefore, maintained more of a watching brief but the race would only slip away from them.
With 30km and three sectors remaining, the Benoot show began. He accelerated again and Serry was the only one able to go with him. Having drained every last turn out of his compatriot, and with the gap to Bardet and Van Aert not coming down, Benoot produced a vicious acceleration on the penultimate sector. Serry looked like he was in a different race and Benoot closed the 35 seconds to the leaders in an astonishingly quick fashion.
At that point the writing was on the wall, and Benoot duly left Bardet and Van Aert for dead on the short but painfully steep final sector. Pain etched on his grimacing face as he fought with the bike, he timed his effort well and came over the top of the climb and onto the downhill with a lead of 15 seconds.
That would only grow as, bare arms folded over his bars, he made his way through the final 12km to Siena. He waved his right arm in the air as he passed a Flanders flag up the Via Santa Caterina and, after rounding the two final bends, punched the air with both as he took the final dip down to the finish line.
"We came on the Santa Maria section with 55k to go I think and there was already a big group of 10 guys away with a lot of strong riders. So then I bridged over with Sagan, and I felt really good but it was a shit situation because I was alone of the team and there were a lot of teammates from Kwiatkowski and Sagan attacking," said Benoot.
"I was talking with my sport director and we said OK, go yourself now, because everyone is fucked and otherwise I’d be in a defending situation. So I went behind Bardet and Van Aert, and then it was first a big group and didn’t turn well, so I attacked again with Serry and then on the next section I crossed over. I felt it was the moment, and it was the last super hard section of the race. It was amazing. I didn’t expect to go this well, but I had a really good day."
The situation in the chase chopped and changed in the closing phases. Visconti and Power rolled the dice in the chase group and swept up Serry, but they were later joined on the final sector by the advancing Valverde and Stybar. A minute behind Bardet and Van Aert, it looked for a second like the podium might still have been in play but there wasn't enough cooperation or firepower left in that group. Sagan came back towards the end to join Muhlberger in the top 10, from which Kwiatowksi and Sky were conspicuously absent.
The day, however, belonged to Benoot.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal||5:03:33|
|2||Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||0:00:39|
|3||Wout Van Aert (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||0:00:58|
|4||Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team||0:01:25|
|5||Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Bahrain-Merida||0:01:27|
|6||Robert Power (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott||0:01:29|
|7||Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Quick-Step Floors||0:01:42|
|8||Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe||0:02:08|
|9||Pieter Serry (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||0:02:11|
|10||Gregor Mühlberger (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe||0:02:16|
|11||Matej Mohoric (Slo) Bahrain-Merida||0:03:05|
|12||Daniel Oss (Ita) Bora-Hansgrohe||0:03:22|
|13||Floris De Tier (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo||0:04:03|
|14||Gianni Moscon (Ita) Team Sky||0:04:08|
|15||Marcus Burghardt (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe||0:04:10|
|16||Stefan Küng (Swi) BMC Racing Team||0:04:14|
|17||Simon Clarke (Aus) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale||0:04:41|
|18||Andrey Amador (CRc) Movistar Team||0:04:55|
|19||Pierre Latour (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||0:05:12|
|20||Valentin Madouas (Fra) FDJ||0:05:14|
|21||Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb||0:06:14|
|22||Salvatore Puccio (Ita) Team Sky|
|23||Søren Kragh Andersen (Den) Team Sunweb||0:07:56|
|24||Andrey Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team||0:08:12|
|25||Julien Vermote (Bel) Dimension Data||0:08:26|
|26||Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Pro Team||0:08:55|
|27||José Gonçalves (Por) Katusha-Alpecin||0:09:46|
|28||Stijn Devolder (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||0:10:11|
|29||Jose Joaquin Rojas (Spa) Movistar Team|
|30||Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Team Sky||0:10:57|
|31||Enrico Battaglin (Ita) LottoNL-Jumbo||0:12:36|
|32||Eros Capecchi (Ita) Quick-Step Floors||0:12:39|
|33||Jens Keukeleire (Bel) Lotto Soudal||0:12:43|
|34||Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team||0:13:05|
|35||Michael Schär (Swi) BMC Racing Team|
|36||Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors|
|37||Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo||0:13:08|
|38||Davide Villella (Ita) Astana Pro Team||0:13:10|
|39||Grega Bole (Slo) Bahrain-Merida|
|40||George Bennett (NZl) LottoNL-Jumbo||0:13:50|
|41||Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale||0:17:08|
|42||Matteo Montaguti (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale||0:18:31|
|43||Alex Howes (USA) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale||0:19:05|
|44||Diego Ulissi (Ita) UAE Team Emirates||0:19:12|
|45||Christoph Pfingsten (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe||0:19:16|
|46||Nelson Oliveira (Por) Movistar Team||0:19:27|
|47||Nikolas Maes (Bel) Lotto Soudal|
|48||Primoz Roglic (Slo) LottoNL-Jumbo||0:19:33|
|49||Fernando Gaviria (Col) Quick-Step Floors||0:19:36|
|50||Owain Doull (GBr) Team Sky|
|51||Victor Campenaerts (Bel) Lotto Soudal||0:21:36|
|52||Iljo Keisse (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||0:21:45|
|53||Sepp Kuss (USA) LottoNL-Jumbo|
|OTL||Tomasz Marczynski (Pol) Lotto Soudal||0:25:19|
|OTL||Jhonatan Restrepo (Col) Katusha-Alpecin|
|OTL||Michal Golas (Pol) Team Sky|
|OTL||Juan Jose Lobato (Spa) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini|
|OTL||Mattia Frapporti (Ita) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|OTL||Quentin Jauregui (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale|
|OTL||Alexandr Riabushenko (Blr) UAE Team Emirates|
|OTL||Ben O'Connor (Aus) Dimension Data||0:25:22|
|OTL||Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Dimension Data||0:25:25|
|OTL||Scott Thwaites (GBr) Dimension Data||0:34:21|
|OTL||Raffaello Bonusi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|OTL||Merhawi Kudus (Eri) Dimension Data|
|OTL||Laurent Didier (Lux) Trek-Segafredo|
|OTL||Marco Tizza (Ita) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini|
|OTL||Aleksejs Saramotins (Lat) Bora-Hansgrohe|
|OTL||Damiano Cima (Ita) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini||0:34:24|
|OTL||Jérémy Roy (Fra) FDJ|
|OTL||Laurens ten Dam (Ned) Team Sunweb|
|OTL||Sho Hatsuyama (Jpn) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini|
|OTL||Marco Marcato (Ita) UAE Team Emirates|
|DNS||Maarten Wynants (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo|
|DNF||Daniele Bennati (Ita) Movistar Team|
|DNF||Carlos Betancur (Col) Movistar Team|
|DNF||Nuno Bico (Por) Movistar Team|
|DNF||Joan Bou Company (Spa) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini|
|DNF||Eduard Michael Grosu (Rom) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini|
|DNF||Simone Ponzi (Ita) Nippo-Vini Fantini-Europa Ovini|
|DNF||Silvan Dillier (Swi) AG2R La Mondiale|
|DNF||Maximilian Schachmann (Ger) Quick-Step Floors|
|DNF||Hubert Dupont (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale|
|DNF||Bernhard Eisel (Aut) Dimension Data|
|DNF||Lachlan Morton (Aus) Dimension Data|
|DNF||Clément Venturini (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale|
|DNF||Kim Magnusson (Swe) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale|
|DNF||Daniel Moreno (Spa) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale|
|DNF||Taylor Phinney (USA) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale|
|DNF||Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale|
|DNF||Maxim Belkov (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin|
|DNF||Marco Mathis (Ger) Katusha-Alpecin|
|DNF||Nathan Haas (Aus) Katusha-Alpecin|
|DNF||Viacheslav Kuznetsov (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin|
|DNF||Mads Würtz Schmidt (Den) Katusha-Alpecin|
|DNF||Nikias Arndt (Ger) Team Sunweb|
|DNF||Simon Geschke (Ger) Team Sunweb|
|DNF||Lennard Kämna (Ger) Team Sunweb|
|DNF||Lennard Hofstede (Ned) Team Sunweb|
|DNF||Eugenio Alafaci (Ita) Trek-Segafredo|
|DNF||Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek-Segafredo|
|DNF||Michael Gogl (Aut) Trek-Segafredo|
|DNF||Mads Pedersen (Den) Trek-Segafredo|
|DNF||Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo|
|DNF||Boy van Poppel (Ned) Trek-Segafredo|
|DNF||Valerio Conti (Ita) UAE Team Emirates|
|DNF||Manuele Mori (Ita) UAE Team Emirates|
|DNF||Przemyslaw Niemiec (Pol) UAE Team Emirates|
|DNF||Jan Polanc (Slo) UAE Team Emirates|
|DNF||Sean De Bie (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan|
|DNF||Mathias De Witte (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan|
|DNF||Huub Duijn (Ned) Veranda's Willems Crelan|
|DNF||Dries De Bondt (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan|
|DNF||David Tanner (Aus) Veranda's Willems Crelan|
|DNF||Alessandro Bisolti (Ita) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|DNF||Andrea Vendrame (Ita) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|DNF||Marco Frapporti (Ita) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|DNF||Kevin Rivera (CRc) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|DNF||Matteo Spreafico (Ita) Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec|
|DNF||Leonardo Basso (Ita) Team Sky|
|DNF||Moreno Moser (Ita) Astana Pro Team|
|DNF||Dario Cataldo (Ita) Astana Pro Team|
|DNF||Oscar Gatto (Ita) Astana Pro Team|
|DNF||Truls Korsaeth (Nor) Astana Pro Team|
|DNF||Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida|
|DNF||Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida|
|DNF||Mark Padun (Ukr) Bahrain-Merida|
|DNF||Kristijan Koren (Slo) Bahrain-Merida|
|DNF||Alberto Bettiol (Ita) BMC Racing Team|
|DNF||Francisco Ventoso (Spa) BMC Racing Team|
|DNF||Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team|
|DNF||Loïc Vliegen (Bel) BMC Racing Team|
|DNF||Maciej Bodnar (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe|
|DNF||Lukasz Wisniowski (Pol) Team Sky|
|DNF||Bruno Armirail (Fra) FDJ|
|DNF||Antoine Duchesne (Can) FDJ|
|DNF||Georg Preidler (Aut) FDJ|
|DNF||Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) FDJ|
|DNF||Léo Vincent (Fra) FDJ|
|DNF||Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Soudal|
|DNF||Tosh Van Der Sande (Bel) Lotto Soudal|
|DNF||Luke Durbridge (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott|
|DNF||Svein Tuft (Can) Mitchelton-Scott|
|DNF||Michael Hepburn (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott|
|DNF||Jack Haig (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott|
|DNF||Carlos Verona (Spa) Mitchelton-Scott|
|DNF||Daryl Impey (RSA) Mitchelton-Scott|