10 riders to watch at the men's Strade Bianche 2022

Three of the key riders to watch at Strade Bianche 2022, Tiesj Benoot, Tadej Pogačar and Julian Alaphilippe
Three of the key riders to watch at Strade Bianche 2022, Tiesj Benoot, Tadej Pogačar and Julian Alaphilippe (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Many of the best Spring Classics contenders travel to Italy this week for Saturday’s Strade Bianche. With Mathieu van der Poel still out of action due to his back injury and Wout van Aet opting for Paris-Nice, which starts on Sunday, this year’s race is wide open.

The weather is cold but dry in Tuscany this week and so the gravel roads will be compact, dusty and fast. Strade Bianche includes 63 kilometres of dirt roads spread across the 11 sectors of the 184-kilometre race, making it a unique and spectacular event.

The route is also packed with a myriad of short, steep hills through the fields and vineyards, creating one of the hardest days in the saddle, yet one most riders are happy to endure. It is like combining the climbing of Liège-Bastogne-Liège with the dust and dirt of the Paris-Roubaix, all wrapped up in Tuscan history and breathtaking beauty.

We've picked 10 of the best to keep an eye on during this year’s Strade Bianche, which starts and finishes in Siena. Two of the names in that list earlier this week, Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Romain Bardet (Team DSM), have been withdrawn due to illness but there were no shortage of contenders to take their place.

We will have a separate preview and special pre-race features for the women’s edition of Strade Bianche.

Julian Alaphilippe

Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step AlphaVinyl)

(Image credit: Getty Images)
  • Team: QuickStep-Alpha-Vinyl
  • Age: 29
  • Race record: Winner in 2019, second in 2021

The world champion deserves top billing, even if he is still not yet at peak form.

Alaphilippe is not targeting the cobbled Classics this year and so has opted for a more laid back start to the season in the hope of peaking for the Ardennes. However, as the World Championships in Leuven reminded us, the Frenchman should never be ignored and always seemed inspired by the hard but spectacular racing of Strade Bianche.

His bike handling skills are superb and his experience of victory in 2019 and second place last year means he knows how to ride Strade Bianche. If Alaphilippe avoids punctures and mishaps, then expect him to be a threat.

Tadej Pogačar

SIENA ITALY MARCH 06 Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia and UAE Team Emirates Thomas Pidcock of United Kingdom and Team INEOS Grenadiers during the Eroica 15th Strade Bianche 2021 Mens Elite a 184km race from Siena to Siena Piazza del Campo StradeBianche on March 06 2021 in Siena Italy Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)
  • Team: UAE Team Emirates
  • Age: 23
  • Race record: 7th in 2021

Tour de France winners are rarely Classics contenders, especially in races that include 60km of gravel. But Tadej Pogačar has already proved he can do far more than collect yellow jerseys. Indeed, he is a major favourite for Strade Bianche, who everyone else will fear.

Such are Pogačar’s abilities, he could attack from long range, go solo on the steep late sections of gravel roads or even surge away on the last climb up to central Siena. 

He raced cyclo-cross during the winter and appears to have the bike skills to handle the Tuscan gravel, while the UAE Team Emirates squad will again be at his service.

Pogačar only recently recovered from COVID-19 but that did not stop him from winning the UAE Tour for a second year last week. He perhaps went deep to win but has cleverly spent several days recovering in the warmth of the UAE before returning to Europe.

Quinn Simmons

LLEX MONTSJURA FRANCE JULY 31 Quinn Simmons of United States and Team Trek Segafredo during the 33rd Tour de lAin 2021 Stage 3 a 125km stage from Izernore to Llex MontsJura 900m tourdelain on July 31 2021 in Llex MontsJura France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)
  • Team: Trek-Segafredo
  • Age: 20
  • Race record: 54th in 2021

The 20-year-old American arrived in Tuscany on Monday and has already been out training on the gravel roads of Strade Bianche.

He has made the race one of his major goals of the spring and is likely to be team leader for Trek-Segafredo. Last year he impressed for much of the race, with the strength to join the key selection, only for a puncture and slow wheel change to wreck his chances.

Simmons has been training at altitude in the USA in recent weeks and tested his racing form with 16th in the hilly Drôme Classic in France. There is no reason, if things go his way, why Simmons cannot be a contender with the big three listed above on Saturday. 

Tiesj Benoot

Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma)

(Image credit: Jumbo-Visma)
  • Team: Jumbo-Visma
  • Age: 27
  • Race record: 1st in 2018

Tiesj Benoot will be team leader at Jumbo-Visma in the absence of Van Aert and he has all that is needed to step up and continue Jumbo-Visma's run of success in the Classics.

The softly-spoken rider from Ghent does not have the charisma of Van Aert but he won Strade Bianche in 2018 with a solo attack on the wet dirt roads that distanced Romain Bardet and a young Van Aert.

He has only ridden Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne so far this season but seemed in great form in both races after attending the Jumbo-Visma altitude camp on Mount Teide.

Benoot is a Classics rider but has a lighter build and the climbing ability needed to win Strade Bianche. If he falters or suffers a mechanical problem, then Jumbo-Visma also have Tom Dumoulin and the USA’s Sepp Kuss. 

Tim Wellens

BESSGES FRANCE FEBRUARY 05 Arrival Tim Wellens of Belgium and Team Lotto Soudal Celebration during the 51st toile de Bessges Tour du Gard 2021 Stage 3 a 1548km stage from Bessges to Bessges EDB2020 on February 05 2021 in Bessges France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images)
  • Team: Lotto Soudal
  • Age: 30
  • Race record: 13th in 2021, 10th in 2019, 3rd in 2017

Lotto Soudal are on a roll after the need to score ranking points for the 2023 WorldTour inspired some urgency and hunger in their racing.

Wellens is always ready to do his bit for the Belgian team and dispatched Alejandro Valverde to win the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana race at Challenge Mallorca and then finished second overall in the Tour de la Provence.

Illness forced him to miss Omloop Het Nieuwsblad but the team insist it was not COVID-19 and hope he can be back to his best for Strade Bianche. He has the class and talent to win on Saturday, perhaps as the bigger-name riders watch each other.

Jakob Fuglsang

Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana 2022 - 72nd Edition - 3rd stage Alicante - Antenas del Maigmo’ 155,1 km - 04/02/2022 - Jakob Fuglsang (DEN - Israel - Premier Tech) - photo Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency©2022

(Image credit: Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency)
  • Team: Israel-Premier Tech
  • Age: 36
  • Race record: 5th in 2020, 2nd in 2019

His rivals often forget it but Jakob Fuglsang is a former mountain bike racer and so has the natural bike skills and confidence to target Strade Bianche.

He finished just two seconds down on Julian Alaphilippe in 2019 and has almost always been in the thick of the race.

In 2020 he was overly aggressive and blew up in the August heat when Strade Bianche was rescheduled to the summer. But any rider who can win Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia like Fuglsang has done can also win Strade Bianche.

Alessandro Covi

CARTAGENA SPAIN FEBRUARY 12 Alessandro Covi of Italy and UAE Team Emirates celebrates winning during the 42nd Vuelta Ciclista A La Region De Murcia Costa Calida 2022 a 1832km one day race from Fortuna to Puerto de Cartagena VueltaRegionMurcia22 on February 12 2022 in Cartagena Spain Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

(Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
  • Team: UAE Team Emirates
  • Age: 23
  • Race record: Debut in 2022

Alessandro Covi is considered one of Italy’s best next-generation talents. His neo-pro years were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but he has impressed in early 2022 and has the form to be a contender at Strade Bianche alongside team leader Tadej Pogačar.

Covi won the Vuelta a Murcia, using his fast finish, and then showed his climbing skills on the steep finish to win stage 2 of  the Ruta Del Sol, which was similar to the final climb at Strade Bianche.

He also likes to race cyclo-cross in Italy during the winter and so has the bike skills to go with his climbing. He and Pogačar could give UAE Team Emirates two riders in the select group that emerges at Strade Bianche and so give them a massive tactical advantage. 

Sergio Higuita

Volta ao Algarve 2022 48th Edition 5th stage Lagoa Malhao 173 km 20022022 Sergio Higuita COL Bora Hansgrohe photo Roberto BettiniSprintCyclingAgency2022

(Image credit: Roberto Bettini/SprintCyclingAgency2022)
  • Team: Bora-Hansgrohe
  • Age: 24
  • Race record: Debut in 2022

Sergio Higuita has never ridden Strade Bianche but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a protagonist. The Colombian climber is on fire in early 2022, winning the national road race title and more recently the final uphill finish at the Volta ao Algarve.

He beat fellow Colombian Dani Martinez and the USA’s Brandon McNulty on the stage and showed he wasn’t afraid to fight for the win when he clashed and crashed with Tobias Foss on stage 2.

Higuita is a climber but his low centre of gravity and bike skills give him an advantage on the gravel roads. If you are looking for an outsider, he is your man.     

Pello Bilbao

Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana 2022 - 72nd Edition - 3rd stage Alicante - Antenas del Maigmo’ 155,1 km - 04/02/2022 - Pello Bilbao (ESP - Bahrain Victorious) - photo Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency©2022

Pello Bilbao (Image credit: Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency)
  • Team:  Bahrain Victorious
  • Age: 32
  • Race record: 10th in 2021

Pello Bilbao was tenth in his Strade Bianche debut last year and if his UAE Tour form is any indication there’s every chance he could move further up the ranks this season. 

He is part of the ever increasing contingent of Grand Tour climbers in the race moving in on the terrain of the Classics specialists. He was close to sticking with Pogačar on the climbs in the final stage of the UAE Tour, where he finished third on both the final mountain top summit and overall, so perhaps he'll also be in pursuit on the steep climb into Siena. 

Bilbao will be joint leader for the team along with Matej Mohorič and will also have experienced Australian Classics rider Heinrich Haussler, who is adept on unpaved terrain, for support.

Michael Matthews

PALMANOVA SPAIN JANUARY 26 Michael Matthews of Australia and Team BikeExchange Jayco competes during the 31st Challenge Ciclista Mallorca 2022 Trofeo Calvia a 1547km race from Peguera to Palmanova ChallengeMallorca on January 26 2022 in Palmanova Spain Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
  • Team: BikeExchange-Jayco
  • Age: 31
  • Race record: Debut in 2022

Michael Matthews hasn’t ever before taken on Strade Bianche, as Paris Nice preparation has usually intervened. This year, however, after an early season that was interrupted by COVID-19 the Australian will get his first taste of the Piazza del Campo finish line.

It’ll be his first race since January so while it may be hard to judge his form when stacked up against his rivals the sprinter, who can cope with the climbs better than most, is according to the team ‘well trained’ after an altitude training camp.

There’s no doubt it has been a lean patch for the Australian rider when it comes to victories, though he’s certainly not fallen out of sight of the front of the racing so it is perhaps just a matter of time till he breaks through again. Whether or not the climbs of this race are too big an ask, though, is something we are soon to find out.

Other names to watch:

Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën), Michael Gogl (Alpecin-Fenix), Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

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