The Women's WorldTour has officially begun for 2021 with the popular Strade Bianche, routed through the scenic white gravel roads of Tuscany, Italy on Saturday.
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (SD Worx) secured the win, beating Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), as pre-race favourites Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) were forced to settle for lower top-10 placings in Siena.
Cyclingnews looks at some of the biggest takeaways from the 2021 Strade Bianche Women.
Fans raise €26,903 for women’s prize money at Strade Bianche
The fans have spoken.
In a crowdfunding campaign launched ahead of Strade Bianche, more than 500 enthusiasts of women’s cycling came together to raise €26,903 to be distributed to the top five finishers on the race by The Cyclists’ Alliance.
The crowdfunding campaign - “Equal prize money for the Women’s Peloton” - was set up by fans to raise the women’s winning prize offered by RCS Sport from its current total of €2,256 to match the men’s winning prize of €16,000 at Strade Bianche.
The prize money discussion was at the forefront of news following the women's 1.Pro edition and the men's WorldTour race of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week when it was revealed that World Champion Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) earned €930, which was about five per cent of what Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-QuickStep) earned €16,000 for winning the men's Classics opener in Belgium.
At both events, the total purses were mandated by the UCI prize scales whereby the 1.Pro women’s race total purse is €4,660 and the Women’s WorldTour total purse is €7,005, while the men’s WorldTour total purse is €50,000 for group 1 and €40,000 for group 2 events, respectively.
"The Women’s peloton has ridden more than enough kilometers without a fair prize money compensation. Where it seems that the UCI and race organizers are too busy with banning the super tuck or aero position, real issues in the sport such as a fair compensation of the female peloton are not being addressed," wrote Cem Tanyeri, organizer of the fundraiser, on the GoFundMe page.
"Please help us in recognizing the outstanding athletic performance these athletes are displaying by donating an amount which will be awarded as prize money to the top 5 of the upcoming 2021 Strade Bianche. By raising a large amount we would like to show that there is great recognition and appreciation of the female pro field and as such they should be awarded equally to the Men’s field."
Part of the discussion surrounding the progress in women's cycling, however, focuses on whether live broadcasting is more important than equal prize money.
Strade Bianche and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad offered live broadcasting of the last 35-30km of their events. Live broadcasting was a requirement of RCS Sport in order for Strade Bianche Women to be part of the Women’s WorldTour, however, Flanders Classics made a financial commitment to provide live broadcasting without it being mandated.
Van Vleuten chimed in on the discussion surrounding men's and women's prize money discrepancy in professional cycling, reiterating her stance that live broadcasting of women's events is more important than equal prize payouts.
The question is also whether both prize money and live broadcasting are worth fighting for, and according to Lizzy Banks (Ceratizit-WNT), the issue of inequality when it comes to prize money should not be forgotten.
Van den Broek-Blaak not racing in the shadows of her compatriots
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak took a well-deserved victory at Strade Bianche, as part of a powerful SD Worx team that finished with four riders in the top 11 on the day.
While all eyes may not have been on Van den Broek-Blaak ahead of the race, in a post-race winner's press conference she stated that she has not ever felt that she is eclipsed by compatriots Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten or Marianne Vos - not on the Women’s WorldTour and not with the Dutch national team at the World Championships.
"I don’t feel like I am in their shadows. I do my own thing," said Van den Broek-Blaak, a former world champion, when asked about the current generation of powerful Dutch female cyclists.
"We make each other stronger and it is a good feeling to stand on the start line at the Worlds, for example, and you are all strong. Maybe I am not the protected rider but I have to be able to finish it off, and they have to trust in me that I can finish it off.
"I like this kind of [one-day] racing. It suits me. Our generation is really strong, maybe it’s bad luck, but I also think that it’s a good thing because if you are out [in a breakaway] then you know that you have strong riders behind you. It’s also a good thing [to have so many strong Dutch riders] - it has two sides."
Van den Broek-Blaak is scheduled to retire during the 2022 season and join Van der Breggen as a sports directeur at SD Worx. She is one of the most-accomplished Classics and one-day specialists in the peloton, having won Ronde van Drenthe and Gent-Wevelgem in 2016, the road race world title in 2017, Amstel Gold Race in 2018, three-times Le Samyn des Dames, and Tour of Flanders in 2020.
A veteran of the team and the peloton, Van den Broek-Blaak will lead SD Worx through the Classics and flatter stage races in 2021, while also giving her experience to the team's younger riders.
Van Vleuten vs Van der Breggen
Annemiek van Vleuten promised that she would give her best at Strade Bianche to make it a great race and that she was not focussed on winning a third consecutive title in Siena on Saturday.
Van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen were tipped for the victory, but Van Vleuten pointed out that focussing on a two-rider rivalry ignores the other strong women in the peloton.
"If you say that women’s cycling is between Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten, then we don’t take into account how strong the field is in women’s cycling," Van Vleuten stated before the race. "I think we have so much more nationalities. We have so much more strong girls that put out a good performance, I think we have a really good battle.”
Although Van Vleuten played a significant role in how the race unfolded, it was neither Van der Breggen nor herself who took the top step of the podium at Strade Bianche.
Van der Breggen finished third and Van Vleuten fourth, after a smartly-played race by SD Worx that was won by Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, ahead of Italian champion Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo).
On the Tolfe sector, Van Vleuten went all-in and launched her trademark, seated attack just before the steepest part of the gravel climb, 12.5 kilometres from the line. But the move didn’t stick and was reeled in by SD Worx. Attacks also came from Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo), and then ultimately Van den Broek-Blaak and Longo Borghini made the winning move.
"I'm so proud of how my teammates have worked, and feel I've made no mistakes today after what happened last Saturday," Van Vleuten said after the race, referencing Omloop Het Niewsbald where she missed the decisive move and Van der Breggen went on to win the race. "It's not far away - the only way is forward."
Italians light up finale
Italian Champion Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) was one of the most active riders in the peloton, particularly among the decisive front group that formed in the closing kilometres during Strade Bianche.
Watching the tri-colour jersey of the Italian champion racing into the Piazzo del Campo in Siena with the victory would have been a special sight, but in the end Longo Borghini could only manage second place to breakaway companion and race winner Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
"When I saw Chantal not doing a turn with me I knew that she would probably win the race, but I still believed in it until the end," said Longo Borghini, who won the 2017 edition of Strade Bianche.
"In the final, she had better legs than me and chapeau to her for such a victory because it is such an important one and a special one. Coming here in Piazzo del Campo in Siena is just beautiful, and I guess it’s a really enjoyable victory."
Longo Borghini wasn't the only Italian rider fighting for the victory on home soil, as Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) was also among the riders attacking on the gravel roads toward the finish in Siena. Cavalli finished eighth place on the day, while her compatriots racing for Liv Racing, Soraya Paladin and Sofia Bertizzolo, finished in 14th and 15th place, respectively, in the next group.
The gravel lottery
It’s hard to keep track of all the riders who lost out at Strade Bianche because of mechanicals and misfortune along the white gravel roads of Tuscany.
Emilia Fahlin (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), Georgia Williams (Team BikeExchange), Floortje Mackaij (Team DSM), Maria Giulia Confalnieri (Ceratizit-WNT), Maria Vittoria Sperotto (A.R. Monex), and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (SD Worx) were all named as riders with early mechanicals in the women’s 136km race.
Some fared better than others, but in the end, it showed how much Strade Bianche can be about both strength and luck.
"It’s also a lottery," said Annemiek van Vleuten ahead of the race. "You need to also have a lot of luck, and a lot of focus."
One rider who stands out as having the most untimely flat tire was Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing). She is on stellar form having finished fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and winning Le Samyn des Dames last week, and came into Strade Bianche as an outside contender.
She was in a breakaway with Niamh Fisher-Black (SD Worx) near the half-way point of the race, that came back, but was then part of the decisive group that split off the front following the penultimate gravel sector. Kopecky made her own attack, too, but was swallowed up by Van Vleuten and Vos as the pair nipped off the front on the final gravel sector, Le Tolfe. Kopecky, who was trying to stay in touch with the leaders, suffered a puncture and ended up finishing 17th at almost three minutes down.
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