There's no better way to kick off the Women's WorldTour than with an unpredictable and thrilling Strade Bianche Women held across the white gravel roads and steep pitches surrounding picturesque Siena.
With the sun shining and the crowds lining the medieval square, Piazza del Campo, the peloton set off on a 136km that included 31.4km of gravel, for an all-out battle for the victory of the eighth edition of the Tuscan one-day race.
The round of the 2022 Women's WorldTour is complete, and Cyclingnews looks back at some of the biggest takeaways from Strade Bianche Women.
Long before the final kilometre of the race, however, Kopecky emerged as a significant contender, not only by launching her own attack, but by being the only rider with the strength to consistently follow Van Vleuten's searing blows over the final steep climbs of the race.
The pair were alone off the front together for nearly five kilometres, but it put Kopecky in prime position with three teammates in the chase group, forcing Van Vleuten to set the pace.
A large group raced under the final kilometre banner, but Kopecky again stuck to Van Vleuten's wheel up the 16% pitches of the Via Santa Caterina in a show of sheer strength and determination.
Kopecky said she knew she had to be first and take the inside line through the finale righthand corner to win the race. "I knew. I watched the race from last year, the men's race with two or three [riders] in the streets here, so I was really prepared for the sprint,” she said.
“[Van Vleuten] said that I was really strong today but that the last corner was a bit tricky. Maybe I’ll have to see it again but in my opinion, I don’t think I did anything wrong, it’s just a hard corner to take. For sure when you come with so much speed it’s just a sprint and I’m not going to brake; she was also not going to brake.”
Van Vleuten not invincible
Annemiek van Vleuten is often considered an invincible athlete, especially given the audacious long-range solo attacks that have netted her two victories at Strade Bianche and a memorable world title in Harrogate 2019 among other impressive achievements.
The Dutch rider opened the season with wins at Setmana Ciclista Valenciana and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and was the all-out favourite to win Strade Bianche.
She admitted after the race that she wasn't feeling 100 per cent and that SD Worx played their cards perfectly and accepted that she had lost the race before the finish in the fight against Kopecky for the final corner.
"We were both fighting to go first through that last corner, because you know that there's no room to overtake after that and you win if you go first - and Kopecky won that battle. It was such a big battle - for sure I'd have liked to drop her on the climbs, but she was just super strong."
SD Worx strength in numbers
SD Worx has been one of the most dominant teams in women's cycling for the last decade. In previous years, the team relied heavily on now-retired Anna van der Breggen. However, at Strade Bianche, they showed how important their depth is to their success.
In the final, the team had four riders - Lotte Kopecky, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio - trading off blow after blow, while the remaining teams in the selection had only one or two riders.
SD Worx not only forced Van Vleuten to go on the defensive, but they were also equipped to respond to her threatening attacks.
An impeccable team effort allowed Kopecky to remain calm and confident ahead of the final decisive climb into the Piazza del Campo. Their depth was also reflected on the podium with Kopek taking the win and Moolman-Pasio finishing third.
Painfully close for Niewiadoma
Niewiadoma has finished in the top ten at Strade Bianche on every occasion she has completed the race, including second place in three consecutive editions, in 2016, 2017 and 2018, third place in 2019, and ninth last year.
The Polish all-rounder came painfully close, yet again, finishing this edition in heartbreakingly-close fourth place. She was among the selection that arrived at the base of the final climb but admitted that her legs were empty by that point.
"After the finish line, I immediately felt sad that I just couldn't go more on the final climb. My legs were empty and though I tried to push I had nothing to generate. It's a normal feeling you face after not winning a race, especially a race where you're always so close to that win. I was and I am still gutted that I missed the podium," she said.
Always a staple on Niewiadoma's spring calendar, we will undoubtedly see her return to try again for the victory in Siena.
Peloton stronger than ever
14 WorldTeams and 10 Continental teams competed at Strade Bianche with the largest-ever selection barreling under the one-kiloemtre to go banner to contest the final ascent to the finish line.
Some 16 riders, nearly all the main contenders, were together after multiple late-race attacks had caused separations in the field.
Part of that comes down to how the race played out. Still, it is also an indication that the general strength of the field has markedly increased since the introduction of women's professional cycling reforms.
The UCI introduced the Women's WorldTour in 2016, followed by a two-tier team structure, minimum salaries to the top-tier teams, and mandatory live television broadcasting in 2020 to raise the professionalism and visibility of the sport.
The result has also been an ever-increasing strength and depth of the peloton, with more riders being able to train and race full-time.
Such provisions are not yet in place for the 577 athletes who have contracts with the 49 second-tier Continental teams - although some do pay their riders a salary, many do not.
As the professionalism of teams and races continues to improve, however, so will the field's strength and depth, and cycling fans can expect to see more and more riders and teams racing for the victories.
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