Trek-Segafredo head to Saturday's Strade Bianche looking for success in Siena across both men's and women's teams, with Quinn Simmons heading up the men's squad for his second appearance at the race while 2017 winner Elisa Longo Borghini and world champion Elisa Balsamo lead the women's team.
Speaking on Friday ahead of the race, both Longo Borghini and Simmons commented on the high level of the peloton, with the Italian noting that women's cycling as a whole is getting stronger, something she's noticed so far in 2022.
"During the first few races of the season, I've seen a much higher level in the peloton, and greater organisation among the teams than even a year ago," Longo Borghini said.
"It's only been a few months since 2021, but the growth is evident. The group is getting stronger, and all the teams are getting more competitive. This is good for the entire movement."
Simmons, meanwhile, noted that the race across the Tuscan sterrato is now as much for the climbers as it is for more powerfully built Classics riders like himself.
"I think now as the level gets higher each year, you for sure have to be a good climber to be there just because of the speed of guys like Alaphilippe on the climbs. To be able to follow there you still have to make it, but to be a Classics rider you still need the power," he said.
Longo Borghini will co-lead one of the strongest squads in the women's peloton on Saturday, even in Lizzie Deignan's absence. Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Tayler Wiles, Lauretta Hanson and Shirin Van Anrooij join her and Balsamo on the start line.
The Italian, who prevailed on a wet run-in to Siena five years ago, said that the women's race will be more balanced after Anna van der Breggen's retirement, though the in-form double-winner Annemiek Van Vleuten is obviously the rider to watch.
"Van der Breggen's absence will make the race more balanced," she said. "We saw that Annemiek Van Vleuten is already very strong, but I think the race will be open to a lot of different options. Several teams will try to impose their own way of riding, without necessarily waiting.
"Personally, I saw Lotte Kopecky racing strong, as well as Marta Cavalli and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. FDJ could be the team that animates the race more than any other."
She noted that she has taken a different approach to the race for 2022, a more relaxed lead-in to Saturday's 136-kilometre battle across eight sterrato sectors and countless climbs.
"Compared to previous years, my approach to Strade Bianche has been softer, more relaxed, and my level is getting better, but it's not yet super," she said. "That doesn't mean I'm any less confident or have any less motivation to perform well. I'm always excited to race Strade Bianche. I also want to point out that, as Trek-Segafredo, we’ll be at the start with a well-equipped team. We have several options to play, besides myself."
30-year-old Longo Borghini has just signed a two-year deal to stay at Trek-Segafredo, and added that her years of experience can only help in unpredictable races like Strade Bianche. She has been part of the women's peloton since 2011 and has raced six of the seven editions held so far, not once finishing lower than fifth.
"Experience in a race like this matters a lot," she said. "And the same goes for the head. You need to race with intelligence, without spending too much of yourself early in the race. For once, I may not be the first to attack or react. If I think back to last year, I still have some regrets.
"Second place [last year] stung because of how the race unfolded. On the other hand, I also learned how to play the game better. If I'm in a lead group of two, I won't feel an obligation to pull."
'Riding on the gravel is a nice, different experience'
In recent months, a lot has been made of gravel and its place in road races, with Matteo Trentin and Chris Froome leading calls from the peloton that gravel roads should have no place in stage races. Mauro Schmid, the winner of the 2020 Giro d'Italia stage across the sterrato, recently told Cyclingnews that they might be right, too.
Simmons, like Schmid, said that he enjoys racing on the gravel, and noted that he thinks the roads do have a place in road racing thanks to the added entertainment value the chaos and unpredictability can provide. Last year's race saw him in among the lead group at 50 kilometres to go before puncturing, then crashing, out of contention.
"Riding on the gravel is a nice, different experience," he said. "You see some riders now complaining a bit about adding gravel to races. Cycling needs to have an entertaining race.
"For sure it's not a Monument because it's not old enough, but it's one of the nicest races of the year no matter who you ask. That's because it has something different and because it's entertaining.
"You just have to learn to float a bit and not to panic if you start to slide," he said on the subject of riding on the white gravel roads, which are expected to be dry, compact, and fast on Saturday.
"The problem is if you panic and touch the brakes when you start to slide. On the road you can save it a bit just by slowing down. On the gravel it's best to go nowhere near your brakes and just hold on and be relaxed. Try to stay floating on the top and steer – not with your bars so much, but just by handling the bike with your weight.
Simmons, who in 2020 was suspended by Trek-Segafredo following comments on social media considered by the team to be "divisive, incendiary, and detrimental", said that he and his team – Gianluca Brambilla, Edward Theuns, Dario Cataldo, Toms Skujinš, and Alexander Kamp – are aiming for victory on Saturday.
"For sure, we come here to ride for the win. If it doesn't happen it's a shame, but there's one goal and I'll keep coming back to the race until it happens," he said.
"I look forward to watching it every year and it's actually almost a shame now that as a rider I don't get to watch it. I really enjoyed waking up in the morning with my coffee and get to watch it; it's always really nice.
"For me, the first two hours, when it's still a big bunch and it's together and hectic, I don't really like the panic and the nerves. But once it's a select group and everyone's a bit more tired, then I really enjoy it. But the point to get to the racing is not so fun."
Strade Bianche. By all means. Strade Bianche! pic.twitter.com/assbZwDFwCMarch 3, 2022
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.