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Mathieu Van der Poel aiming for solo Strade Bianche success

Mathieu van der Poel has been tipped as one of the favourites to win Strade Bianche on Saturday but the Alpecin-Fenix rider says that if he wants to win, he will have to survive the intensely hot weather and get rid of the best climbers.

"With [Wout] Van Aert you saw that if you go against the real climbers on that climb it's going to be very difficult. It's really steep and it's quite long actually. In an ideal case I would go there alone but it's going to be really hard. There are going to be some guys who already had their best chances before the final because of the heat," Van der Poel said via a video conference on Friday. "Normally I'm quite OK with the heat but I need some adaptation first."

Van der Poel has spent less than a week in Tuscany after arriving from an altitude training camp at La Plagne, and he suggested it might not be long enough to fully adapt to a heatwave that is expected to hit 37°C on race day. 

"I don't think I've ever raced in these circumstances. My first [MTB] World Cup in Cairns was also a hot race. But that was one and a half hours and tomorrow it will be five hours in the heat. There are some sections where we don't really have the high speed and then you really feel the burning."

The team reconnoitered the course several times and Van der Poel, the reigning cyclo-cross World Champion, says his skills off-road will come into play on the gravel sections that make up 63km of the 187km course.

"It is an advantage especially on the gravel sectors but most people forget there is a lot of (climbing) meters. We did the recon a few weeks ago and I was quite surprised how hard the race actually is. There are a lot of steep climbs. It's never easy, you never can just be on the wheel and enjoy being out of the wind," he said.

"It's one of the hardest races there is. It's quite technical actually. Because of the weather conditions it's an advantage for guys who can handle their bikes well because it's really slippery. On the other hand, it's also hard – a lot of steep, short climbs and it's never flat."

Strade Bianche is the first race back for most of the WorldTour peloton and for Van der Poel's team, after they were forced to skip the Sibiu Cycling Tour because of the coronavirus pandemic. For that reason, as well as the heat, Van der Poel expects riders to hold back on the early attacks.

"I think racing hasn't changed during COVID. Everyone is eager to race," Van der Poel said. "With the heat nobody is going to want to attack to soon because then you can really pay for it in the final."

Van der Poel has not raced since the Volta ao Algarve in February, which took place just after the end of the cyclo-cross season, so measuring himself against his rivals before the race is not possible. Instead, he is keeping track of how his form compares with previous years.

"We have the numbers so we can compare to the shape of previous years. That's always a good indicator. You have to see in the race and during the race how the legs are. It's going to be hard for everyone, the first race in a long time. There's going to be some special conditions with the heat they've predicted. I'm looking forward to it but it's not going to be easy."

The pressure will be on for a top result because, despite the repeated COVID-19 testing, Van der Poel acknowledged that it is uncertain if it will be possible to run off the UCI calendar as planned.

"I think that not only for myself but everyone it's quite important. With the COVID situation you never know if they're going to continue racing. I hope it's possible in a safe environment. I 'm really glad we can do what we love and race."