Mathieu van der Poel is hoping his disappointing ride in last year's Strade Bianche and more recent Le Samyn cockpit malfunction are behind him, accepting that his bike skills and Classics pedigree make him one of the favourites for victory in Siena on Saturday afternoon.
Van der Poel won the opening stage of the UAE Tour just a few weeks after beating Wout van Aert at the cyclo-cross World Championships. However, he was forced to quit the UAE Tour after stage 1 when a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
He was able to return to Europe and rode aggressively at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday and at Le Samyn on Tuesday but was hampered by a malfunction with his Canyon bike cockpit that led to a section below his brake lever breaking off in the final kilometre.
The direct-sell German brand quickly told all customers to discontinue using its Canyon Aeroad CF SLX and CFR models and asked all their professional teams to switch to "alternative bikes".
The Alpecin-Fenix team have confirmed Van der Poel and his teammates won’t use their 2021 team issue Canyon Aeroad at Strade Bianche.
According to a report in Het Laatste Nieuws, the team have moved quickly to transport a new set of bikes from their service course in Herentals in Belgium to Siena, with van der Poel set switch to the Canyon Ultimate bike, which does not use the same multiple-piece cockpit as the latest Aeroad.
The aerodynamic Aeroad bike is designed for flat races and sprints while the Ultimate is a lighter climbing bike. Van der Poel has apparently used the Ultimate bike during a recent training camp in Spain.
The Movistar and Canyon-SRAM teams have all been forced to switch to different bikes. Movistar did not respond when asked about their bikes by Cyclingnews.
Van der Poel and Alpecin-Fenix were careful not to comment on the bike problems in the build-up to Strade Bianche, only referring to Canyon’s statement on the matter.
The Dutchman’s bike skills and power are ideally suited to Strade Bianche and he is expected to renew his rivalry with Van Aert and world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) on the 63km of Tuscan dirt roads.
Van der Poel beat Van Aert to win the Tour of Flanders but suffered in the heat at last August’s Strade Bianche, when Van Aert dominated.
"I don’t feel like I have unfinished business here after last year," Van der Poel said via the Alpecin-Fenix team late on Friday afternoon.
"My Italian program in general was a bit disappointing, but it’s not that I came back here to settle a score. I came here to perform well, and of course I hope to do better than in 2020."
Van der Poel was on the same flight from the Netherlands as Van Aert on Wednesday afternoon and has since been training on the dirt roads near Siena. He expects a battle with Van Aert but also warned that Grand Tour climbers could be contenders too.
"Last year it was extremely hot here at Strade Bianche. Now they predict nice weather conditions for cycling. I really look forward to it," he said.
"The course is a bit easier compared to the previous edition, less gravel, a bit less technical. But it’s still a very demanding parcours. The strongest riders will remain at the front."
Other big-name favourites for the men’s Strade Bianche include Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). Classic riders to watch include local resident Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo), Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo), Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Greg van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën).
"I agree to a certain extent that people see me as one of the favourites, although I believe that the parcours fits slightly better to the real climbers," Van der Poel suggested.
"On the other hand, Van Aert for example has already proven that also a Classics rider can win this race. But there will be a lot of strong contestants at the start. I expect an open battle."
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