With the memories of third place at last year's Strade Bianche still fresh in his mind, Wout van Aert heads to this Saturday's race with the full backing of WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma – and hoping to go one or two places better.
The Belgian's tumble from his bike on the final climb up to the finish in Siena's Piazza il Campo at the 2018 race, and his subsequent struggle to remount, had hearts in mouths all around the world, but with a good 30-second buffer back to fourth-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Van Aert's podium place was safe – even if he'd hoped to catch runner-up Romain Bardet (AG2R) before the finish.
But in a video interview posted on Jumbo-Visma's website, Van Aert said that "giving up was not an option".
"It's the race people have talked about most since I started cycling," he said. "It left an impression on many people, although I only became aware of that later. It'll be a special feeling going back there, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
"I've never gone as deep as I did then; I was drained for a few days. I was in front with Romain Bardet, and I even thought of winning, but I had no energy left," continued Van Aert, who, riding then for the Veranda's Willems Crelan team, was at the head of the race with the Frenchman before they were caught, and subsequently passed, by eventual winner Tiesj Benoot of Lotto Soudal.
"Giving up was not an option," Van Aert said of his struggle up the final climb. "I literally fell off my bike, but if I'd lost a podium place that way, many people would have remembered it as well. And that would have left me with a sour aftertaste.
"I thought: 'This might be my only chance to be on the podium of a race like this.' Apparently you can push the body pretty far, because I had no power left whatsoever," said the three-time cyclo-cross world champion.
Van Aert returns to a race that was held under cold, wet conditions last year. Although spectacular to watch, drier weather is forecast for the coming weekend, which could make for a closer race over the 63 kilometres of gravel 'white roads' that the riders face over the course of the 184km race.
"Last year, Wout showed that he could go for the win," said Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Grischa Niermann.
"And during Opening Weekend, Danny showed that he's in a good shape, so he can go for a good result in Italy, too," Niermann added, referring to sprinter and Classics specialist Danny van Poppel, who will be on hand to help Van Aert and provide the team with options, having ridden well at last weekend's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
Jumbo-Visma for the 2019 Strade Bianche: Floris De Tier, Lennard Hofstede, Neilson Powless, Antwan Tolhoek, Wout van Aert, Taco van der Hoorn, Danny van Poppel