Cyclo-cross World Champion Mathieu van der Poel is one of the favourites for Saturday's Strade Bianche despite a less than auspicious debut in a hot, late-summer edition of the Italian race in 2020. The sport's newest Classic with its 11 gravel sectors plays into the Dutch champion's strengths, but he suffered a puncture before a key sector at Monte Santa Maria and finished a distant 15th behind rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). This year, Alpecin-Fenix is sending a squad well-versed in off-road racing to support Van der Poel.
The seven-rider team includes experienced cyclo-cross racers Gianni Vermeersch, six-time German 'cross champion Philipp Walsleben, and Xandro Meurisse, along with Petr Vakoč, who finished fifth in Strade Bianche in 2016 before his career was derailed when he was hit by a truck during a pre-season training camp in South Africa in 2018. Rounding out the team are Classics specialists Otto Vergaerde and Jonas Rickaert.
After claiming the cyclo-cross world title over Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) in January, Van der Poel launched his road season with a victory in the opening stage of the UAE Tour, but the team left the race the next day after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
Rickaert and Vermeersch both came into close contact with the staff member and were delayed in returning to Europe because of a brief quarantine, but after three negative COVID-19 tests were allowed to return.
It will be Vermeersch's first race back after the incident, while Rickaert raced alongside Van der Poel in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn.
Van der Poel said his form is good compared with last season – he put in a long-distance attack in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne that was ultimately caught and he finished 12th, and in Le Samyn he led out teammate Tim Merlier to victory even after breaking his handlebars on the final cobbled sector.
That malfunction caused the direct-sell German brand to ask all customers to discontinue using its Canyon Aeroad CF SLX and CFR models immediately. It has also asked all professional teams to switch to “alternative bikes” and said they would be using the older Aeroad model or the current Ultimate model.
Van der Poel will no doubt be hoping for better fortune with mechanicals on Saturday, along with a course that stays dry despite the forecast for a chance of rain.
"Strade is a bit more technical when dry, because it is loose gravel then. I therefore prefer it to be dry and sunny," he said.
Alpecin-Fenix line-up for Strade Bianche: Mathieu van der Poel, Xandro Meurisse, Gianni Vermeersch, Philipp Walsleben, Petr Vakoč, Jonas Rickaert and Otto Vergaerde.
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