Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) won the UCI Women's WorldTour classification in 2018, and she put on the purple leader's jersey again on Saturday after winning Strade Bianche, the opening round of the 2019 series.
This success came as something of a surprise for Van Vleuten herself, as she had fractured her knee at the World Championships Road Race in late September.
"I thought it was maybe a bit too early because I have done only 10 weeks of training. But I worked very, very hard because this race was on my wish list to win one time. It is one of my favourite races," Van Vleuten said in the TV interview after her win.
"I was waiting for a good moment to attack. There was only one teammate with me for a long time, and it was good to have Lucy Kennedy there, but we were a bit outnumbered. We had to poker a bit, and I thought, I have to put the hammer down uphill."
And the reigning world time trial champion did just that. After making it into a select group of 11 with 17 km to go, Van Vleuten left all her competitors behind on the 18 per cent slopes of the eighth and final gravel sector, Le Tolfe, 12.2 km from the finish. After personally bringing back a move by Chantal Blaak (Boels Dolmans), Van Vleuten attacked and opened a gap on the rest of the group.
Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) did not jump on her wheel immediately and let a small gap open. Experienced Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) sensed the danger and tried to get to Van Vleuten but was too far back to close the gap. At the end of the gravel sector only 200 metres later, Van Vleuten had a gap of about 50 metres that she added to all the way to the final kilometre, eventually winning a comfortable 37 seconds ahead of Annika Langvad (Boels Dolmans).
"It is a dream come true," Van Vleuten said. "I think the Piazza del Campo is one of the best ways to finish a race, so this is one of the best victories of my career."
Langvad's second-place finish was arguably an even bigger surprise than Van Vleuten's win. It was well-known that she is an excellent racer as she has won five world titles on the mountain bike - but apart from national championships, Langvad had never really raced on the road.
She was called up for the Innsbruck UCI Road World Championships by Danish national coach Catherine Marsal, and a good performance there brought about a contract with Boels Dolmans. Strade Bianche was Langvad's first-ever UCI Women's WorldTour race, and in the final, the reigning World and Dutch champions, Anna van der Breggen and Chantal Blaak, worked for their new teammate.
"It was such a tough race," Langvad said after the finish. "Already during sector 4 or 5 I questioned how I was going to make it to the end because I have very little experience with this. Then I started trying to ride smarter and to save myself. In the end, my teammates worked like heroes and sacrificed themselves for me in my first-ever road race. That was such a big responsibility, and when I went up the climb neck-to-neck with Niewiadoma, I thought about all that work they put in and just gave it everything myself. I am very happy, even a little bit in shock."
The UCI Women's WorldTour continues March 17 with the Ronde van Drenthe.