It’s not often you see Peter Sagan hang his head, knowing he’s been beaten by a better man. Today, the signs were there that the miraculous Slovakian’s mercurial capabilities were a little deadened. He was up against a contemporary on a perfect ride.
They had burst clear with over twenty kilometers to race, leaving a host of star names choking in their wake including Cancellara, Evans and last year’s champion Moreno Moser.
The Strade Bianche, born in 2007, is a race that’s barely into second-grade. However, the near fifty kilometers on white gravel roads, the dust clouds, the scenery, the sense of something magical … it’s got a patina of age. It’s got a stamp of approval. Everyone loves this race.
Adding a start in San Gimignano just makes this race better.
Home riders honored this modern Classic with an escape in a quick opening hour: Frattini from UnitedHealthCare, Fedi from the hopefully-rehabilitated Neri Sottoli-Yellow Fluo; Pagani of Bardiani-CSF; Androni Giocatolli’s Frapporti.
The peloton more or less switched off once they’d got a gap – the lead went out from about two minutes to over ten in the space of just twenty kilometers. The escape sailed through the first five white gravel sectors and came out at the halfway marker with a credit of seven minutes in the breakaway bank.
The local name for these roads is sterrati, but that might not have been what Cadel Evans, Vinokourov and company called them in that mud-splattered Giro stage 8 of 2010. A similar location, different race, but all adding to the freshly-minted grandeur of the Strade Bianche.
With the sixth gravelled zone looming – to San Giovanni d’Asso – Pozzato has had enough and climbs off. In this race, it’s the gradients to the beautiful hilltop towns, past fields coming to life, past trees coming into leaf, that make things hard. The countryside is like a benevolent grandfather challenging his children’s children to see how they fare. The sun beams down, dry roads, light winds. It’s a perfect Tuscan spring day.
80 kilometers left and the gap is creeping out a little, past five minutes, as the peloton digests its feedzone supplies. Team Giant-Shimano’s on-form Swede Tobias Ludvigsson and a team-mate stop at the roadside for a mechanical and an official car misses them by inches.
The gap is now going south, to four minutes. The peloton masses across the road in San Giovanni d’ Asso – BMC, Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo, Cannondale are all present.
66 clicks to go, and Songezo Jim from MTN-Qubehka and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Christ Juul Jensen are counter-attacking.
Sector seven is a hard start, steep straight off, and the peloton has broken up a bit as the leaders up front start to suffer. The gap is barely over a minute with 55kms to race – Sky have done a lot of damage.
Pagani is the only survivor now of the initial escape – it’s fluid behind, moves forming and dissolving all the time – and Pagani’s time is soon up. 37 kilometers left and there’s a lull up front – out of the chaos of the hectic seventh sector, there are twenty three guys up front including: Evans, Stannard, Cancellara, Sagan, Uran, Ulissi, Valverde.
IAM Cycling are one of the main chasing forces and there’s a more concerted effort to close things up from Astana, but with thirty clicks left the gap is 45 seconds. Omega Pharma-QuickStep have five riders in the lead group and Uran is working hard.
28kms to race and Matteo Trentin lights it up; OPQS don’t want to pull the whole race to the finish, so they need to try something. The chase is Evans (BMC), Stannard (Sky), Vicioso (Katusha), Geschke (Giant-Shimano), Amador (Movistar).
23.7kms and the eighth sector of gravel is upon the now six-strong lead group. The speed plummets; Tinkoff-Saxo are leading the chase.
22kms to go: Sagan rockets past the leaders after Kreuziger’s burst to close a gap. Evans and company look stunned. Kwiatkowski then looms up and glances at Sagan.
20 left now, and Sagan and Kwiatkowski are 14 seconds ahead of a chase. The followers number about 16 guys.
Sector nine is only a couple of kilometers long, but it’s got more steepness thrown in. La Gazzetta dello Sport reckons its one of the toughest sectors in the race and by the time Sagan and Kwiatkowski emerge from that dustbowl they’re already over half-a-minute clear.
In San Giorgio, 17kms left, and the chase has a problem. No-one wants to take control. Old trees cast old shadows on a new race.
Thirteen clicks left and the lead duo rocket into Siena; their advantage is climbing all the time to over a minute. Sagan and Kwiatkowski are on the last gravel sector – it’s a shallow descent and then up an 18% slope.
The Pole looks stronger; Sagan looks a little overdone as they emerge onto smooth tarmac in Le Tolfe.
Valverde attacks out of the chase, but it’s too late to challenge for the win. He’s 57 seconds back with ten kilometers left but Cancellara, Kreuziger and Cunego draw level with the Spaniard.
Inside five to go, and it’s between a Pole and a Slovak to take a maiden win in La Strade Bianche. The chase is making no impact.
Sagan unloads all the remaining ballast which won’t go down well with anyone who cares about the environment as the leaders fly into the last two kilometers, energy gels spinning to the roadside.
It’s the Via Santa Caterina which offers the finishing slope. Sagan leads under the red kite and into the old part of the city. The gradient kicks up 14%, 16%. Sagan is almost opening the long sprint, but Kwiatkowski thunders clear on the hardest part of the climb.
Sagan instantly is beaten almost in a manner we’ve not seen before. Kwiatkowski can hardly believe it as he wheels over the line. Valverde is clear for third, then Cunego, Kreuziger, Cancellara and Evans.
Another beautiful edition of a wonderful race … and a worthy new winner.
Kwiatkowski comments after the race:
“When I came around the final corner to the finish line in Piazza del Campo, it was absolutely beautiful,” Kwiatkowski said. “I did recon yesterday of the finish in Siena, and it was amazing then as well. But with fans and spectators around, it’s even better. It’s something special. I know Sagan has much more experience on a final like that in the big races. I was watching even the chainring he was using to make sure I didn’t make any stupid mistakes. I was actually surprised speeding up on the last climb, he didn’t wait until the sprint. He started slowing down a little bit and I saw that he was really suffering. So I went full gas until the end and that’s how it was won. I’m pretty surprised as this is probably my best, most emotional victory so far. I had so much support from the team, from everyone. In one of the longest sections at 80km to go or so I had a flat tire. I was in the front and it was a nervous moment. I was thinking I really need to be in the front. But Peta stopped with me, gave me his wheel, Mark took me back to the front and I caught the front at 3km left in a 10km section. It was a nervous moment because about half of the peloton was already dropped and with a strong crosswind it was really dangerous. I could lose the race there. But I made it back thanks to my teammates. At 50km to go, the race got going and we had five guys in the front. We could play our cards. We started to pull as we had 22 guys in the front. But, Matteo attacked and it was a good move as we didn’t have to work anymore. I was just waiting then for the move of a guy like Cancellara or Sagan. Then when we caught up to Matteo, on the little climb, Sagan attacked from the back so he had speed on the climb. I was waiting for the move of Cancellara more as he was in the front. I was just behind him when Sagan went. I went behind him and we worked all the way to the last kilometer. I’m really thankful to my team for the support today, I can’t say it enough. Now, at Tirreno-Adriatico, I want to do my best again. We will see what happens. I finished 4th last year. We will have some good guys with Cavendish, Martin, Uran. We have a good lineup. We will see how it goes. The secret of this team is that we are always motivated. It keeps the morale high. As for me, my focus has been on the GC of races this year. Tirreno-Adriatico will be one of the best checks for how I am doing this year.”
Sagan comments after the race:
“I knew my performance was good, but I can’t be really happy when I come in second,” said Sagan. “I’m sure I did the right thing by attacking. At that moment, the race was in standby with many attacks and counterattacks. Contenders were waiting for my next move and studying my strategy so I wanted to stop the delay. The outcome was great, and Kwiatkowski was the strongest – congratulations to him.”
“Road races offer a one-shot chance to come in first. I know I can grow and improve my form before the Classics. Tirreno-Adriatico will be a great and useful race to strengthen and better my form. Today’s race made me confident, and I’m ready for the next.”
Strade Bianche 2014, San Gimignano-Siena, 197kms
1 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-QuickStep 5hrs 20′ 33”
2 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale + 19”
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar + 36”
4 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Merida + 40”
5 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo + 40”
6 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing + 59”
7 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team + 1′ 42”
8 Warren Barguil (Fra) Giant-Shimano + 2′ 01”
9 Wout Poels (Ned) Omega Pharma-QuickStep + 2′ 10”
10 Simon Geschke (Ger) Giant-Shimano + 2′ 50”