'They all know who I am' – Puck Pieterse takes aim at Strade Bianche podium

Exclusive interview with the Dutch talent as she returns to the Italian race after a breakthrough performance in 2023

Clock14:13, Friday 1st March 2024
Puck Pieterse finished fifth in Strade Bianche in 2023

© Getty Images

Puck Pieterse finished fifth in Strade Bianche in 2023

Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) returns to Strade Bianche with her focus on a possible podium finish after a breakthrough race in 2023 that saw her claim a surprise fifth place.

The 21-year-old is centring her summer around the elite women’s mountain bike race at the Olympic Games in Paris but is using the early Spring Classics to add to her vault of one-day race experiences.

More acclimatised to the off-road scene as a world-class MTB and cyclo-cross racer, Pieterse made her first foray into road cycling last year with two outings in the spring. She finished 36th in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before picking up fifth in Strade and this time around her road calendar has swelled to five races, with the Italian Classic at the epicentre of his programme.

It’s a race for which she has the skillset to succeed, and, even if the pressure is greater this time around, she is looking forward to the challenge of rubbing shoulders with the best riders in the world.

“It’s just the combination of everything that suits me well. I can save myself some energy compared to others on the gravel because I’m used to it but also there’s more climbing than in most road races, and as a mountain biker that suits me more,” she told GCN in an exclusive interview ahead of Saturday’s race.

“The positioning is important too, for the whole race, and that suits me better than riding in the main peloton. You have to be aggressive and maybe riders will be more attentive of my racing this year. I don’t know if that will make it harder but they all know who I am. I want to answer with the pedals, so hopefully it’s not a problem.”

Pieterse has been in Italy for a number of days and rode recon with her teammates on Wednesday. The conditions will play a massive part, with a wet edition of Strade Bianche a possibility. What’s more, the race organisers have beefed up the severity of the course, adding more gravel sections and creating an even more challenging finale.

“They’ve changed the course a bit, so there’s less road in between the gravel sectors. There’s now two extra gravel sectors and the last two sectors are done twice, so there are basically four more sectors when compared to last year," Pieterse noted.

"The changes are tough, but in my opinion, they’re good. It’ll make the race far more selective, with the winning group will be smaller much earlier than usual. As a rider, that’ll suit my characteristics more — the harder the better.”

'There's less pressure on the road'

Last year’s result in Strade Bianche shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. Although lacking in road experience, Pieterse is a phenomenal talent.

In 2018, another young cyclo-cross star by the name of Wout van Aert had a breakthrough in the men’s Strade Bianche to finish third. The race is somewhat of a lottery, however, with crashes and mechanicals part and parcel of the event. Luck could well be a factor but if Pieterse can avoid any major instances she should feature prominently in the selection points within the race.

“The first thing is that everything needs to go well,” she told GCN.

“The chance of crashing or having a mechanical on the gravel is high but riding in the finale would be great again. I want to put my mark on the race. Last year was a surprise for me, especially when I was riding into the last few kilometres with names like Annemiek van Vleuten, but the most important thing this time is the performance, of course.

"It would still be nice to beat my result from last year and I think that if I’m on a good day, and everything goes well, a podium should be possible. But there are a lot of strong riders, so we’ll have to see how it goes.”

Pieterse is used to pressure, though, so even with the heightened attention around Strade Bianche, she’s more than capable of taking the situation in her stride. In fact, the Dutch rider sees her on-road exploits as a lower pressure environment when compared to her MTB or cyclo-cross surroundings.

“On the road, so many things can happen, so there’s not as much pressure. Of course, you want to go well but there are so many factors. With ‘cross and mountain biking before the race you already have the idea to win because the second is almost not good enough but on the road, there are so many factors, so there’s less pressure. In ‘cross it’s focused on yourself too, whereas on the road it’s more about the team, and if a teammate does well, then it’s almost like a win for you too.”

And Pieterse won’t be the only card when it comes to Fenix-Deceuninck’s ambitions in the race. Another cyclo-cross star in Yara Kastelijn is among the team’s roster and has two top-15 results in Siena to her name.

“We definitely have cards to play. Every year Yara has done really well so she’ll be there again. I think we go with a really strong team in general who can all play a part in the finale,” Pieterse added.

Off-road ambitions remain the priority going forward

After Strade Bianche, attention will turn back to the mountain bike scene with the European Championships on the horizon and a busy schedule that will take Pieterse all the way to Paris and the Olympics. There had been discussions over whether a more sustained road programme could be taken up in 2024, but with the off-road focus so important to her, there was little reward in risking her preparation for a shot at the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.

“So far the road has gone really well. I didn’t know what to expect but things went even better than expected in the ‘cross season in January. In April I really need to take some time off the bike and then switch my attention to mountain biking," she said.

"The main goal is the Olympic Games, and while the road has gone well I need to draw a line somewhere and start to focus on off-road. The plan was always to stop around Flanders and we discussed the option of Roubaix but it’s a bit too far into the season, especially with the mountain bike Europeans at the start of May."

Further down the line, a more solid road schedule could feature but that will have to wait for 2025 or perhaps even later. Strade Bianche is a goal, and Pieterse has the talent to prove that 2023 was certainly no fluke, but she’s not putting any pressure on herself to change her race formats any time soon.

“I’ve not really given it much thought. I don’t know. The mountain bike is the main discipline but it would be cool to ride more Spring Classics, or see where I can have more of a combination and do both. Maybe I can switch it up for a season to see how it goes, but I don’t see myself just riding on the road in the coming years,” she said.

For more rider interviews and racing updates, visit our race news page.

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