Incredible Tadej Pogačar wins Strade Bianche after jaw-dropping 81km solo break

UAE Team Emirates leader puts in a epic performance that leaves everyone else behind

Clock15:37, Saturday 2nd March 2024
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) made his winning move with 81km to go

© Getty Images

Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) made his winning move with 81km to go

On a brisk Saturday morning in Siena, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) proclaimed that he would attack on the Monte Sante Marie section of Strade Bianche, and unsurprisingly his boasts were met with a sense of disbelief and wry smiles. Surely, even a rider of his calibre wouldn’t have the audacity to solo clear with over 80km to go, and so many critical gravel sections still to come. Such a move seemed incomprehensible.

Then it happened, and those wry smiles were wiped away as quickly as the opposition. In fact, the Slovenian’s winning move came with 81km to go, not 80, and when he effortlessly dropped the best riders in the world, after a breathless opening 120km of racing, it immediately felt as though the race was over.

In scenes reminiscent of Chris Froome’s epic break on stage 18 to Bardonecchia at the 2018 Giro d'Italia, Pogačar rode on a different level, competing in a race in which he was the only competitor as his rivals scrambled for answers through the rain and mud of the Tuscan dirt roads.

By the time the skies cleared with 60km to, Pogačar had a near two-minute gap and this wannabe Monument was over as a contest. Section after section, the lead extended with commentators forced to briefly contemplate time limits for many of the riders left behind.

Pogačar had all the time in the world as he sailed up the Via Santa Caterina before taking his second Strade Bianche title in three years.

Read more: Strade Bianche: Lotte Kopecky storms to victory ahead of Elisa Longo Borghini

Toms Skujiņš (Lidl-Trek) won the battle for second ahead of Maxim Van Gils (Lotto Dstny), with last year's winner Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) taking fourth.

At the finish in Siena, the well-respected French journalist Jean-François Quénet asked the question everyone had been thinking as he sat down with Pogačar for a post-race interview. It was succinct but perfect: “80km solo, why?”

Even the winner wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know why,” he said.

“The race was really fast from the start and it was already quite selective super early. I don’t think that anyone expected that. Then we came to the Monte Sante Marie and it was a hailstorm and really tough conditions. There were no more resources left in the group with 25 riders and my team made it super hard and there was a moment when you couldn’t see anything, it was so muddy, and I decided to go on the attack there. I knew it was going to be long but when I had a gap I knew that I had to go until the end.

"At first, I was feeling good, really good, and the team did a super job but I could see it was going to be tough to the finish. When it was really raining a lot I felt good and decided to go solo," Pogačar added.

Read more: Spring Classics 2024: Essential guide to the races and riders

Siena sunrise

With an extended race parcours, and talk of Monument status ahead of the race, there was an air of excitement as the men’s peloton rolled out on the 215km course.

It didn’t take long for the attacks to form but the first meaningful escape came when Oscar Riesebeek (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Cristián Rodríguez (Arkéa-B&B Hotels), Felix Engelhardt (Jayco AlUla), Francisco Muñoz (Polti Kometa), Logan Currie (Lotto Dstny), and Anders Halland Johannessen (Uno-X Mobility) jumped clear with Toms Skujiņš (Lidl-Trek).

With the Latvian in the move, the chances of the peloton allowing the break to succeed were slim, and the seven were duly reeled in. After 40km of racing a more palatable escape formed with American Lawson Craddock (Jayco AlUla) joined by Mark Donovan (Q36.5), Anders Halland Johannessen, Nils Brun (Tudor Pro Cycling Team) and Dion Smith (Intermarché-Wanty).

The quintet established a margin of 1:30 over the UAE Team Emirates-controlled bunch, but when Brun and Craddock lost ground due to mechanicals it wasn’t long before the main field was back in contention.

Quinn Simmons and Magnus Cort countered but with 93km to go the race regrouped as word crackled through race radio of Julian Alaphilippe’s DNF.

Simmons tried for a second time soon after but as the rain began to fall the race hit the most critical sector of gravel, the Monte Sante Marie.

All change as Pogačar makes history

The 11.5km stretch, with a five-star rating of difficulty, ended Simmons’ time out front as UAE whittled down the bunch to less than 30 or so riders.

Then it happened. Pogačar, sitting second wheel behind his teammate Tim Wellens, came to the front in a move that looked as telegraphed as his pre-race comments. Then, with a flick of the pedals, he accelerated. 

Sepp Kuss, one of the finest climbers in the world, gave chase but within seconds he looked back and then sat up. Pogačar wouldn’t be seen for the rest of the afternoon. With 6km to go on the Monte Sante Marie the Slovenian’s gap stood at 26 seconds – still manageable if but slightly alarming but by the time he exited the gravel sector the advantage had spiralled to 1:15 over a valiant Maxim Van Gils, and almost two minutes to everyone else.

At that moment it felt as though even the commentators, just like Pogačar, were on autopilot as they reminisced over the exploits of Merckx and other great.

With 61km still to go the gap ballooned to 2:21 with Maxim Van Gils back with the chasing back that included numbers from Visma-Lease a Bike, Ineos and several other squads.

As the kilometres ticked down, the gap grew and even several waves of counter-attacks from the likes of Romain Bardet and Ben Healy failed to make an impression on Pogačar’s relentless yet steady pace.

Healy tried several times to split the chase group, attacking on sector 10 and the Colle Pinzuto but with 45km to go the gap stood at an insurmountable three minutes. On Pogačar’s first ascent of Le Tolfe the advantage grew again to 3:30 as those behind him cracked mentally and began to race for the remaining steps on the podium.

Van Gils put in another defiant dig with Skujiņš joining him with 20.5km to go. Pidcock attacked from what was left of the chasing pack, but Pogačar was high-fiving his way up the final climb with time to spare.

Skujiņš, who had battled back from a crash and a bike change, took a worthy second ahead of the equally impressive Van Gils but this was Pogačar’s day and his race.

Race Results

1

si flag

POGACAR Tadej

UAE Team Emirates

5H 19' 45"

2

lv flag

SKUJINS Toms

Lidl-Trek

+ 2' 44"

3

be flag

VAN GILS Maxim

Lotto Dstny

+ 2' 47"

4

gb flag

PIDCOCK Tom

INEOS Grenadiers

+ 3' 50"

5

si flag

MOHORIC Matej

Bahrain Victorious

+ 4' 26"

6

fr flag

COSNEFROY Benoît

Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team

+ 4' 39"

7

it flag

FORMOLO Davide

Movistar Team

+ 4' 41"

8

fr flag

MARTINEZ Lenny

Groupama-FDJ

+ 4' 48"

9

it flag

ZANA Filippo

Team Jayco-AlUla

+ 4' 49"

10

fr flag

LAPORTE Christophe

Team Visma | Lease a Bike

+ 5' 17"

Provided by FirstCycling

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