Van der Poel is making his debut in the Italian semi-classic, and Kwiatkowski, a two-time winner, knows better than anyone that first-time riders can succeed in the Tuscan race. After all, Kwiatkowski’s debut at Strade Bianche in 2014 resulted in victory.
“I won Strade Bianche in my first edition, and when you have the skills and can ride your bike and you are ready for it — you need some luck — and when you have all of those things, then the strongest guy wins this race,” Kwiatkowski said. “[Van der Poel] proved already that on the road he is capable of doing such a thing. So yeah, I think he is a favorite.”
Van der Poel, a three-time elite cyclocross world champion, may also be helped by the slippery and loose conditions of the white roads of Tuscany. Kwiatkowski spoke to reporters on Thursday afternoon, just hours after he completed a 75-kilometer reconnaissance ride on the dirt roads. While heavy springtime rainfall makes these roads tacky and wet for Strade Bianche’s normal March date, Kwiatkowski said the roads are currently dry, loose, and rocky.
“The gravel is more loose, more dusty so obviously everyone is going to have less grip. It’s not like racing on ice — I could compare it to racing on snow,” Kwiatkowski said. “Because the dynamic of the peloton is different and the braking power is different, it is nothing compared to what we are used to. I think it is going to be a super dangerous and risky race.”
The other new hurdle for Saturday’s race is the heat. Chilly temperatures and rain are commonplace at the Tuscan race. For its new August 1 date, Strade Bianche may see temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit and dry, dusty conditions. The heat and dust will place an emphasis on hydration.
“You have to stay on top of hydration because the last thing you want to do is end up with cramps for the end of the race,” Kwiatkowski said. “We started today’s training at 10 a.m. and it wasn’t anything like we are used to. It will be super hot.”
Saturday’s race marks the return to WorldTour racing for the pro peloton, and van der Poel and Kwiatkowski are both on the list of favorites to win. Defending champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) sits atop that list, alongside the 2018 champion Tiesj Benoot (Sunwb) and two-time podium finisher Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
Further down the list are the heavy hitters of classics racing: Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), and Oliver Naesen (AG2R-La Mondiale); as well as top climbers and stage racers Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), and even Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates).
All riders are pedaling into the unknown on Saturday, as few have turned a pedal in organized international competition since racing ended in March. The surge in COVID-19 cases across Italy prompted organizers to cancel the race just days before it was set to run, and since then WorldTour events have been postponed or canceled.
Riders are returning to the race under the UCI’s new rulebook for COVID-19 safety, which requires riders to stay in “bubbles” before and during the event, and to undergo regular testing in the days prior to the race. The program is still evolving, and already WorldTour teams have sent riders home as preventative measures that go above and beyond what the UCI has mandated.
Kwiatkowski said he is confident in the rules established for COVID-19 safety, but stressed that it is ultimately up to the riders to follow the rules in order to keep the entire peloton safe.
“Cycling should do everything to prove that we can race in a safe way. That’s what fans needed, that’s what we needed, that’s what the businesses side needed,” Kwiatkowski said. “At the moment we can show that it is possible. Everybody is going to stay professional and do what they have to do, I think we will be fine.”
The Pole likened the situation to racing on loose, gravel roads. If everyone takes precautions and rides safely, the entire group is safe. If someone acts carelessly, the entire group my crash.
“You get in the race, there is a gravel corner, and there is the risk of crashing in the gravel corner,” he said. “If you are professional and think about what you can do, what you should do, and make sure you do the right thing, then the fear is gone because you are doing the right thing.”
“Of course there is also the risk that someone can crash into you,” he added.