A peloton of cyclists races over dirt roads with snow capped mountains in the background.

Can SD Worx-Protime dominate Strade Bianche (again)?

One of the best races of the year has a deep field of rivals looking to prevent a repeat of 2023.

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 29.02.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images
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The white dirt roads of Tuscany await the women for the next round of the Women’s WorldTour. A selective race won by the best of the best and one that always seems to boost at least one unknown rider into prominence, what’s not to love about Strade Bianche?

Plus this year RCS, the race organizers, have added to the challenge by throwing in a few extra kilometres of dirt. Fun!

Last year we witnessed a showdown between two members of the same team with SD Worx’s Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering fighting to the line, but we also got to see strong performances from Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Puck Pieterse, and Kristen Faulkner (who was ultimately disqualified for racing with a glucose monitoring device).

And who could forget the incident with a horse … bike racing is rarely boring.

This year SD Worx-Protime is kind of in unknown territory – Vollering is thinking about signing elsewhere at the end of the season while Kopecky is firmly backed by the team through 2028. Finally, rival teams used aggressive and tactically savvy racing to deny them a win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week. With the best team on rocky ground, the race is more open than ever.

So who can add their name to the illustrious list of Strade Bianche winners? Can Elisa Longo Borghini take a second title after a brilliant win in 2017? Can Kasia Niewiadoma finally grace the top step after four podium appearances in eight years? We will have to wait until Saturday to find out.

In case you want a little refresher on last year’s race.

The Basics

When: Saturday, March 2

Distance: 137 km, 40.4 km of dirt

Live coverage: from 11:00 to 14:00 CET (finish around 13:30). ??Discovery+, ??Max, ??SBS, ??FloBikes

Weather: the forecast for Saturday looks relatively promising, with partly cloudy skies, temperates rising to around 15°C/60°F, and light to moderate west winds and a chance for showers. But the course may not be entirely dry; there’s a much stronger chance (80%) of rain on Friday afternoon and evening, with up to a half inch (11 mm) of precipitation expected. It’s been dry all week, but that could produce some mud and pooling water in low spots.

The course

Strade Bianche is always a selective and challenging course. There have been years of scorching heat, the white dirt so dry it turned into clouds kicked up by the cars before the riders even hit the roads, and years where the downpour of rain has turned the race treacherous with muddy ruts. Before even checking the weather, we know this year will be more challenging than most.

RCS added an additional 10.4 km of white dirt roads for the 2024 edition, making the race even more selective. The overall distance of the race only changes by a single kilometer, but the amount of dirt is now higher than last year by a third, going from 30 to 40.4 km. Almost 30% of the course is dirt. And where those new dirt kilometers are placed matters even more.

The four “new” sectors are part of a loop added to the course before it circles back into Siena for the finish. The women will race two of the sectors – Colle Pinzuto (2.4 km) and Le Tolfe (1.1 km) – twice. This new addition could cause the winning move to go much earlier since these two final dirt sections, which both have short but steep climbs with sections past 15%, have often been the launchpad for race-winning moves in previous editions. By this time, the race is already blown apart. These additional kilometres of dirt will add a lot to the finale.

The course map for the women's 2024 Strade Bianche. The riders leave Siena for a long, counterclockwise southerly loop into Tuscany, looping back to the east of the city for a finishing circuit that has almost half of the dirt sectors in the race.

The entire course is relentless, with very little room to hide. The first sector, the 2.1 km “Vidritta,” hits just 14 km into the race and is followed by the three longest in the race. From the Vidritta on, it’s a process of setting up for the next section of dirt, chasing if needed, and setting up again, until the finish back in Siena. The 2 km final climb up the Via Santa Caterina to the finish in the Piazza del Campo, with gradients reaching 16%, is the last decisive moment of the race if the winner isn’t long gone already. The last two years have gone down to the wire with two riders taking the race to the line, but we’ve also seen solo wins here in the past.

The profile for the 2024 women's Strade Bianche. It's lumpy, with 12 sections of dirt, starting just 14 km into the race, with the last sector ending just 12 km from the finish line.

Top contenders: Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky

SD Worx-Protime may have lost out to Marianne Vos at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but they are going into Strade Bianche with two heavy favourites. Both Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky have won in Siena, and both are only getting stronger. Kopecky in particular is only getting better at races like Strade Bianche.

Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky surrounded by photographers after the photo finish at 2023 Strade Bianche.
Last year saw a tense two-up sprint between Vollering and Kopecky; a repeat in 2024 is far from impossible.

Vollering may not have looked as strong during Opening Weekend, but it was her first race of the year. The cobwebs have been shaken out and it’s go time for the Dutch National Champion. Vollering just edged out Kopecky here last year, and she could do so again. Fun fact: only Annemiek van Vleuten has won Strade Bianche twice.

Kopecky and Vollering have each other to contend with, as we saw last year, but they also will have learned from that experience.

The two will make things difficult for the rest of the peloton, that’s for sure.

Other riders to watch

Behind the duo from SD Worx-Protime, we have two longtime favourites when it comes to Strade Bianche. Lidl-Trek’s Elisa Longo Borghini, who won the race in 2017 while racing for Wiggle-High5, and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), who has finished second on three occasions, from 2016 to 2018, third in 2019, and then 4th in 2022 and 6th in 2023. It’s a race that Niewiadoma, the current gravel World Champion, loves, but a victory that has eluded her for years.

Elisa Longo Borghini climbs in the 2021 Fleche Wallonne, wearing the tricolor red-white-and-green jersey of Italian national champion.
Elisa Longo Borghini wants to join Annemiek van Vleuten as the only two-time winners in race history.

If either of these two win on Saturday it will be earth-shaking. Just like when Taylor Swift fans caused seismic activity equivalent to a 2.3-magnitude earthquake when she performed in Seattle, the amount of people screaming, yelling, and crying at their tv screens will similarly have governments scratching their heads at the seismographs.

Kasia Niewiadoma crosses the finish line at Strade Bianche.
Except Longo Borghini, no rider has been more consistent at Strade than Kasia Niewiadoma: four podium finishes in nine entries, but no wins (yet).

Both Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma looked decent at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Longo Borghini the better of the two (she finished third), but like Vollering, Niewiadoma’s form will be coming around for Strade, and the course somewhat better suits her than Belgian cobbles.

If Longo Borghini isn’t feeling it on Saturday, Lidl-Trek has another option in Shirin van Anrooij. The Dutch youngster was looking amazing last weekend; apparently, her forced step away from cyclocross this winter meant she came into the road season flying.

Fenix-Deceuninck’s Puck Pieterse continued dipping her toes in the road waters last weekend and didn’t miss a beat. She was right up there with the best in the peloton when Kopecky made her move, and considering how strong her performance (fifth) was at Strade Bianche last year, it would be no surprise to see her on the podium on Saturday.

Puck Pieterse sits on the ground, against a set of barriers, after the 2023 Strade Bianche.
Puck Pieterse has raced rarely on the road, but when she does, she’s a threat to win.

One rider who will want redemption at Strade Bianche is Kristen Faulkner. The American was third last year but was ultimately disqualified for racing with a glucose-monitoring device. She won Omloop van het Hageland last weekend with a 50-ish km-long solo move, so the form is definitely there.

A lone cyclist is illuminated crossing a race finish line.
Kristen Faulkner crossing the finish line third at Strade Bianche, 2023.

After she won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Vos is worth a mention here, even if it would be a bit out of left field, maybe it’s some wishful thinking on my part.

Unfortunately, last year’s third-place finisher, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, will not line up for FDJ-Suez on Saturday. The team released a statement on Wednesday stating that the Tour de France Femmes stage winner suffered a sacral fracture in a crash at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Star Ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Demi Vollering, Lotte Kopecky
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Kasia Niewiadoma, Elisa Longo Borghini
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Puck Pieterse
⭐️⭐️: Shirin van Anrooij
⭐️: Marianne Vos, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, Mavi Garcia, Silvia Persico, Kristen Faulkner

?: Neve Bradbury, Niamh Fisher-Black, Pfeiffer Georgi

Wheel Talk Podcast picks

Gracie Elvin: Kopecky!
Abby Mickey: Elisa Longo Borghini.
Loren Rowney: I’m going with the youngster Shirin van Anrooij.
Matt de Neef: I mean, Kopecky?

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