Pogačar launches season in style with dominant Strade Bianche win, Kopecky edges women’s race

SIENA, Italy (AP) — Two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar started his season in crushing style with a stunning solo attack on a tricky gravel sector to cruise to victory in the Strade Bianche on Saturday.

Pogačar, who also won the race in 2022, had plenty of time to raise his arms in celebration before the finish. He got off his bicycle on the line and raised it above his head.

With the closest rider nearly three minutes behind, Pogačar was the first to win by more than a minute in the Strade Bianche’s 17-year history.

“The first race in the season is really tough mentally,” he said. “You never know if the shape is good or not, but I had really good preparation through the winter.

“I started a bit later so more preparation work before the first race and it was really worth it.”

Pogačar announced before the race that he planned to attack on the most difficult section — the brutal Monte Sante Marie climb — and that is precisely what the UAE Team Emirates rider did, making his move with more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the extended 215-kilometer (134-mile) route remaining as the weather turned briefly inclement.

Pogačar swiftly rode into the distance, and the Slovenian eventually finished two minutes, 44 seconds ahead of Toms Skujins, with Maxim Van Gils three seconds further back.

“We came to the Monte Sante Marie and it was a hailstorm, it was really tough conditions,” Pogačar said. “It was a moment where you couldn’t see anything, it was so muddy. I decided to go on the attack there and I knew it was going to be long but I knew if I got the gap I (would) just go through to the end.”

This Strade Bianche was the longest yet, surpassing 200 kilometers (124 miles) for the first time in its 18 editions. An extra loop near Siena meant there were 15 sections of the white, gravel roads that give the race its name — up from 11 in recent years.

In another repeat of 2022, world champion Lotte Kopecky won the women’s race.

“I actually didn’t have the best day. I suffered the whole race,” Kopecky said. “When I left this morning, I immediately felt I didn’t have the best legs. But I often have that in a race and usually they don’t really get worse as the race progresses.

“When I attacked, I went full speed until the last corner. Then I knew this win was in and that I could triumph in a very special way as world champion in the Piazza del Campo.”

Kopecky attacked on the climb up to Piazza del Campo to finish four seconds ahead of home favorite Elisa Longo Borghini. Kopecky’s Team SD Worx-Protime teammate Demi Vollering won a sprint for third, with the defending champion crossing the line 26 seconds behind the Belgian cyclist.

There were 12 gravel sectors on the 137-kilometer (85-mile) route through Tuscany.

“This was the main aim of the first part of the season, the next will be the Olympics,” Kopecky said.


AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports

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