When Tom Pidcock counter attacked with 51km to go at Strade Bianche on Saturday, few thought it would he the winning move, he himself said after that it was “completely not the plan”.
It did not seem initially as if this would be another race-defining action so far out from the finish, as happened last year with Tadej Pogačar. Pidcock might be special, but he’s not the Slovenian, right? It did not seem certain.
To start with, the Ineos Grenadiers rider was merely shadowing EF Education-EasyPost’s Alberto Bettiol’s move on the Monte Sante Marie five-star sector of gravel at the Tuscan race, making sure he was at the front of the action, not behind as so can easily happen at the chaotic event. It was a fate that did for Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in the end, two of the favourites for the win, two former victors in Siena.
However, as he found himself off the front of the lead bunch, he just kept going, not faltering as Bettiol faded, and then ended up joining Sven Erik Bystrøm and Alessandro De Marchi, the last remnants of the day’s break, but it was still a big ask.
When he was left alone with 23km to go, the money would still be on him being reeled in by the chasing group, especially as at that point there were still teams with two representatives there: Romain Grégoire and Valentin Madouas of Groupama FDJ; Matej Mohorič and Pello Bilbao of Bahrain Victorious; and Attila Valter and Tiesj Benoot of Jumbo-Visma.
Only one rider had won solo from further away at the Italian one-day race: Pogačar. It would surely come back, right?
However, it wasn’t to be, with the group failing to work together to bring back the lone rider out front. It is one of the true oddities of cycling when a group with the power of multiple engines cannot bring back a single person, but that is what happens when egos are brought into the mix, different team plans, and the true belief and power of the leader.
This came to the fore when it was just Valter and Benoot left as a duo in the chasing group, and neither appeared to be able to work well for the other. There was even a comic moment when Valter appeared to drag the others back after his teammate had attacked, and Benoot gestured in frustration and disbelief. The Jumbo-Visma machine that seemed so well-oiled last week appeared to be in need of some extra lubrication on Saturday.
Pidcock used all his nous and skill to build the gap and keep it; for anyone who saw the way he controlled his TT bike when he went off-course at the Volta ao Algarve, there were no fears about the way he would ride on the sterrato of Strade Bianche, even during a sketchy moment on a downhill corner. We all know how good he is at going downhill on the limit, however.
While his great cyclo-cross rival Mathieu van der Poel did not seem on form, finishing 14th, 1-46 behind the winner, Pidcock looks in great form ready for the Classics. Perhaps this is a result of the former riding much later into the ‘cross season, winning the Cyclo-cross World Championships in fact, while the latter finished early, skipping the Worlds.
Interestingly, it might have been his cyclo-cross history which allowed him to keep going out front on his own for so long. Often in ‘cross races, especially at junior level, Pidcock spent a long time out front, and so has become very good at measuring his effort. As we saw on Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France last summer, once he goes, he is very hard to get back.
“It’s going to take some sinking in,” he said at the finish. “When I went, that was completely not the plan. Obviously that sector is usually the decisive place, so I was just riding hard. I got a gap on the descent and I just carried on…
“A few times they came close and I thought oh I’ve messed it up, I’ve gone too early, I’ve wasted my shot but the thing is in races like this, it was so fast all day, I thought if I get a gap and I keep going it’s hard to bring back.”
Ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week, Pidcock admitted that he hadn’t “massively” won on the road yet. At the time, his record stood at three wins, although one of those was a Tour stage.
Now, it might only be four, but he can count one of the biggest one-day races around on his palmarès. You only have to look at the other winners of Strade Bianche to see the gilded company he is now in: Pogačar, Alaphilippe, Van der Poel, and Wout van Aert have won the last editions of the race.
There is now no doubt that the 23-year-old from Leeds is part of that group, the group of riders who can win across the year, in all sorts of different circumstances, on different terrain. With two victories in 2023, it could be a golden spring, a golden year for Pidcock.
What is certain is that he is a special talent, the first male British rider to win Strade Bianche. He should take inspiration from the first Brit full stop to win on the gravel of Tuscany, Lizzie Deignan, who went on to win the Trofeo Alfredo Binda and the Tour of Flanders in early 2016. It might just be a good omen.