2016 Strade Bianche winner Lizzie Deignan began her season on the podium in Siena on Saturday. The former road world champion snagged third place in an explosive final to the UCI Women’s WorldTour opener, which was won by Italian Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5).
Expecting to support a Boels-Dolmans teammate over the 127-kilometre race, Deignan was forced to embrace a leadership role when illness and injury required a change in plans.
"I couldn’t have expected a podium,” said Deignan. “I was coming here to work for the team, but we had so much bad luck that it ended up being me that needed to do the work. I’m not in top shape yet, nowhere near, so I’m delighted, really pleased. I didn’t expect to be in the breakaway and contribute to it. I thought if I made a breakaway, I’d be surviving it. I’m really pleased with my form."
Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team’s strength in any given race typically lies in its options. Those options were limited on Saturday. Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen did not start due to illness, and UCI Women’s WorldTour winner Megan Guarnier started with injuries sustained during a crash at Omloop van het Hageland last weekend.
The American abandoned the race following the fourth sector – shortly before the sky opened and rain began to fall.
“I was getting such a migraine,” said Guarnier. “And I was nauseous. I couldn’t continue.”
“Megan made the right decision to stop the race,” said Deignan. “From there it was like – ok. We’re going to need to race totally differently than how we normally do. Normally we’re super aggressive. Today we kind of had to wait and play a defensive game, which isn’t what I like doing. Eventually it was up to us anyway to make the move.”
That move came in the seventh of eight gravel sections. A three rider breakaway, the first with staying power, that included Lauren Stephens (TIBCO), Floortje Mackaij (Team Sunweb) and Lara Vieceli (Astana) had just been caught. The weather was worsening, and the front group was nearly 40-strong.
“Christine [Majerus] and I went on instinct at that point,” said Deignan. “It was the second to last gravel section. Everyone was kind of strung out. There was a descent into it. If you’re on Christine’s wheel, you’re going to be 100 metres ahead of everyone else anyway. She is such a beast.
“We started the second to last gravel sector together in the first position, and I took it over from there,” Deignan added. “There was a small selection over the top.”
The selection included Longo Borghini, Deignan, Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3 Cycling), and ORICA-SCOTT pair Annemiek van Vleuten and Katrin Garfoot. Eighteen kilometres and one gravel sector remained.
“ORICA couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to help in the breakaway,” noted Deignan. “In the end, it was cat and mouse into the finish, which wasn’t great because two came from behind with around three kilometres to go.”
Those two were Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb), who had broken free from an elite chase group that had formed following sector seven, unbeknownst to Deignan and her breakaway companions.
“I didn’t know they were coming,” said Deignan. “There were no time checks or anything. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Brand started the climb up Via Santa Caterina (16%, tops out 300 metres from the finish) with a five-second advantage over Gillow. The former Raboliv teammates were together by the mid-point of the climb. It looked like the pair would fight for top honours but Deignan’s group – now down to three riders – was fast-closing.
“Elisa went first and Kasia went to make the move up the outside – as did I,” noted Deignan. “But there was a motorbike there. It was one big traffic mess. Elisa and Kasia got into the final corner together and battled it out to the finish, and I came into secure third place.”
Brand settled for fourth place. Van Vleuten came past Gillow to take fifth.
Having finished in third place, Deignan’s Strade Bianche podium streak continues. The Briton has finished first (2016), second (2015) and third (2017).
“Today felt different than usual,” said Deignan. “Normally I feel very strong and dominant. Today it was much more down to tactics because I didn’t have the legs to animate it the way I’d normally like to. I had to play the tactic game, and I got it wrong.”