Siena, the medieval Tuscan city that hosts the picturesque finale of Strade Bianche, is famous around the world for Il Palio, the semi-annual horse race centred on laps of the Piazza del Campo.
However, one horse’s impromptu – and quite scary – pre-Palio ride, sixteen kilometres outside Siena, wasn’t enough to derail Demi Vollering’s chances of victory at Strade Bianche today, as the SD Worx rider overcame her frightening equine encounter to beat teammate Lotte Kopecky in a thrilling photo finish in the Piazza del Campo.
Former Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Course winner Vollering, who finished second behind Annemiek van Vleuten at last year’s Tour de France Femmes, was chasing lone leader Kristen Faulkner (Jayco AlUla) when a horse made its way onto the road during a descent and almost into the path of the 26-year-old Dutch rider, causing her to scream.
The animal – doubtlessly startled by the vehicles and helicopters following the race – continued to run along the road between Vollering and the camera motorbike for almost a full kilometre, before it eventually fell on a corner.
Fortunately, the horse, known as Zlatana, managed to get straight back up and didn’t seem to affect any of the other chasers.
After the race, Zlatana’s vet confirmed on Facebook that the horse only suffered minor abrasions in the fall, and that its owner apologised for the incident.
“Zlatana is fine, a few days of antibiotics, a lot of fear, but in the end, everything ended well,” the vet wrote on social media.
The terrifying close call initially appeared to derail Vollering’s chances of victory, as the gap to Faulkner – who had launched her solo attack with just over 40 kilometres to go – extended by almost 20 seconds in the immediate aftermath.
However, on the final steep gravel section with just under 12 kilometres left, Vollering’s SD Worx leader, and reigning Strade Bianche champion, Lotte Kopecky – who won Omloop Het Niuewsblad last week on her first outing of the season – launched a blistering attack.
Despite the valiant efforts of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Kopecky’s scintillating dig blew everyone off her wheel and allowed her to link up with her teammate as the gradient eased.
The SD Worx two-up time trial effort eventually managed to catch the courageous and super-strong Faulkner just as the Via Santa Caterina reared up to its famous double-digit gradients with 500 metres to go.
With the brave American, blood dripping from her side after an earlier crash, duly dispatched, most onlookers anticipated that Kopecky would simply gallop away for her second consecutive win in Siena.
However, despite the former Belgian champion moving to the front for the crucial final turns, Vollering didn’t give up – her desperate lunge to the line in the Piazza del Campo proving just enough to pip her teammate at the post.
“I am very happy of course to win,” Vollering said at the finish. “It was a crazy final. We rode well as a team, and the other girls rode super strong today.
“The final play was really cool. This was the plan for me to attack, and suddenly Lotte was with me, and we were two teammates together.”
Behind the leading SD Worx pair, Faulkner took a deserved third, while 20-year-old cyclocross star Puck Pieterse managed a staggering sixth – one place behind Annemiek van Vleuten – on just her second ever pro road race, and former British champion Pfeiffer Georgi secured another encouraging top ten.
But it was Vollering who proved, despite a few scares along the way, that she was the right horse for the right course in Siena.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.