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Strade Bianche sportive: A lesson in humility on the white roads of Tuscany

In-depth
8 Mar 2019
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For one weekend in spring, Tuscany offers up its rolling hills to the Strade Bianche, one of the newest – and hardest – races in town

Words: James Spender Photography: Patrik Lundin

You don’t just invent bicycle races. They take years of planning and decades of execution. Races become tales and tales become legends. For a bicycle race to enter the calendar is one thing; to cement itself in the velocipedic vernacular quite another. Yet that’s exactly what the Strade Bianche has done in less than a decade. Or has it?

Although it might seem counterintuitive in the age of amateur spin-offs from professional events, the Gran Fondo Strade Bianche, whose starting gun I now anxiously await, is actually the parent of the pro race, a 1.HC category race that started in 2007 and has since become one of the early-season cherries.

The gran fondo predates the pro event by 10 years, and over the course of time morphed into two races: L’Eroica, which is restricted to bicycles made before 1987, and this, a 124km replica of the pro race taking in 22.4km of sterrati, the dusty chalk roads that scar the vineyards and fields throughout one of Italy’s most cherished regions, Tuscany.

While today belongs to the 2,500-strong field currently held captive in start pens, the 2016 pro race held the day before belonged to a decisive Lizzie Armitstead and a thrilling Fabian Cancellara.

The reigning women’s World Champion took the honours three seconds to the good, but it was the Swiss Cancellara who truly stole the show, punching hard up the final climb to pip an explosive Zdenek Stybar and an exhausted Peter Sagan at the finish in Siena’s Piazza il Campo. 

As a spectator yesterday it was heart-in-the-mouth stuff. As a participant today it’s done a marvellous job of stoking up the butterflies. Loose gravel roads with the prediction of bad weather? Check. Twenty-five millimetre tyres on a flyweight road bike? Jury’s still out.

He is Spartacus

Road cycling is a perverse sport when you think about it. Riders spend considerable sums and travel countless miles to pedal through the most stunning scenery on Earth, only to spend most of their time in a state of reverential purgatory.

Split between the heroism of the undertaking and the physical and mental anguish of the task itself, we grind through celebrated vistas looking at little more than fellow competitors’ backsides. 

Having taken a brief coach tour through the Tuscan countryside upon arrival, I’m determined this won’t be another one of those times where I may as well be on the A3 towards Petersfield for all my sensory organs know.

It’s clearly not an idea shared by a chap in front.

Despite starting at the reasonable time of 9am it’s decidedly brisk for an Italian March, and yet this man is in a skinsuit, which I could almost take seriously were he not shouting and slapping his thighs.

I can only assume his words are a mix of self-motivation and castigation at his sartorial blunder, the combination of Lycra and chilly air clearly playing havoc with his circulation. 

As Trek is title sponsor, the Trek-Segafredo pro team – including Cancellara – has turned up to ride out with us mere mortals, and I can see the lengthy head of the man of the moment, cheerfully giving an interview to a local news team.

It’s an inspiring sight that has the crowd in raptures. I can’t imagine Wiggo doing an interview on a Sunday morning up Box Hill.

With ‘Spartacus’ and company ensconced in our throng, the gun fires and the lead pack I’m in darts off down a sharp left-hand bend, doubling back along the ancient stone walls of the Fortezza Medicea, a fortress built in the 16th century to stop the Sienese regaining control of the city from neighbouring Florence.

In so doing it helped protect the world’s oldest surviving bank, Monte dei Paschi, which incidentally sponsored the first pro edition of the Strade Bianche and whose name, somewhat ironically for a bank, translates as ‘mount of piety’.

Piety, however, is applicable to the peloton I’m in. It seems our lead group of around 100 is desperately trying to get close enough to pay homage to Cancellara, himself looking like he’s desperately trying to escape.

The result is a typically ridiculous Italian sportive pace, which although I know to be unsustainable I still try to adhere to. One of my companions on this trip, Jon, shared his tactical plan over dinner last night, explaining that given the narrowness of the chalk roads he figured it wise to go for a fast start to avoid the inevitable bottlenecks later on.

As tarmac gives over to the first sterrato section, I have to concede Jon was right.

Although there’s plenty of time to anticipate the transition from smooth to rough, nothing quite prepares me for the shock of hitting a bed of semi-compacted mud and chalk at 40kmh.

Riders ahead fishtail under ill-measured braking, the luckier ones snaking towards open fields to the left, the less fortunate scraping the dense scrub to the right. 

Barely 50m in and I realise that whatever my motives, the only way I’m going to get through this thing is with a mixture of the utmost concentration and dumb luck. Yet again, today won’t be a day for sightseeing. 

Dredging up what impoverished mountain bike skills I had in my youth, I carefully pick lines that look the least gnarled and rocky, weaving from the crown of the road to its flanks like a drunken uncle.

Mercifully this 2km section is flat, and soon enough the track segues back onto the road. 

With the return to a smooth riding surface comes a tightening of our group, and it’s easy to see the damage inflicted on our peloton. Several riders are already tending to punctures, and there’s a conspicuous absence of bidons in cages.

The mood, however, is jubilant, with keen chatter wafting over the ticking of cassettes as riders congratulate each other at having mastered at least this first portion of their fate.

For a time there’s enough respite to savour the occasion. A cursory look back across the landscape is a treat, a procession of riders lined out along the tracks from whence we came like a living string of fluorescent road markings.

Ahead the group has already split, the race commissaire’s car a fading memory, but I’m happy enough to let it go in favour of settling into a rhythm for what the course profile reckons is the longest climb of the day, the 5km, 5% Passo del Rospatoio. 

Both the climb and the descent off the back of the Rospatoio are straightforward, and soon I find myself goaded into a bridging attempt as the gradient eases to reveal a tantalisingly close group ahead. It’s a powder-dry or bust moment, but with Jon’s words still echoing in my head, I go all in.

Great steamer boats were sailed, and probably built, more quickly, and after what feels like an age hunkered in the drops I finally make contact with a wheel. So focused was I that I fail to realise I’ve pulled another rider with me, and nearly wobble into the verge when he gives me a gratified pat on the shoulder. 

As we leave the haven of freshly laid macadam for another round of steratti, it turns out my legs are rather less enamoured with my antics.

If the initial section of unpaved road was hairy, this next 9.5km stretch is a dreadlocked Wookiee, so it’s with bitter complaint that I brace my quads.

While marked on the course profile as being a shallow, steady-looking ascent, the reality is this third gravel section is an angry saw whose teeth are stuffed with big chunks of rock. I’d read some bumpf describing the Strade Bianche as Italy’s answer to Flanders crossed with Roubaix, but had dismissed it as marketing hype.

Much, it now seems, to my detriment. 

Cutting through the Crete Senesi hills, this ancient track still enjoys a roaring trade combining the aggression of Belgium’s bergs with the uncertainty of France’s cobbles.

There’s not a flat moment to be found, the only respite the occasional view of the neatly groomed poplars and hornbeams lining the road like great, green cotton buds. Every miniature peak is followed by a trough, where thick layers of gravel have collected like water in readiness.

Several times I unclip my inside foot, nervous of washing out on the loose corners. Still, it’s thoroughly exhilarating, providing you like that riding-condemned-rollercoasters feeling.

Above thy station

Tarmac has now become my god, to be worshipped and adored, and if my hands weren’t so tightly furled around the bars I’d genuflect at the arrival of great ribbons of the stuff.

Unfortunately a similarly godlike complex ensues when I look at my Garmin, which registers just over 20km to go, and before I can stop it I’m overtaken by delusions of grandeur.

Armitstead finished this same course in just over 3hrs 30mins, and my shaken brain convinces me I could get within 10 minutes of her time. The Strade Bianche, though, has other ideas.

Full gas over the undulating roads, I soon find myself alone, and what a mistake that proves to be. Ahead is the penultimate steratto, just 1km long, which winds through what appears to be a path ending in a cluster of trees.

I knew this was going to be steep, but with traction at a premium this 15-percenter razes me to the most pitiful grovel of my cycling life.

If it weren’t for pride I’d get off and push, but seeing others in that predicament I bury myself in my stem.

By the time the crest emerges I feel like someone’s punched me in the kidneys and deposited my writhing body in a vat of syrup.

Removing my sunglasses does little to alleviate the mist encroaching my vision, so I sit up and let riders whizz past me on the short descent. No doubt some of these were the ones pushing.

I’m close enough now that I can almost taste the pasta, but the Strade Bianche has a cruel sting in its tail. Well, doubly cruel if you count the man on the Cervélo S5. 

Siena sits on a hillside, and while the 9% hike to it is tarmacked and thoroughly unwelcome, the roads within the old city limits rise further still and switch to flagstones.

Imagine the sort you get at the entrance of a medieval building, polish them up with a bit of Mr Sheen, add a sprinkling of 16% gradient and there you have the Via Santa Caterina: proudly claiming cycling souls and pensioners’ hips since 1349. 

Just 24 hours earlier Cancellara was rocketing into the tight right hander that follows to deny Stybar both the inside line and podium top spot.

I’ve no doubt that manoeuvre will go down in history as one of Cancellara’s finest, but for me the familiar wampf, wampf of the approaching aero bike has taken on a periodic thud that’s getting disconcertingly closer as I climb.

Metres from the top comes the inevitable overtake, and as bike and rider disappear over the crest to the finish, my lesson in humility draws to a close. 

Rolling over the line, an exhausted husk, I see the same guy again, and it’s then I realise: he’s just passed me riding on a flat tyre.

This article first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in August 2016