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Strade Bianche is the best race in the calendar and doesn't need to be a Monument to prove it

11 Mar 2019

Words: Joe Robinson
Photos: Well Offside

Bike racing is great but sometimes it is incredibly boring. Paint drying levels of boredom. The peloton rumbling its way to a bunch gallop at the finishing line or a field sprint up the final climb.

The day's excitement is provided by some school kids making a giant bicycle in a field for the helicopter cameras or a slow-mo shot of Arthur Vichot blowing the moto camera a kiss.

Even the most hardcore fan will struggle to spin a transition day at the Tour de France into a worthwhile story and god knows many erudite journalists have tried. If I had a penny for every hour I wasted watching bike racing...

But one Saturday a year, I know that tuning into online Rai Sports streams on suspect websites before switching to the mellow tones of Rob Hatch and Maggy Backstedt on Eurosport will not leave me disappointed that I skipped a late brunch with the other half or a day looking around show kitchens in Ikea.

That's Strade Bianche Saturday.  

The words 'instant classic' and 'cycling's sixth Monument' have been bounded about a lot to describe this race recently and it's probably justified.

While we cannot reminisce about the time Rik Van Looy soloed into Siena with just one functioning gear in 1960 or Roger de Vlaeminck won over the Tuscan roads having eaten a rare steak for breakfast, the race's unique blend of unpredictable terrain, unexpected competitors and unrivalled beauty has provided the race with a table setting at the head of the banquet hall, right between Paris-Roubaix and the Giro d'Italia.

184km of bike racing around the rolling Tuscan hills, through the Chianti vineyards and cypress trees, with a third of the parcours on white gravel roads that are begging for punctures, mechanicals and crashes. In just 13 years, Strade Bianche has already become a Classic.

In reality, Strade Bianche doesn't really suit one type of rider either, which is a large part of its beauty. Sure, the burly Classics men do well but so do the skinny climbers and the dogged rouleurs.

This year's winner Julian Alapihlippe is barely 60kg wet but has a wicked uphill acceleration, best seen in the Ardennes. Second-place Jakub Fuglsang is a seasoned rider whose always fancied himself as a Tour de France contender although grew up racing mountain bikes. 

As for Wout van Aert, who finished third, he is a triple cyclocross World Champion and still qualifies for a 16-25 railcard.

Last year saw the hunched shoulders of Belgian Classics specialist Tiesj Benoot, who's also entitled to said 16-25 railcard, shaking off Wout van Aert and Romain Bardet.

Alaphilippe and Fuglsang being chased by a solo Van Aert being chased by a group including Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and the unknown Romain Seigle of Groupama-FDJ who had Tour de France champions Geraint Thomas and Vincenzo Nibali trying to catch on behind them.

How often do you see that happen?

Julian Alaphilippe had never raced Strade Bianche before. But now he has and he's already won it. 

He once told me that he would 'rather lose everything trying to win than not try and finish second.' He's a man of his word.

A constant ball of angry energy in the saddle, he makes things happen in bike races and forced a race winning move with Fuglsang from what initially seemed a pretty innocuous attack on the Monteaperti gravel sector, 23km from home.

He bided his time well, too, allowing Fuglsang to almost crest the Santa Caterina climb first despite there being only 200m until the finish line. He rounded the Dane before a set of tight corners, knowing he'd done enough to win.

The women's race is no different. Nobody has ever won two editions of this race and, like the men, its winners come from all corners of the peloton.

Annemeik van Vlueten took the win, impressively, after going solo in the final 12km and holding a 37-second gap despite only having one day's racing in her legs since her return from a serious knee operation after a crash at last September's World Championships.

She didn't need to hustle in the final few corners, she could soak up the atmosphere of the Piazza del Campo alone, having matched the chase of a group that included the likes of Marianne Vos and World Champion Anna Van Der Breggen.

At the finish, Van Vlueten said that 'this victory at Strade Bianche stands in the top five of all the races I’ve won in my career. The finish in Siena is beautiful. I like to race in Italy but it’s really special to win on the Piazza del Campo at the end of a hectic and very hard race.'

Second over the line was 34-year-old Annika Lagvad, a former cross-country mountain bike World Champion who has made her eventual move to the road.

Third was Katarzyna Niewiadoma, claiming her fourth consecutive podium at the race. The Pole has never finished outside of the top six. No guesses for who will be cheering for next year.

Even if the racing turns out to be pretty bland one year, I doubt that you'll even mind that much.

I realised on Saturday that you cannot get bored of looking at the Tuscan countryside. It goes toe-to-toe to even the grandest of Dolomite or Alpine passes despite being a fraction of the size. Even if the racing is sedate, you never tire of a pained face covered in mud or dust.

There's no official body for granting Monument status to a race. De Vlaeminck, Van Looy and Merckx do not meet on a bi-annual basis to discuss whether Il Lombardia is at risk of being replaced by Strade Bianche. 

If there was, that's what it would look like and, honestly, Strade Bianche would be arguing a pretty convincing case despite being about 100km too short and 90 years too young.

Although, if I was put in front of the holy trio of Classics racing, I'd be arguing for no sixth Monument.

Not because of tradition and history but because if I was Strade Bianche, with riders from across the peloton flocking to my race every March and fans crowing me the new king of Classics racing, I'd be pretty happy with how things are at the moment.