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Strade Bianche: Monument for the New Millennium

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Bryn Lennon, Getty

We can complain about lots of things regarding the overall direction of cycling: the endless credibility struggle, the continually confounding rules, the lack of heroic racing. We can moan about disc brakes and road furniture and motos. But this weekend, it’s time to take a break from seeing the direction of things in the usual negative light. This weekend, it’s a good time to take stock of how things can change for the better.

I’m talking about the Strade Bianche. How hard is it to believe that this race fell out of the sky in 2007, that it hasn’t existed forever? Perhaps it has, in one form or another, given the endless timeline associated with bike racing in Tuscany, but the race we know and love is in fact turning 10 years old Saturday. That’s crazy, but also maybe perfect.

2016 Strade Bianche finale
Tim de Waele, Getty

Cycling sells us a lot of things, perhaps the most notable being its history. So the Strade Bianche is faux-history, arising from a cyclosportive known for wool clothing and tires over the shoulder. It’s no history. And we don’t care. I think it’s newness is actually part of the charm.

The Strade Bianche is a classic event carved out of the Italian landscape like a stage of the Giro d’Italia that everyone loves when it happens and doesn’t want it to disappear at the end of the race. And that’s a little like what really did happen. The race was three years old and no more than a curiosity in 2010 when Cadel Evans won a stage of the Giro a couple months later that was run on the same white roads around Siena. The stage was a huge hit, with the respected Evans clad in his World Champion’s jersey taking a rainy slugfest of a stage from Damiano Cunego and a handful of hardmen. This was the day the broader cycling world woke up to the excitement of racing on the White Roads. And if the Giro stage was poised to fade into history, well, there was this emerging race that could recreate the excitement every year, in March, if people gave it a chance.

Cadel Evans wins ‘10 Giro stage to Montalcino
Luk Benies, Getty

And emerge it did. In 2007 the Strade Bianche was a 1.1 Continental Tour race. As of three years ago it was a 1.HC race with a huge lineup of stars. This year it’s a World Tour event, and all that implies. In a sport where races that only date back to 1945 aren’t considered all that historic, this race came on like a runaway TGV.

So this race has grown in stature, and skyrocketed in popularity. We love the look of it, the white dust and the undulating Chianti-country roads. Everyone prefers a race that can transport our imaginations to a particular spot on the map over one that runs up some anonymous-looking highway. [Italians get this like nobody’s business.] We also increasingly love gravel, with a whole category of bikes having come into existence recently for this purpose, along with “gravel grinder” events popping up, at least in America.

We love how hard the event is, from the effects of gravel to the endless small hills and turning roads, right to the finish where whoever is up front has to grimace their way up the final climb into the (again) gorgeous Piazza del Campo in old Siena, where the race is won with tactical movement around the final corner, if not sooner. If you love cycling, chances are you at least appreciate the fact that there is a women’s race alongside the men’s event. This race is fun, it’s beautiful, it’s antique and modern at the same time. It captures the imagination, it’s inspiring, it’s hard as hell and it’s full of surprises. So I ask you: is this the monument for a new generation? If I were 22 and sick of hearing old guys at cycling websites carry on and on about the Tour of Flanders, this would probably be my race.

To me, that’s what is interesting about the Strade Bianche as it turns ten years old. If I were writing a straight preview I’d be struggling to say anything different from last year. The start is in Siena again (a change last year from San Gimignano). There are two additional passages of white roads added to the race, but they occur in the first 30km and don’t really change the composition of the race.

Strade Bianche 2017

strade bianche.csv

Passage From start From finish Length rating (# stars)
Passage From start From finish Length rating (# stars)
Vidritta 11.4 163.6 2.1 1
Bagnaia 17 158 4.7 4
Radi 27.8 147.2 4.4 2
Commune di Murlo 38.5 136.5 5.5 1
Lucignano d'Asso 66.8 108.2 11.9 3
Pieve a Salti 79.7 95.3 8 unrated
San Martino in Grania 107.9 67.1 9.5 3
Monte Sante Maria "Sterrato Cancellara" 121 54 11.5 5
Monteaperti 150.7 24.3 0.8 1
Colle Pinzuto 155.6 19.4 2.4 4
Le Tolfe 161.7 13.3 1.1 3
Tim de Waele, Getty

Another boring thing to say is that the all-time hero of the race, Fabian Cancellara, isn’t around anymore. He seems like a good enough guy and his performance in this race (three wins) is respectable on all levels. He also seems like maybe he was building his brand here, which is understandable but not my cuppa. Or maybe he just enjoyed winning or riding in Siena. Anyway, I’m happy to see a new wave of riders take over.

There is a long, long list of guys who could get a result here, as well as stars of the peloton, and even some riders who fit both descriptions. Given the 176-km length, it’s not a terribly exclusive event in that guys will be limping home ages behind the winners, but the end is selective enough that there will be plenty of gaps. Sprinting is barely even a skill you’d think about including here, but purely climbing isn’t really one either. It’s simply about punching your way up short, hard slopes and grinding out the gravel portions, efficiently enough to make the moves at the end. In no particular order:

  • Vincenzo Nibali would love to do something here but usually gets aced out.
  • Moreno Moser won here once (2013), which is increasingly hard to believe.
  • Greg Van Avermaet was second here in 2015, and has risen in stature since then. Clear favorite for a top spot, and with a strong BMC squad in support.
  • Peter Sagan... same thing, except for the strong support. The climb to the Campo is a bit beyond his punching weight but you’d be a fool to put anything past him now.
  • C’mon Bettiol!
  • Tiesj Benoot is made for this race.
  • Roman Kreuziger is another good fit for a result. He’s been top ten twice.
  • Quick Step have multiple cards to play, including perennial fave Zdenek Stybar, who should rate as the top choice here. But Gianluca Brambilla is also solid, as is Petr Vakoc. So I’m sure this won’t end well.
  • Sky are quietly sending Diego Rosa and Gianni Moscon as support for Michal Kwiatkowski, but actually as possible winners themselves.
  • Fabio Felline has to be a favorite, no?
  • Mike Teunissen will be a guy to maybe watch.
  • On the women’s side, the only two winners are Megan Guarnier and Lizzie Armitstead-Deignan, and they’re teammates. So all eyes on Boels-Dolmans.

Who ya got? What to add?

Giuseppe Cacace