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The Forgotten 120-Year History of the Strade Bianche Race

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Italy’s beloved classic has more of a track record than many fans were aware of

Strade Bianche Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

This week’s history lesson is about the big event coming up on Saturday. The race across the White Roads. Cycling’s mythic Strade Bianche.

It’s weird, the internet doesn’t have a lot of details about the race’s history before 2007, but a lot of the race can be explained by its more distant past. Cycling history is rich with colorful stories and characters, and for some reason people seem to have forgotten the ones behind this venerable mini-monument.

So I have spent some time digging through the race archives in Florence. It took most of the last three summer vacations, but from this I was able to compile a more detailed history of the race prior to its current incarnation, which dates back just over a decade. Here is a short timeline of events that mark the glorious story of the race and underline why this is such a beloved institution.

1897: The owners of a Tuscan winery, Ernesto and Giulio Gallo, decide that a way to advertise their product would be to start a bike race. At this point in time, all the great races are in Sicily and Sardinia, so the Gallo brothers seize upon pro-Tuscan sentiment against the dominant southerners and announce that they will devise a race that will show off parts of Tuscany, reuniting forgotten corners of the province with the population centers, with the help of no less than seven different rival sporting newspapers all vying to sell papers to cycling fans. The race, christened the RondeTourGiro della Toscana, will circle Tuscany eight different times over the course of a month, until only a single rider remains. That rider is awarded a jersey with pink, yellow, red and black stripes, plus two different lions and a chicken embroidered on it.

The first edition of the Giro della Toscana is an unmitigated disaster. Instead of uniting the province, the race’s efforts to connect different parts of Tuscany leads to violent conflict between cities which had enjoyed centuries of peaceful isolation, and fistfights break out all along the course. Worse, an obscure German rider is named the winner after the first rider to cross the line is disqualified for having sawed another rider’s bike in half during a rest stop. The other rider then welds it back together, but is also disqualified for using tools beyond those in his saddlebag, where he had some welding equipment but not a bellows, which he then proceeded to borrow from a spectator.

1898: The Gallo Brothers have a falling out, and Ernesto is left to continue operating the race. Giulio, however, organizes a second race, also called the Giro della Toscana, which eventually becomes an established stage race. The brothers’ dispute ends up in court, and is the subject of an important intellectual property ruling by the Italian Supreme Court in 1976 holding that both races have to change their name, sell those name rights to a third party, and discontinue the races.

1923: Ernesto sells the race to the Bianchi Bicycle Corporation of Milan, which re-christens the race the Strade Bianchi. The winner, Italian Costante Girardegno, is awarded a bottle of bluish-green champagne.

1933: Alfredo Binda wins the Tuscan race for the ninth consecutive time, a record that stands to this day. Binda’s first four victories occurred as stage race successes, where he won each of the nine stages as well as the overall classification, mountains classification, and espresso classification. The race is then changed to a one-day format, with intermediate sprints, meat-curing and espresso shot-pulling classifications, all of which Binda wins.

1942: Controversial edition as the race is run for its only time during the war, with no media coverage. The victory is awarded to the Spirit of the Roman Empire Inherent in the Italian People, just ahead of the Corporative System, with Individual Expression a distant third. No further editions take place during the war after the Mussolini government is overthrown by 1938 Tour de France champion Gino Bartali.

1956: Another memorable edition of the Strade Bianche, as Italian hero Fiorenzo Magni crashes early in the race and is briefly hospitalized with a broken shoulder. But Magni, who had won the race on one prior occasion and was motivated to keep up with Fausto Coppi, defies his doctor’s orders and is driven back to the course where he resumes riding with his arm in a sling. A second fall breaks his other shoulder, and that too is placed in a sling. But Magni soldiers on, riding no-handed, to win in the Piazza in a three-way sprint over Gustavo Nencini and Nino DeFilippis.

1972: Pope Paul is expected to attend the race, the first such papal visit to the race, sparked by the Pontiff’s devotion to Belgian star Eddy Merckx. To honor the pope, the beautifully-engineered and famous smooth roads of Tuscany, home to some of the sports-car world’s most beloved driving routes, are ripped up and covered with crushed white marble, changing the character of the race substantially. The pontiff eventually begs off due to an unexpected acquisition of several Renaissance paintings which had gone missing from France in 1939. Merckx wins the race by six minutes over an Eddy Merckx impersonator, followed by Brit Tom Simpson.

1979: What looks like a dominant performance by Team Cinzano is suddenly threatened by American neo-pro Dave Stoller, who launches a powerful attack to close a five-minute gap to the leading trio in three minutes. But things turn nasty as Cinzano rider Giuseppe Italia takes advantage of the ongoing race officials’ strike and sabotages Stoller’s bike by jamming his Bialetti Moka espresso maker in Stoller’s wheel. Italia wins the race, just ahead of his teammates Guido Stereotipico and Mario Manogesticuolo.

1981: Frenchman Bernard Hinault, the reigning world champion, appears at the Strade Bianche for the first time after years of vowing never to attend the race. He then launches a solo attack during the pre-race sign-in and is never seen again, winning the race by more than 30 minutes. Afterward Hinault says the white roads are “shit” and announces that “French wine is much better than this Chianti which I wouldn’t serve to my sows.”

1992: The race sees its first-ever bunch sprint, as Miguel Indurain becomes only the third Spanish winner, nipping Laurent Jalabert at the line just ahead of the charging peloton. The average race speed of 52.5km per hour surpasses the former record of 36.1 kph.

1997: The race becomes a beloved Italian institution as national hero Marco Pantani, who had been ejected from the 1996 edition for using a cetrifuge during the race, attacks on the opening climb, then spends the remaining 196km out of the saddle, but with his hands on the drops, to win by 15 minutes.

2000: Classic edition, made famous by Johan Museeuw who crashed early on and opened a wound on his knee. By the 150km mark the wound had become gangrenous and required attention from the team doctor, who was able to operate on the knee during a brief stop in the feed zone. Controversy raged after the race when the peloton, out of deference to the Lion of Flanders, decided to wait for Museeuw to return, on orders of Museeuw’s Mapei teammate Andrea Tafi, who made it clear that anyone who attacked while Museeuw was being attended to would have to sword fight with Tafi in a ring surrounded by hungry lions. Museeuw’s rivals, not knowing that there were no lions at the Mapei service course, were tricked into waiting and all but handed the race to the Belgian.

2006: Bizarre finish, where Fabian Cancellara escaped from the leading group with 24km remaining and put 35 seconds into them as they approached Siena. Inside of 10km to go the race crossed a train track, and before the chasing group could get through, the gates came down indicating an approaching train, and delaying the chase. However, the train was late and then stopped on the tracks in front of the race while the conductor argued with a friend on his cell phone, and the race was held up for 15 minutes, allowing Cancellara to win solo.

And then, from 2007, the history of the race is pretty well known.