Race preview: The pro peloton moves south to Tuscany from the cobbles of Belgium to the rough white roads and dust of the Strade Bianche. Ed Hood looks at the history, the course, the Technique and who will be first into the Piazzo del Campo.
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The road to Sienna is white and rough
If last weekend’s ‘Opening Weekend’ was eagerly anticipated then cycling fans have another reason to ‘get the beers in’ and hog the television this coming Saturday – The Strade Bianche. The organisers bill it as, ‘Europe’s most southern northern classic,’ far be it from me to differ but the scenery – and usually the weather owe very little to the lands on the shores of the grey and brooding North Sea. The comparison is made because of the tricky surfaces which the competitors have to traverse – but granite cobble sets are just a little bit harder than soft alabaster dust. . .
Dust or clay in 2022
The name given to the strade bianche, or ‘white roads’ which comprises 63 of the race’s 184 kilometres. It’s the alabaster in the soil which gives the sterrati their unique appearance, it’s a soft mineral, often used for carving, and is processed for plaster powder. The ancient Etruscan civilisation – as in GP Costa del Etruschi – were famed for their use of the materiel and it’s still mined in the region.
Etruscan civilisation: Sleep and death carrying off the slain Sarpedon – Etruscan Bronze – Cleveland Museum of Art
As with all else in modern society there’s a push towards the superlative and immediate gratification around this race with a lobby demanding it be given, ‘Monument’ status.
- Liege-Bastogne-Liege: 1894
- Paris-Roubaix: 1896
- Tour of Lombardy: 1905
- Milan-Sanremo: 1907
- Tour of Flanders: 1913
- Strade Bianche: 2007
Now that we’ve cleared that up. . .
Strade Bianche profile
Within 184 kilometres percorso the race covers some of the most stunning scenery that, ‘La Bella Italia’ can offer with the start and finish in beautiful and historic Siena; it also visits Montalcino, Sovicille, Monteroni D’Arbia and Buonconvento – lovely towns and villages rich in history and culture from the time of the Etruscans through the Renaissance.
Strade Bianche map
There are 11 sectors of sterrati, the first coming at just 17.6K with the final sector come 100K later with around 10K to go. The longest sector is #5 at 11.9K with #8 the toughest of the day, 11.5K with stiff ramps and tricky descents. The closing dozen kilometres on twisting turning roads favour the breakaway with the closing 16% ascent to the historic Piazzo del Campo in Siena the final test for the man who wants to add his name to the roll of honour.
The finish line in the Piazzo del Campo
A year or two ago I spoke to former Tour de France yellow jersey holder, Rubens Bertogliati about racing on that white dirt;
“In the corners you must be really careful, always using the rear brake and not the front one, it’s very dangerous to attempt front wheel braking – very easy to end up on the dirt.” Rubens also told me that some think it’s better to ride the race in the wet, in those circumstances the surfaces are easier to read.
Rough surface for bike and horse
The forecast gives a high of nine degrees with morning showers clearing and a 10 mph wind from the north east.
The first winner of Strade Bianche – Kolobnev
Roll of Honour:
The first winner was Russia’s Alexandr Kolobnev in 2007. Switzerland’s former Olympic Time Trial Champion, Fabian Cancellara is ‘recordman’ on three wins, 2008, 2012 and 2016. Brute strength means a lot in this race. The only other rider to win more than twice is Poland’s former World Road Race Champion, Michal Kwiatkowski in 2014 and 2017 but it’s unlikely he can make it three.
Michal Kwiatkowski – Unlikely third win
The start list features four previous winners, five if we count INEOS man Kwiato’s two victories; as I said above, it’s unlikely he can make it three but he’ll be an invaluable road captain for a certain small cyclo-cross World champion team mate, of whom more in a moment.
Strade Bianche’15: Zdenek Stybar struck the decisive blow on the steep slopes climbing into Siena, dropping his breakaway companions
Quick-Step’s Czech former world ‘cross champion, Zdenek Stybar won in 2015 and has graced the top 10 some six times, strong though he still is it’s hard to see him making it two wins.
Benoot is a good bet for Saturday
Tiesj Benoot [Jumbo Visma] won for Belgium in 2018 and given the way he was riding in Flanders on Saturday it would be unwise to downplay his chances of a repeat. Double world champion, Julian Alaphilippe [Quick-Step & France] won in 2019 and was second last year to a bestial Mathieu Van Der Poel – the cavalier Frenchman can certainly repeat.
Alaphilippe happy with his 2019 win
On the subject of MVDP, he doesn’t ride this year, he’s returned to training though, recovering from the back injuries which have plagued him since his bad crash in the Olympic mountain bike race. The 2020 winner, Wout Van Aert is also absent, his focus is 100% on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix with Saturday’s dominant performance in Het Nieuwsblad demonstrating that his form is coming along just fine.
No MvdP or WVA
A previous winner who’s still active but doesn’t feature on the start sheet at the time of going to press is 2011 winner, Philippe Gilbert. But that leads us on to who else has to considered – Phil Gil’s Belgian team mate at Lotto Soudal, world hour record holder and ‘Chronoman reinvented as Classicer,’ Victor Campenaerts may not be the most stylish man in the peloton but was as strong as a bull in Het Nieuwsblad.
Campenaerts knows the Strade Bianche
Another man who impressed and surprised on Saturday was ‘oldie but goodie,’ Greg Van Avermaet [AG2R Citroen & Belgium] far from being on the way out he made the Het Nieuwsblad podium and whist it’s hard to see him winning in Tuscany, he’s made the top 10 no fewer than eight times and a podium is well possible.
Van Avermaet – Always there
The Opening Weekend confirmed again that there’s more to Stefan Küng [Groupama FDJ] than time trials, this race favours the strong, aggressive rider and the big Swiss meets both criteria.
Stefan Küng – The big Swiss
On the subject of aggression, ‘Home Boy’ Gianni Moscon [Astana] has a good record on the technical parcours of Paris-Roubaix and may well be in the reckoning.
Moscon – Home win
At the time of going to press his Kazakh team mate, Alexey Lutsenko doesn’t appear on the start list but as a ‘gravel specialist’ with wins in the recent Clasica Jaen and last autumn’s Serenissima Gravel Race he would surely be one of the race favourites?
Fuglsang has a good Strade Bianche record
Israel Premier Tech’s Dane, Jakob Fuglsang and Aussie team mate, Simon Clarke were both top 10 here in 2021 and recent results indicate both are on good form – a win is unlikely but they’re certainly podium contenders.
Pogačar has a strong team
UAE field a very strong line-up lead by Slovenia’s double Tour de France and Monument winner, Tadej Pogačar, hot off his win in his team’s home tour. But the teams also has ‘man on form,’ Alessandro Covi and the man who was second to WVA in 2020, Covi’s compatriot, Davide Formolo.
Covi on form
But like the song says, ‘we’ve saved the best ‘til last.’ Fifth last year as a neo-pro and a winner of the World cyclo-cross championships on Arkansas’s answer to the sterrati, Tom Pidcock [INEOS & GB] has to start as race favourite. He was prominent in Het Nieuwsblad and has stated that the Tuscan race is his second big goal of the year after the ‘cross worlds.
Pidcock wants to win on the sterrati
Brew of the day?
One can’t go wrong with Peroni Gran Riserva or Moretti – save the Grappa for that final climb to the Campo if your nerves are fraying. . .
Easy on the Grappa