Strade Bianche: Sunshine From The Campo
The dusty Gran Fondo Strade Bianche 2021
Ale Rides Strade Bianche Gran Fondo: After many years race-chasing the Strade Bianche, our PEZ-man in Italy, Alessandro Federico, rode his own Strade Bianche – the Gran Fondo at the end of last year. This is his day of dust and suffering on the ‘white roads’ of Tuscany.
The day before the race, out to dump some stress with my race number 5454
Last 12th September I rode my first Gran Fondo ever, and for my first one I choose a race that I love: Strade Bianche. It was great and brutal at same time, I loved each and every kilometre of it and, most importantly, I was able to complete the long route well within the time limit, which was my basic target. There were many thrilling moments, especially in the last 10k… but step by step, let’s start this story from its very beginning: it’s worth it.
Ale at the Strade Bianche 2021
Since 2010 I chased, as a PEZ reporter and photographer, the pro race Strade Bianche in March, and since a few years ago I started dreaming of riding the Gran Fondo the day after. In September 2018, when I applied, I couldn’t have known I would have to wait to start three years later: a postponement for personal issue in 2019 and the Covid block in 2020 made it impossible.
I’m a cycling enthusiast and I have ridden my road bike since I was 16 years old, meaning that I’ve ridden for 30+ years. But don’t expect that I’m such a great cyclist, I rode about 2,000 km every year until 2018, when I had an injury to my back, and since that time I started to dedicate more and more to my health, including cycling activity, and I’m now on an average 5,000 km per year which makes me a low profile amateur cyclist. It isn’t all about cycling, because I like running too (about 50 km per month) and I also train with basic calisthenics exercises with doubtful results.
Me and my good friends Agela and Giovanni, it’s the big day and we have great smiles
You can keep me as a base level cyclist for anyone busy at work, and with family, but who still likes to dedicate some spare time to fitness. With this curriculum I arrive in Siena on Saturday 11th September 2021 to grab my race number (5454, I like it!) on a warm afternoon. I can’t hide the positive feeling I have of this event but, at the same time, some pre-exam feelings under the skin.
The race (the long route) is 140 km but 30 of them are on gravel roads (total 8 sectors) and total 2.100 meters positive elevation gain. It’s the same route as the women’s Strade Bianche, which they cover in less than 4 hours. The time limit to cross the finish line of the Gran Fondo is 7 hours which may be achieved with a 20 km/h average speed: not terrible, not great. I know I have it in my legs and my big goal is to complete it in 6 hours and half.
The race starts gently downhill, there are almost 6.500 riders from every corner of the world
My hotel is somewhere out of Siena (town is fully booked) but not really far from it. I’m together with two friends of mine and while they prefer to take some rest after the trip, I prefer to get my bike out of the car and ride some 20 km in the country to warm up for the day after. I come to the end of the gravel sector number 3 (but I don’t ride on it), a kind of ritual of the day before. I feel strong, I feel ready for the next day.
First gravel sector is one of the worst because of the sand and of the crowd
The race day starts early. Our hotel is not preparing early breakfast so we meet in a room to eat some bread and jam we have prepared for the day. For the race we have also prepared some extra fuel despite that the organizers provide 3 different feed zones at km 40 – 80 – 120. Better a bit more than a bit less. I also have with me 6 gels and 4 snacks, I believe I can survive.
Jos from Netherland supporting me while riding on the tarmac somewhere southern Siena
We park our car about 3 km away from the start line, to avoid the stress to find it too close to the departure village, surrounded by cyclists (6.500 starters are claimed by race organisers), and to have the chance to warm up a bit before the start. We haven’t absolutely any competitive target therefore we may arrive quite late and wait in the last rows. I’m one of the last of the riders and I can see the void behind my rear wheel. However, when the speaker announces the real start of the first riders, each of us, even at the back, switches to a different mode. Silence comes down, everybody tries to concentrate, it’s not fear, but I would call it a calm before the storm.
People riding, people supporting, people walking. It’s a great day for everyone. An honour to ride on the same roads of pro cyclists
When the race starts everything is over. I find immediately the beauty to ride my bike. I barely listen to the speaker’s voice, I don’t record what he says and I just enjoy my way down the hill. The first 20 km are flat or slightly downhill, average speed is close to 35 km/h but soon comes the first gravel sector after a sharp bend to the left, and soon speed drops. My initial feeling with gravel is terrible. I’ve not trained on gravel but I know it by riding occasionally on some white road in my backyard at home. There’s a lot of sand on the sides and I know it must be avoided.
But on the centre there’s too much traffic, so the only thing I can do is to stop and wait for the traffic to move on. When I’m back on track (less than a minute) I’m in full discomfort and terrified. Many riders pass me on the left and on the right as well. This first sector is in very bad condition and I wonder how the others will look like. On the sides I can see many cyclists repairing flats or someone else just crashed (softly). With a lot of care and attention I come out from this first 2,1 kilometres wondering whether it was a good idea.
50 km to go may be a veeery long way
On tarmac I’m in full control and good shape but soon after… the sector number 2, which is 5,8 km, one of the longest. The condition of the pavement is again pretty bad. Lots of stones and sand, the speed is ridiculous but the fear of a puncture is at top level. On the ground you can see hundred of bottles lost by previous riders and at the side still too many riders repairing flats.
Clock is running and at 10.00 the chance to choose the long route will be over, meaning that I have no margin for a flat tyre repair. In this second sector I find also a climb, not steep, but still a climb which is about 2 km long. But soon I’m over it, I join the first feed zone, I eat a bar and I fill my bottle with water. Meanwhile the temperature rises, it’s a warm sunny day.
Dust is already all over. I feel it in the mouth, under my dress and in the eyes as well
At km 40 the deviation for short and long route. I join my two friends Angela and Giovanni and we proceed together for the long one. Soon after we are in a new sector, the number 3 (4,4 km) with some steep short downhill and steep short climbs. Climbs are better and sometimes the speed is higher than on the downhill where we put a lot of care to avoid incidents, but the gravel seems much better than on the previous two.
From this moment we start to get more and more confidence on our abilities to control the bike on the gravel. I’m not an expert even now but as more as you feel the joy to ride on gravel, as more the gravel is smooth. You must accept some tyre slip and adjust your steering accordingly. I believe there isn’t a manual to study but just some practice.
On sector number 4 I start to feel in full control and my speed also rises. This sector is 5,5 km long and completely flat and it’s a joy to ride on it without any fear. The gravel here is in much better condition and we can’t see all those brutal scenes of bottles, flats and incidents we have seen before. When we come out of this sector we are at the southern point of the race, now we must ride north back to Siena on the tarmac for a while. It’s a good opportunity to feed and drink properly. The warm day may become a problem if we are not properly hydrated.
Somewhere around 30 km to go, it’s tarmac but it’s so steep! Effort level is maximum for everyone
Sector number 6 is the longest: 9,5 km gravel with a steep long climb up to Crete Senesi, that moon-like-scenario we all have in mind when we think of this race. On top of it also the second feed zone. I usually love climbs but not really today. On gravel you can’t ride off the saddle, especially if it’s so steep. The back wheel starts slip without control and you risk a stupid crash for nothing. Almost at the top of the climb we find the second feed zone. This time we keep it easy, we drink, we eat, we talk a bit and we have some rest. We are almost half way to the finish and, apparently, we are in time with our schedule.
This is Le Tolfe climb, the last one in gravel. Well above 12% where Van der Poel flew away last year. I was riding barely 5 km/h
Out of this sector we start to feel it’s over… and this is our first big mistake. There is a very long section on tarmac, almost 30 km and it’s noon time. Starting to be warm. I lose Angela and Giovanni, while I push on the pedals with more strength because I feel good and I want to remain inside the time limit. Around me are many other cyclists coming from many different countries, mostly from north Europe but also from Australia.
My triumphal arrival at Siena!
Sector 7, 8 and 9 are short, but terrible. I know them because last summer I rode on them during a bike ride before the pro race. All these three sectors have a climb with a double digit slope. Monteaperti, Colle Pinzuto and Tolfe. The pro race usually is decided in these last 30 km. Another target I have is to avoid getting off the bike and walk. I find many others doing this but I would not forgive myself to appear in one of the official pictures while pushing my bike. Now, I guess I asked too much from my body because when I’m already inside Siena I start to feel a strong cramp in the left leg.
Siena! Siena!! Siena!!!
These last 10 km are the most cruel any organiser may design for a race. When you enter Siena there is exactly 10 to go because the route makes a long tour all around the old town. And these last kilometres are full of gentle hills which appear not that gentle after such a ride. Nobody talks anymore: we all have no energy for talking, but with a few drops of fuel I enter the last kilometre, praying the cramp don’t worsen. But there’s the last terrible climb: Santa Caterina.
I decide I have to stop just before it to avoid a stronger cramp while riding it. It’s a good move, I wait about five minutes (which I feel long, more like an hour) and I start again. I hold it, I hold it strong and in few turns I come out from the dark narrow ways of the old town and I enter the Piazza del Campo which is fully lit by the strong sun of the afternoon. This moment I feel so happy that I can’t describe. I remember all my efforts, my family, my back injury, all training sessions in the gym. I pass through the finish line and I sit down on the ground thinking about nothing.
No more smiles, but a deep fatigue and a lot of dust!
I just dream about a shower!
# Most photos by Ale, some bought from Sportograf, the official partner of the race. You can see more of Ale’s photos on his Instagram page @alefederico_cycling.
- You can find more info on the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo at: gfstradebianche.it.