Strade Bianche Preview: PEZ Sez!
The Strade Bianche has in just a handful of editions done what no other young race has before – shouldered its way into the leagues of bona-fide Monuments where the course is what gives it a true identity. Dirt roads, never ending hills, and a landscape as only a true ‘vedutista‘ could paint, it’s no wonder the race is a fave among riders and fans alike.
“Born in 2007 with the name of Montepaschi Eroica, the race changed its name in 2009 to Strade Bianche. This year it regains its original title, combining it with the new brand – The Strade Bianche Eroica Pro. The race was originally born on the roads of L’Eroica, a non-competitive cycling event on historic bikes, run since 1997, with the peculiarity of reviving old time cycling, riding on a course that predominantly uses the white gravel roads of the Siena region. The link between the two events, apart from sharing the same territory, is the international appeal that both have developed.”
That’s how the RCS – the same folks who organize the Giro – introduce their race. It’s an event which has come a long way in a short time – an integral and much anticipated hot spot on the European race calendar but as the intro says it’s only been around since 2007.
Born of a need for the sport to harp back to earlier days when ‘men were men’ and there were no iPads, tweets or buses with showers, and bikes were built from steel not space age materials with gears that require wiring diagrams – but the Strade Bianche is actually a late comer to the party.
Not the First
Paris-Roubaix remains the ‘Daddy’ with 52 kilometres of cobbles over 27 sectors over 257 kilometres and a history going back a century and more. But France also has the Tro Bro Leon held on the ‘ribinou’ – the ancient farm tracks of Brittany since 1984 with some 30 K on anything but tarmac. Whilst up in Denmark there’s the GP Herning first held in 1992 with much of the action on gravel roads; albeit the race has had sponsorship problems in recent years and didn’t take place last year. On a lesser scale, in Britain we have the ‘Rutland’ with farm roads forming part of the parcours – and the USA has a host of ‘offroad’ road races, the most famous being The Tour of the Battenkill.
The Strade Bianche’s dirt is different though, it’s white – hence the name, the race organisers explain their percorso thus:
‘The peloton will take on an extremely hilly race route at the famous ‘Strade Bianche. The race may lack long climbs, but in their place it offers a long series of formidable inclines, some of them tremendously steep. What makes this race distinctive is the inclusion of approximately 50km of dirt tracks, the famous White Roads or ‘Strade Bianche’, which is divided into ten sections. The White Roads are metalled and compacted into a hard, durable surface with a small amount of loose gravel and largely free of vegetation.’ [Our man Alessandro rode the last 20km and posted an upclose report here.]
What gives the race it’s unique character – apart from the stunning scenery – is the fact that much of the off-road action is anything but flat. Whilst Paris-Roubaix is pan flat the Strade Bianche takes in steep climbs and descents on the ‘sterrati’ – dust roads – making it a real test of bike handling and bike set-up.
As ex-pro and now IAM DS, Rubens Bertogliati explained to us after the 2008 edition;
‘It’s very hard, hilly, with steep ‘ramp’ climbs even on the sand roads, it’s more like the Tour of Flanders than Paris – Roubaix. The sand roads aren’t like the pave, they are much smoother. 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 sand!’
Back then Rubens rode 25mm Hutchinson Paris-Roubaix tubulars but for last weekend’s Het Nieuwsblad we saw lots of 30mm FMBs on display and think that may be the choice of tyre for many – even though it has someone else’s name on the sidewall.
Retired British pro Dan Lloyd rode the sterrati in the Giro a few years ago but as an ex-MTB man wasn’t too fazed by it:
‘We were on Vittoria Roubaix tubs, I’m not sure what pressure but that’s a less important factor on gravel that it is on cobbles. I think I had a 25 bottom sprocket. As for technique, my background is off road so I don’t worry too much if I slide on gravel because I know you’ll get grip again, but the road guys panic because once you slide on tarmac, that tends to be it.
Ironically, some riders think it’s better to ride these roads in the rain because it’s a more predictable surface – but remember that we’re talking about the best riders in the world.
A year or two ago we asked BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet about the type of rider who excels on these parcours;
‘It’s on atypical roads – you’ll never find another race like this over the whole season. It’s how you imagine a Classic would be from 50 or 60 years ago – I could imagine my grandfather maybe racing on these roads. It’s the only place in Europe like this and it’s always inspiring for the riders. The winner has to be a Classics rider and he has to be good technically on the bike. He has to like steep climbs and tricky roads – a guy who likes Flanders and Roubaix will also like the Strade Bianche. These are the type of riders who will come to the front at the end.’
A rider likes Flanders and Roubaix – I wonder who he means ?
Men To Watch
The organisers know:
‘Fabian Cancellara (Trek) is looking for his third win, following victories in 2008 and 2012’ With a win already, out in the desert sands, the power house Suisse must be number one favourite to make it a hat trick; but the organisers remind us that there’s also . . .
Sagan, Nibali, Valverde, Stannard, Terpstra, Gerrans, Vanmarcke, Moser, Nocentini and Gatto heading his list of rivals, with 20 teams to race including the Italian national team. They’ve missed Zdenek Stybar from a very strong QuickStep line up – albeit 2014 winner, Michal Kwiatkowski doesn’t start – the Czech with his ‘cross background will be right at home on the challenging parcours.
And of course, there’s the man who’s finished second for the last two years, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan;
‘The Strade Bianche is a race that appeals to me because it has a very picturesque, scenic route. It is also ideal for my characteristics and qualities as a rider. I hope to do well in my first European race of 2015.’
Valverde was third last year for Movistar and is never in anything but good shape; he’ll be hard to beat if he’s still around on the steep climb to historic Siena and it’s famous Piazza del Campo. Ian Stannard’s (Sky) bull-like strength was apparent in the ‘opening weekend’ and he’ll be right up there in Siena we’d wager. Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-Jumbo) is in great shape and his ‘no holding back’ style of racing is ideally suited to this day.
And of course, there are the ‘second string’ Italians looking to step up – Belletti, Colbrelli and Battaglin to name but three.
PEZ will be roadside and glued to the monitor to give you the best in live race reportage from the sterrati – pass me that Moretti Rossa dude, that dust is already in my throat …
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