Strade Bianche’19: The PEZ Preview!
2019 Strade Bianche Race Preview: After opening the early Classics season in Belgium, the pro peloton moves south to Italy and the dusty (or mud if it rains) ‘White Roads’ of the Province of Siena in Tuscany. Ahead of Saturday’s race we take a look at the history, course and the top riders to attack the Strade Bianche.
Dust or mud on Saturday?
The first Strade Bianche was held in 2007 and was won by Russian Alexandr Kolobnev, that year it was run on the 9th of October. It started in Gaiole in Chianti and finished in Siena. In 2008 it moved to its present date in March to be closer to the spring Classics. Monte dei Paschi, the world’s oldest still-existing bank is based in Siena, and was the race’s main sponsor for the first four years. In 2014, the start of the race moved to the hill town of San Gimignano. In 2015, its name officially changed to Strade Bianche – Eroica Pro after the creation of a women’s version, and UCI upgraded the event to a 1.HC race of the UCI EuropeTour. Since 2016, the start and finish has been in Siena.
The last meters
The historic white gravel roads are the defining feature of the race with more than 50 km of the 185 kilometer race distance on the rough tracks. Despite its short history, the Strade Bianche has quickly gained its reputation with riders and fans alike and has been part of the UCI WorldTour since 2017.
Its twelve editions have seen some top riders cross the line first:
2007 – Alexandr Kolobnev (RUS) CSC
2008 – Fabian Cancellara (SUI) CSC
2009 – Thomas Löfkvist (SWE) Columbia–High Road
2010 – Maxim Iglinsky (KAZ) Astana
2011 – Philippe Gilbert (BEL) Omega Pharma–Lotto
2012 – Fabian Cancellara (SUI) RadioShack–Nissan
2013 – Moreno Moser (ITA) Cannondale
2014 – Michał Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
2015 – Zdeněk Štybar (CZE) Etixx – Quick-Step
2016 – Fabian Cancellara (SUI) Trek–Segafredo
2017 – Michał Kwiatkowski (POL) Sky
2018 – Tiesj Benoot (BEL) Lotto–Soudal.
Fabian Cancellara is the first rider with a stretch of strade bianche named in his honor: sector 8, an 11.5 km section at Monte Sante Marie.
Win No. 3 for Fabian
Let’s leave the description of the course to Italian PEZman, Alessandro Federico: “I remember the first time I watched it, it was 2010 and Pez had to insist a bit with me. I was reluctant to invest time in a race with only 3 editions in her book. It was for me a revelation. Not just the race, but also the countryside, the roads and that shivering atmosphere you can only experience at the side of the road at a big race convinced me at the first look. I’ve returned every year since. This race is very short, just 184 km, a loop starting from Siena, one of the iconic towns in Italy, going south and coming back after touching its southern point at Montalcino, the famous red wine location.”
“There are no big peaks to overcome but the big moves in the bunch start quite early and it isn’t unusual to see the favorites leading after just two hours of racing. This gives this race a lot of charm and when you switch on the television to watch it you may be sure that something has already happened or it’s going to happen soon.”
There could be mud…
The gravel and the risk of mud
“We can’t talk about Strade Bianche without talking about her gravel. The name of the race itself (the words “strade bianche” means “white roads” in Italian) suggests that this is a key element of this competition. Locals use the gravel you find in this region for everyday transit. The surface is quite comfortable and you can also drive fast on it with a certain margin of safety. However you’re not on asphalt and you always have to watch for grit and small holes. On a road bike these aspects are stressed further and the descents are in some cases more selective than the climbs.” For anyone looking to explore these roads and the region in better detail, an experienced guide is always a good idea, like former pro Alison Testroete, who started the Lucca Cycling Club to show riders a more intimate version of the region.
“Gravel means a lot of dust and riding in the last position of the peloton is, for sure, a pain because of the clouds you have to digest during the race. But gravel could also mean mud in the case of rain, like last year. Locals say these roads are so well prepared that the rain is drained perfectly from the surface, but as we saw in 2018 and the 2010 Giro d’Italia on the muddy stage won by Cadel Evans: that stage finished in Montalcino and the first sector was one used by Strade Bianche.”
San Martino in Grania: the road takes off, starts the battle
“The first six sectors of white roads come too early for the big battle but they must not be underestimated. Even if the bunch isn’t split riding those roads is not an easy challenge. Who rides well and comfortably may save a lot for the final kilometers. Sometimes crashes and mechanicals are also complicating the life for those already in trouble or riding too far back in the bunch. Anyway, everything will start in Monteroni d’Arbia after 100 km of racing when the road will climb up to San Martino in Grania. This sector was first used for women in 2015 and introduced also for the elite last year. It’s long and hard. The gravel in some places is also in bad shape, it’s definitively a selecting one. In 2016 Brambilla took the lead on this sector and we still found him at the front a few meters from the finish. This is also one of the most scenic area in the region, it is named “Crete” with several hills with not one tree all around; it looks to be a kind of desert with a stunning view onto Siena’s ancient towers.”
The key sector: Monte Sante Marie
“This road was selected from the very first edition as the key sector of the race because of its steep climb and frantic descents. In summary there are two very steep sectors divided by a twisty descent, and after the second climb a long flat portion of road. On the first climb the group is stretched, on the descent it is split and on the second climb (longer than the first) the best of the day (no more than 20 or 30 riders) leave the others. On the last flat part those best riders will just increasing the gap and for the others – the race has gone, see you next year.”
“Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but this sector starts from Asciano’s cemetery and finishes at Torre a Castello’s cemetery: let’s just say it was not built for fun! There are really few tactics a rider can use here; just good legs and riding abilities may save you. If you have no legs you will be too far gone at the beginning of the descent, packed with all other riders and unable to ride the best line in the “rollercoaster”, but if you can’t ride the strade you will loose too many positions on the descent, finding yourself too far from the head when the second decisive climb starts. This sector of road will be dedicated to Fabian Cancellara, who is the only rider to win this race three times. The Swiss rider was perfectly fitted for this competition, what surprises me more is Sagan who never won.”
The last 20 kilometers
The three steep climbs… Take note!
“At Torre a Castello there are still 40km to go, but suddenly the route takes a pause and the selected group of the best finds 15 km of large roads almost flat… (almost!). At 25 km to go the race changes its rhythm again and there are three short steep gravel roads to wait for the final selection: Monteaperti, Colle Pinzuto and Le Tolfe. If you look at the last five editions you’ll find that the key move of the day was on one of these three sectors. All of them are really only a few kilometers from Siena but now the race goes around it from east to southwest to the ancient entry of the mediaeval centre through the Fontebranda gate.”
Via di Santa Caterina in Siena
“Everything we’ve seen earlier is spectacular but this race is not a regular one and there are surprises all the way to the finish. All Italian towns built through the centuries; often walls surround their centre, as that was the way to defend the population during the Middle Ages. Siena is still surrounded by ancient walls and the race will come through one of its gates, the one named Fontebranda Gate. From this point the last 1000 meters are awaiting the riders for the last selection. Santa Caterina is the name of a small street that climbs to the top of the town center. This road is very steep, especially its last 100 meters and the race is often decided here. A rider passing first at the top (a hard right turn) has big a chance to win because the remaining 400 meters are twisty in the old town center roads and there’s not the room, physically, to overtake a rider at the front.”
“It’s a new race (12 editions are not many if you think that Liege-Bastogne-Liege has got almost 120), but it’s really fascinating because it takes place in one of the most beautiful regions in Italy (Tuscany) and because of its exciting route of gravel, climbs and descents. The favorites have to be in front of the race from 100 km to go. The big selection is on Monte Sante Marie but the final word is on Via Santa Caterina, at 400 meters to the finish. A muddy race is always possible, but in ten editions we didn’t have one because of the dry season, until last year. 2018 was a mud bath making the riders nearly unrecognizable.”
The 2019 course
Strade Bianche NamedSport 2019 Official Promo
No triple World champion Peter Sagan in the Bora-Hansgrohe team line-up as his coach Patxi Vila says: “Strade Bianche is – in terms of fatigue – perhaps the toughest one day race of the season. It can still be done during a dry edition, but if it’s a wet issue… Then you really have to have a lot of power to ride the gravel climbs.” Adding: “Peter focuses on Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.”
Not all the teams have announced their riders for Saturday, but here is our choice of possible winners:
2018 winner, Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal): The Belgian was an impressive winner of the 2018 edition of the Strade Bianche and has prepared for this year with an altitude training camp, but a crash with 40 kilometers to go in Het Nieuwsblad may jeopardize his chances this Saturday. Benoot commented on the way to hospital on Saturday: “I hope that I don’t need to take antibiotics. My form is good and I will not lose that straight away.” The team are due to make a decision on Thursday. ***STOP PRESS*** Benoot will ride on Saturday: “It will be very difficult to repeat last year’s performance but with the legs I had during the Omloop, I can certainly compete for the victory. I hope to have the same feeling on Saturday but the shape is already good. Of course, the crash was not ideal. My knee has been stitched and we will have to evaluate how it heals day by day.”
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma): The ex-cyclocross World champion was third in the 2018 Strade Bianche, a bad case of cramp on the final climb to the finish ended his hopes. This year Van Aert has been training with the road in mind, with less emphasis on cross, so his preparation should be better. If it rains….
Giovanni Visconti (Neri Sottoli-Selle Italia-KTM): Visconti was with Bahrain-Merida in 2018 when he finished 5th, this year he is with the lesser Italian team, Neri Sottoli. This could be the push Visconti needs to go for the win.
Zdeněk Štybar (Deceuninck – Quick-Step): Winning Het Nieuwsblad last Saturday must put the triple cross World champion in a favorites position. He has all the attributes needed and must be confident to do the double after his win in 2015. A good bet?
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC): The Olympic champion is in good form at the moment, as he should be in March. Last year Van Avermaet found the conditions were too cold for a top performance – This year could be different.
Gregor Mühlberger (Bora–Hansgrohe): finished 10th last year and could be a replacement for Peter Sagan The Austrian has a strong team behind him with Maciej Bodnar, Cesare Benedetti, Oscar Gatto, Rafał Majka, Gregor Mühlberger, Daniel and Maximilian Schachmann.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida): Nibali comes back to Strade Bianche after last year unlucky edition when he was stopped by a puncture in a stretch of gravel road. Returned a few days ago from the UAE Tour, the Italian champion has shown a gradually growing condition and after the Tuscan race will be at the start of the Tirreno-Adriatico.
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana): Coming from a successful Ruta del Sol, the Dane could be a possible contender, if he rides. So far this season the Kazakh team has been pilling on the wins, along with Deceuninck, they are bound to be strong in Italy.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step): The French rider is ready to make his 2019 European debut in the Strade Bianche, the first time he’s raced the white roads: “I am very happy with the way my season started, with three victories in Argentina and Colombia. My condition is good and I can’t wait to be in action in Italy. It will be my first time in Strade Bianche, a race I have always followed on TV, and at the start of which I am glad I will be this year. The motivation and moral are there and I hope it will turn out to be a good race for me.”
Alexey Lutsenko (Astana): The Kazakh has just come from a very successful Tour of Oman, taking the overall win, plus the points classification and three stage victories. He took 4th in last Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad so his form is good.
For an outside bet you could go for the Trek-Segafredo pair of Bauke Mollema and Gianluca Brambilla. Mollema rides Strade Bianche for the first time, but Bramilla was 3rd in 2016. There is also Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe), Silvan Dillier (AG2R La Mondiale) and Gianni Moscon (Sky) to concider.
Strade Bianche team announcements in EUROTRASH Thursday.
# Thanks to John Thomson for his photos from 2018, John, Alessandro and Heather Morrison will be ‘Roadside’ for PEZ on Saturday. If you want live action go to SteephillTV HERE. #
Highlights of the 2018 Strade Bianche