The hilly region of Tuscany in Italy is famed worldwide for its rich history, its tradition of artistic excellence, its cutting edge fashion, its beautiful towns and countryside, and its wonderful wines. It is home to Puccini, Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Aldus Manutius the leading publisher and printer of the Venetian High Renaissance, who gave us italics and the modern appearance of the comma. Visitors flock to see its famous cities, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the palaces and churches of Florence, and the medieval cityscape of Siena. It is here that a new chapter in this rich tapestry of history and culture has been written, the Strade Bianche, a professional road race that in its use of unsealed roads harks back to an earlier era of cycle sport.
Inspired by the Spring Classics of Northern Europe, The Ronde Van Vlaanderen with its bergs and Paris-Roubaix with its brutal sections of pavé, the organisers of the race, RCS Sports, decided to add their own unique event to the professional calendar. Initially named the Monte Paschi Eroica the race was launched in October 2007, its 180 kilometre route around Siena defined by the sections of white gravel roads that run among the vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany. The first edition was won by Alexander Kolobnev from a solo breakaway in the penultimate section of strade bianche.
Like the feared pavé of the Northern classics these sections are spread out along the route, breaking up the race. Riders who hope to win must successfully transition between riding on smooth paved roads to gravel and back again. Punctures and crashes inevitably play their part in deciding the final outcome, as does the hilly terrain that includes a final 1 kilometre kick upwards to the Piazza il Campo in Siena that sees the riders briefly handle a gradient of 16 per cent with 500 metres to go to the finish line. Positioning and a knowledge of the route is essential and riders must demonstrate their bike handling skills, strength, and climbing ability to be in with a chance of claiming victory. Racing on the strade bianche adds a further challenge as clouds of dust envelop the riders reducing visibility.
The strade bianchi play an important part race in the race as riders vie for position to enter each section at the front of the peloton. A touch of brakes or a change in line by the rider in front can be the cause of a crash, and for riders more used to racing on paved roads the gravel demands the best use of bike handling skills. Team tactics play their part but ultimately this is a race that requires strength and stamina as the many climbs and the uneven gravel sections take their physical toll, sapping energy with every turn of the pedals. And then there’s Lady Luck. A puncture at the wrong moment, a mechanical, an unfortunate tumble, and the race for the win is all but over.
2015 marks the long awaited introduction of a Women’s Elite professional race, a welcome addition to the calendar that underlines the emergence of women’s cycling from the shadows of a male dominated sport in recent years. The women’s edition runs for 103 kilometres with 17 kilometres of strade bianchi. While the distance may be half that which the men race, the prizes are not. The winner of the men’s race will pocket €7,515; the winner of the women’s race will earn just under 10 per cent of that sum, €744. It is telling that the official race brochure makes no mention, unlike for the men, that the women’s prizes will be the maximum established by the Union Cycliste Internationale and the Federazione Ciclista Italiana. Unlike the men, the women in professional cycling are also not in receipt of a minimum wage mandated by the UCI, with the President of the UCI, Brian Cookson, recently backtracking on his promise to introduce a minimum wage made during his election campaign. Notwithstanding the gulf in rewards the women’s edition is designed to provide riders and fans with an equally hard fought race of attrition.
The 2015 Men’s edition, the ninth, took place on March 7 with riders racing 200 kilometres from San Gimignano to Siena on a route that included 10 sections of strade bianchi covering some 50 kilometres of the route. Pre-race favourites included Fabian Cancellara, a previous two-times winner, Zydenek Stybar, a three-time World Cyclo-Cross Champion, Simon Gerrans, a winner of Milan San-Remo and Liége-Bastogne-Liége, Alejandro Valverde, a two-times winner of Liége-Bastogne-Liége and of La Flèche Wallone, and Peter Sagan, three times winner of the Points Classification Jersey in the Tour de France. In the event Gerrans retired after crashing, the other favourites remaining in contention until the final 20 kilometres when Stybar, Valverde and Greg van Avermaet broke away. The final climb to the Piazza il Campo proved decisive with Stybar overhauling Greg van Avermaet’s attack after they had dropped Valverde a few hundred metres from the finish line.
Pre-race favourites for the women included Italian riders Elisa Longo Borghini and Valentina Scandarola, Lizzie Armitstead, winner of this years Tour of Qatar, and Anna van der Breggen, fresh from her victory at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. In the event it was Armitstead’s Boels-Dolmans team mate, Megan Guarnier, who took the victory with a solo win when she broke away from an elite group of five riders including Armitstead during the penultimate gravel section. Armitstead’s second place in a sprint against Longo Borghini completed a Boels-Dolman double, confirming her early season form and the strength in depth of the Boels-Dolman team.
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