Siena is as much a work of art as it is a city. Terracotta towers, gargoyles and marble facades, a warren of slender streets and arches, bound up by Medieval fortress walls. And at the heart of it, Piazza del Campo, one of the world’s great squares, characterised by red brick, gothic flourishes and narrow balconies with crooked, hand-wrought iron railings.
It’s home to the world’s oldest horse race, the Palio, a centuries-old equine battle between the city’s divided neighbourhoods famous for political chicanery, bribery, deception, betrayal and occasional violence. As anyone who follows it will tell you, the murkiness of a Sienese summer makes even the darkest days of cycling’s Omertà seem spotlessly clean.
Outside the ramparts, undulating swathes of ochre and olive draped out to the horizon in every direction. Crumbling stone walls and cypress-lined narrow strips of dusty, uneven, hellish gravel. Cramped climbs that bake in the sun, while wheels throw up clouds of dust to blind and asphyxiate, followed by difficult descents that offer little respite. Exposed hilltops. Crosswinds. The kind of roads that take no prisoners.
There’s a desperate search for racing lines, as torque struggles to find traction, as wheels fight to avoid the deep gashes into the dirt below, carved by rain, where the grit can give way without notice. Loose stones can make short work of a tubular or a rim if the rider isn’t careful. The camber is so often wrong, the breaking severe, the margin for error as slender as can be.
The Strade Bianche is entirely, uniquely, unequivocally Tuscan. Grubby and rough hewn one minute, spotlessly manicured the next. Equal parts peasant and noble, a tour of farms and palaces, a throw-back to the golden age of the sport when so few of the roads were paved, a race that conjures up sepia images of Fausto Coppi caked in dirt. A proper celebration of Italian cycling, in the birthplace of Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, Paolo Bettini and Mario Cipollini.
At their best, any one of those riders would have relished a parcours such as this, replete with enough variation and challenge to suit any of their skill sets. This is an event that feels like it’s been around since the beginning, despite being less than a decade old. Given the stunning landscape, the distinctive character of the sterrati gravel roads and Tuscany’s rich cycling heritage, it’s a wonder that no one thought of it sooner.
In its short history it’s been won by Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Michal Kwiatkowski and Zdenek Stybar. Alejandro Valverde, Greg Van Avermaet and Damiano Cunego have all made the podium. Peter Sagan has twice finished second. That’s an A-list of classics royalty, world champions and Grand Tour winners. But while the “who” has certainly been impressive, the Strade Bianche has caught the eye in recent years because of the “how”.
The scrap between Valverde, Van Avermaet and Stybar was tactical cycling at its best, with the Czech cyclo-cross legend playing it cooler than his rivals and leaving it until the last possible moment to attack. But perhaps 2014 was more memorable, for the manner in which Kwiatkowski caught Sagan – and much of the cycling world – by surprise on the savage final stretch before the line.
The Via Santa Caterina is short but brutal, subjecting the riders to one final tortuous exertion with a vicious gradient of more than 16 per cent. Tackle it in the wrong gear, or with burned out legs, and it can feel like the city’s broad, chiselled flagstones are covered in glue. With just the Pole to beat, no one would have bet against Sagan, who began the ascent in front, with typical aplomb, out of the saddle but out of gas halfway up.
For the Slovakian, it looked as if time was standing still, as Kwiatkowski began what was to be an incredible year with a ferocious final attack on his opponent. Within seconds, it was goodbye Peter, the sport’s greatest talent eviscerated, almost seeming to roll backwards as his rival from Omega Pharma–Quick Step made the excruciatingly difficult look easy.
Gilbert’s victory in 2011 came with a similar show of strength right at the death, putting Alessandro Ballan and Damiano Cunego to the sword on the same final climb, revealing the form that would carry him to the top of the podium at all three Ardennes classics the month after.
And fans of belligerent solo efforts were treated to a remarkable individual coup by Cancellara – who else? – in 2012, when he took his second Strade title overtaking the leader, Van Avermaet, with 12km to go, leaving the chasing peloton in his dust on the final sector.
Find the right highlights package and there’s even a sympathy-inducing clip from inside a BMC team car right after the attack, in which the resigned-looking directeur sportif can clearly be heard vocalising what everyone already knew: “It’s over.”
RCS Sport deserve credit for creating a route that balances excitement and intrigue with responsible discretion. They have avoided the region’s cruellest climbs and resisted the temptation to turn it into a gravel-heavy sideshow, selecting just enough to make it interesting but not so much that it would lose its identity as a serious, 21st-century road race.
The early kilometres of undulating countryside and straightforward gravel won’t cause any problems, but after the climb to Montalcino, things get more selective. Punchy climbs and technical sections come thick and fast leading up to the sixth gravel sector, which is, on paper, the race’s hardest. Beginning in Asciano, it’s an 11.5km slog uphill.
The penultimate sector is just 2.4km, but boasts gradients reaching up to 15 per cent and is quickly followed by the ninth and final sector, which tops out at 18 per cent, ending at the Tolfe, where Cancellara broke away in 2012. And right before the end, there’s the small matter of the aforementioned Via Santa Caterina.
In comparison to other modern creations, the Strade Bianche looks like a rare bolt of common sense from the aether: a race in a part of the world that has genuine cycling pedigree. Where there are fans. Where pros want to ride.
A challenging route that takes full advantage of an idiosyncratic local feature, built around a centrepiece town full of culture and a manifest provincial sophistication that makes it quite unlike anywhere else. It’s all instantly recognisable and totally unmissable. As opposed to what all too often these days is the alternative: a race in the middle of a sporting wilderness that isn’t even on TV.
That should be a lesson to the UCI and to race organisers, so keen to talk about “growing the sport” internationally. They can sow seeds all they like, but without the right terroir, what they plant will never flourish. Which isn’t to say that a race has to be set against a traditional backdrop for it to be valid. It’s just that there’s clearly a winning formula and it doesn’t involve interminable stretches of arrow-straight highways and empty race tracks.
Bringing the Abu Dhabi Tour for a 20-lap jaunt around the Yas Marina Circuit obviously appealed to the local government who were understandably keen to show off their expensive new toy, but it wasn’t conducive to good bike racing because – at the risk of stating the glaringly obvious – it was designed for cars going upwards of 300kph, not a bunch of blokes in lycra.
Horses for courses and bikes and cars for, well… You get the drift. There’s a good reason we don’t see Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton tearing through the Arenberg strapped in to a 700-horsepower missile.
The track did give Velon, the joint business venture – their words – between 11 WorldTour teams, to showcase its pièce de résistance, on-board cameras, but if we’re being honest, fans deserve more than just low-resolution footage of riders from an arse-level view. It’s new, it’s gimmicky, it’s the equivalent of distracting a baby by rattling some keys. It might work for a while, but eventually we all grow up and expect something a little more substantial.
Cycling remains a sport that’s closely tied to working-class, continental Europe. To the forgotten byroads of its agrarian heartland and to the urban centres where the local population actually look forward to their own special slice of the annual madness. That provincialism might be a weakness, but it can also be a strength.
Fans rightly hold attributes like history and character in high regard – the Amstel Gold Race is still considered “new” by some despite being around for half a century – but the Strade Bianche proves that they’re receptive to the unfamiliar, too. It just has to be more than an empty novelty or an event purely driven by financial concerns.
The money made by ASO and RCS at races in Oman and the United Arab Emirates can help to shore up struggling events back in France and Italy. The chance to compete at either end of the main calendar can only be a good thing for riders and teams. And one would hope that pioneering new territories can, in the long term, widen the sport’s appeal and its fanbase.
But if cycling is to thrive, it has to do more than win over new TV viewers. It has to foster interest and participation at grass-roots level. And you can’t do that in a desert, because the sport’s future needs more than oil money and foundations laid in sand.
Of course, it could have been different in Siena. It could easily have been seen as an insincere grab at retro credibility. The organisers could have undermined its appeal by trying to sell it as Italy’s answer to the cobbles of northern France and Belgium. It could have run out of money before it really got going, or been derailed by unhelpful local authorities, like the exciting but problematic Roma Maxima. But it didn’t. It all clicked, and instead of kitsch, or complications, we got an instant classic.
This is an edited extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 61