When the organisers send the 2021 Giro d’Italia over the strade bianche (Tuscany's famous white chalk roads) near Siena on stage 11, they will be hoping to recast just some of the magic of 2010. Because the seventh stage of that year’s race has gone down in history as one of the greatest stages of the Giro d’Italia of all time.
What made that stage so special was the fact that nobody back then quite expected the gravel roads to throw up such a spectacle.
Organisers had taken two sections of strade bianche from their eponymous one-day race – then just four editions old and known as the Monte Paschi Eroica. The first, 5.5km long, was fast and flat. The second, 13.9km long, featured gradients up to 16%.
This in itself was always going to be a recipe for sparks to fly, but the cold, wet and gloomy conditions turned the dusty white sterrate into gloopy brown paste.
“And there’s Vinokourov, in the brown jersey, followed closely by world champion Cadel Evans in the brown. Oh dear, it’s bad news for race leader Vincenzo Nibali, chasing like mad in the, erm, brown jersey.”
It was a nightmare for commentators, although they could at least claim Vino was the dirtiest rider in the race without fear of legal recrimination.
Italian champion Pippo Pozzato decided to stick with a white jersey, white jacket, white shorts, white socks, white shoes, white helmet, white gloves, white bike and white bar tape for the stage. So it was a nightmare for the soigneurs too – especially those on Katusha.
Within seconds of touching the sodden roads, the bikes became caked in the kind of stucco usually reserved for walls, making it a nightmare for the team mechanics. And the riders themselves looked like they had taken a glance at the Gorgon’s head and been turned into stone, with only their deeply bloodshot eyes retaining much trace of colour. It was largely a nightmare for them.
"The last 45km were worse than Paris-Roubaix,” Vinokourov said – though we must add he only raced the Hell of the North once, as a neo-pro, and didn’t finish.
"I don’t think there's a place for dirt roads like this in a stage race like the Giro,” he added. “In a one-day race yes, but not in a stage race."
Us viewers were in heaven. Sports fans are all rose-tinted nostalgic types and this stage harked back to a largely imaginary golden era of bike racing when muddy heroics were just par for the course.
Watching the final 15km was like watching an amateur lightweight boxing match going into the 12th round: nothing but skinny blokes slugging it out. When former mountain biker Evans won a slo-mo uphill sprint in the apocalyptic murk of Montalcino, he managed a wry smile. He was just glad it was over. Vinokourov, for all his complaining, ended the day in pink.
It didn’t win him the Giro, however. The main contenders were lucky in that there were no serious punctures or mechanicals that could lose them the Giro either.
It won’t always be that way whenever the Giro returns to the strade bianche of Tuscany, but as far as we’re concerned, there will always be a place for dirt roads like this in a stage race like the Giro.