How good was Strade Bianche on Saturday?
In little more than a decade, the gritty battle over the white “sterrati” dirt roads of Tuscany has captured the imagination of fans and racers alike. Saturday’s 11th edition delivered a scintillating clash that continues to reverberate, with many already comparing the instant classic to cycling’s revered monuments.
“It’s beautiful for me to race it,” Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali told BBC before the race. “This is really something different, and it’s a pleasure to race. There is a sense of history, of tradition, that’s similar to the northern classics that are so much older. In just a few years, it’s become one of the most popular races with the riders. There is a flavor of Roubaix, of Flanders. And ending in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, how many races end in a setting like this? When you finish, you have a strange feeling, even if you don’t win. It’s happiness.”
Dubbed a “northern classic in southern Europe,” Strade Bianche was born out of a popular gran fondo that started in the 1990s. That event grew proved so successful that someone had the brilliant idea of running the pros over the series of rural farm roads that lace the green, lush hills of Tuscany that seem to burn even brighter in the early days of Italy’s spring. The first edition was held in 2007, delivering an “instant classic.” This year’s edition, which was officially a WorldTour stop, means the race’s importance and prestige is second only to races like Milano-Sanremo and the northern classics.
“Strade Bianche is one of my favorite races of the whole season,” said BMC Racing’s Daniel Oss. “Not only is the scenery amazing, but it’s hard racing. The kind of racing I love most. It’s the perfect preparation for the next block of classics in March and April.”
The race offers everything a marquee event should. This year’s course started and ended in Siena, and featured 62 kilometers of racing over the white gravel farm roads on 11 sectors that lace the small villages and farms in the hills of southern Tuscany in the Chianti wine-growing region. The photograph of Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) riding alone into Siena’s historic Piazza del Campo to claim the flowers will be one of the most indelible images of the spring calendar.
In contrast to today’s ever-more-specialized peloton, the race draws an interesting mix of riders, ranging from GC and climbing specialists like Nibali and Fabio Aru (Astana), who typically race the hilly Ardennes classics, to cobble-bashers like Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
“Strade Bianche has earned a place in my top 5 of favorite spring races,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot. “It’s a race where specialists of the Flemish and Walloon [Ardennes] classics compete against each other, and that doesn’t happen very often. It’s an impressive start list, and it’s a race on the highest level.”
Cannondale-Drapac’s starting lineup reflected that diversity, and the U.S.-registered team brought classics northern classics specialist Sep Vanmarcke along with Colombian climber Rigoberto Urán.
“We have Sep and Rigo on the same team, and it’s not usual that they race together, but both can be a leader in this race,” said Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi, who rode on similar roads near his hometown of Pisa. “It’s an open race, unpredictable. You need to be a complete rider to win here. Already at 60km into the race, there are things happening. It’s not closed until the very end of the race. The riders really like coming here.”
That’s certainly what happened Saturday, when rain and wind compounded the challenge of the race. A big crash less than midway through the course took out many of the favorites, leaving an elite front group to challenge for the victory. Kwiatkowski made a daring solo attack to win for the second time ahead of some big-name chasers.
“It’s an honest race. Everyone got the place he deserved,” surmised third-place man Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal). “Strade Bianche is a beautiful race, and I am I glad I rode it. I will definitely come back.”
A women’s edition of the race, with Elisa Longo Borghini winning the WorldTour opener, rounded out a complete weekend capped by a sportive event that drew more than 5,000 participants, who plowed through rain and were joined by former pros such as Fabian Cancellara, Johan Museeuw, Andrea Tafi, Ivan Basso, Alessandro Ballan, and Paolo Bettini.
How big can Strade Bianche become? The slot on the calendar is perfect — coming after the opening Belgian weekend and ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo — and the future looks bright for Strade Bianche. The race combines the best of what one-day racing should be, working in challenging race conditions, setting it up against a spectacular culture and geographical backdrop with the best riders in the peloton racing all out to win. Web pundit InnerRing even made the suggestion that the gravel roads could be the ideal setting for a world championship course, an intriguing idea considering Italy’s place in cycling history.
Former winner Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step) gushed about the race despite falling short of victory Saturday with a fourth.
“Today was amazing, really enjoyable racing,” Stybar said. “To have a selection that early was just crazy, especially as the race was made really tough with the wind and rain. … I love Strade Bianche.”
Perhaps Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) summed it up best after riding to fifth, writing this on Twitter:
Only cycling’s monuments like Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, or Liège-Bastogne-Liège outdraw Strade Bianche right now in terms of drama, spectacle and platform, but it’s catching up fast.