Ah, the sounds of early March. The birds are chirping. The doggies are barking.
The cycling fans are quibbling.
That’s right, early March brings the annual debate about Strade Bianche, and whether or not the race across Tuscany’s white gravel roads deserves to be grouped alongside Milano-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia as a “monument” of cycling. This silly yet enjoyable debate has raged on for — well, not for very long. Strade Bianche has only been raced 14 times, of course, and the conversation about it joining the monuments is pretty recent.
I love Strade Bianche. It is one of the most dynamic pro races on the calendar, and the hilly course and rough roads always crown a worthy champion. Rarely does the strongest rider lose this race, yet winning it requires impeccable strategy, as well as skill, luck, and all of those other intangible qualities that are at play in the other major events.
Watch the replay of Tiesj Bennot’s win at the 2018 edition, and you will see a race that’s far more enjoyable than most recent editions of the monuments. As a watcher of cycling, I’d much rather watch Strade Bianche ahead of Lombardia, or Milano-Sanremo, or most editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Strade Bianche rules.
Should it be a monument?
No — and that’s OK. Strade Bianche can kick ass and be worthy of our affection without being lumped in with these races. It can be a race that’s far more entertaining, and far more difficult to win, than any of the monuments, and still be worthy of our annual affection. Strade Bianche doesn’t need monument status in order to absolutely rule.
I think a lot of people get tripped up by the quality assigned to the “monument” title within this debate. They think that the monument tagline means a race is better, or more exciting, or more epic than the rest. Guess what — it definitely does not. The monuments aren’t necessarily the best races, or the most exciting. Some of them are downright boring. When was the last time you watched all 250 kilometers of Il Lombardia?
Rather, the five monuments owe their prestige to a magical blend of course length (250km or greater), difficulty, and — we, alas, cannot overlook this one — history. All five events have long and storied histories that span generations. Flanders, the youngest monument, held its first edition in 1913.
These are the races that survived world wars, great depressions, social upheaval, and yeah, even pandemics. The monument title brings up images of sepia-toned photos of helmet-less riders pedaling ancient single-speed bicycles and swigging bottles of beer. These races are living links back to eras that haven’t existed for generations. This history makes these races something more than just sporting events. They are cultural markers that daughters and fathers and mothers and grandmothers and great grandfathers share. They tie entire generations back to an event, like a Fourth of July parade or your town’s oldest building.
And, whether we like it or not, history is an important component of our sport. Monument history ties Maurice Garin to Alfredo Binda to Rik Van Looy to Eddy Merckx to Erik Zabel to Fabian Cancellara to Mathieu van der Poel. Think of these races as statues sitting in a field, dedicated to cycling’s history. The rich history of these races is worthy of something, and personally, I’m fine letting them have the “monument” title as an honor to their long lasting traditions.
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in recent years, history and statues and tradition have their place, but we should find ways to build on what they created. Think about the above list of riders and the history it connects, and cycling’s long and rich history has been for far too many years been a story of men.
And cycling is working hard to move on from that tradition. These days, there’s new energy and new ways to think about pro racing, as well as what, exactly, makes a race worthy of our affection. The women’s edition of Flechè Wallonne is a phenomenal race. There are editions of La Course that have been absolutely epic, edge-of-your-seat stuff. And there are years when the women’s Tour of Flanders is far more entertaining than the men’s event.
I see Strade Bianche and a whole host of other races through this lens. While they don’t have 100-year histories, they have qualities that are far more interesting to me, like dynamic courses, action-packed lineups, and unpredictable racing. Every year we give these races our attention — attention that we might not give the monuments — because we simply love to watch them unfold.
So, what do we call these races? The pillars of cycling? The epics of cycling? The legends of cycling? I’m no branding expert, but I think we should come up with a title. It should signify excitement, and glory, and struggle, and passion. The passions of cycling? I’ll keep working on it.
Cycling has a rich history book, and Strade Bianche represents an important new chapter. And if we must name that chapter, then hey, I’m all for it. I’d love to hear the names that you have. Send me the name of your collection of races, and the events that belong on them, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now let’s all hunker down and prepare for Strade Bianche.