SIENA, Italy (VN) — Punctures and how to avoid them; that’s been the mission all week leading into Saturday’s Strade Bianche.
Mechanics worked overtime this week to prep bikes for one of the season’s unique challenges. Nearly every major team is deploying minor but significant adaptations for the punishing WorldTour race over the Tuscan hills.
With more than 60km of chalky, stony gravel roads, most riders prefer to race tubeless tires on wider rims.
The goal is to create the perfect “float” over the gravel without losing efficiency on the pavement. And, most importantly, avoid punctures.
Michael Schar, the Swiss veteran on Ag2r-Citroën, said equipment selection is key for handling the sometimes loose, chalky, and stoney gravel sectors at Strade Bianche.
“We have a smaller front wheel, with a 35mm rim, because there will be a lot of sidewind today,” Schar told VeloNews. “We are staying with tubulars, because we think the tubular is more reactive. We arrived on Wednesday, and we did recon on Thursday, and we tested different tires and setups. It was a full day of testing for this race.”
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Schar raced with 6bar (87psi) on his front tire, and 6.2bar (90psi) on his rear tire, slightly higher than Greg Van Avermaet, who raced 5.5bar (8psi) and 5.8bar (84psi), respectively. The team also swapped out their 26mm road tires for wider 28mm tires for Strade Bianche, similar to what they race on during the northern classics.
Schar said conditions Saturday were perhaps the best he’s raced on in eight editions at Strade Bianche. Rain this week knocked down some of the dust and created more compact conditions on the gravel sectors.
“The secret on the gravel is to keep on pushing. You don’t want to lose the tension on the chain,” Schar said. “It’s a bit like mountain biking. When it gets technical, or the gravel gets deep, you have to keep pushing on the pedal, you keep tension on the chain, and that keeps the bike going straight, and you don’t lose control on the gravel.”
Some teams jealously guard their trade secrets, while other teams shared insider details.
Tadej Pogačar, for example, raced on 28mm tubeless tires, with 4.9bar (71psi) on the front and 5.2bar (75psi) on the rear tire. The entire UAE Emirates squad ran tubeless, except Diego Ulissi, who preferred to race on his tubular tires. Israel-Premier Tech chose not to disclose their tire pressures for their riders, who raced on tubeless clinchers.
Some riders prefer even lighter pressure for more grip on the gravel.
Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens, one of the favorites Saturday, told VeloNews he raced on 28mm tubeless clinchers, with 4.1bar (59.5psi) and 4.8bar (69.5psi), respectively.
“The most important sectors are on the downhill,” Wellens said. “That’s when the tires really make a difference. It’s going to be a fast race today.”
We asked Specialized about these new tubeless tires for the world champion on the gravel ‘white roads’ of Strade Bianche.
Their answer? “😉”https://t.co/5wMQvZchJD
— VeloNews (@velonews) March 5, 2022
Teams tested tire pressure, wheels, and tires in the few days ahead of the race to fine-tune the setup.
Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) arrived Monday, and opted to race the Pirelli tubeless, with 4.4bar (64psi) in the front, and 4.8bar (69.5psi) in the rear.
“It measures a bit wider with our new tubeless wheel, so it’s great. I used the tire during the winter to train. I ride a lot of gravel, so I like the setup. The grip is really good,” Simmons told VeloNews. “I arrived on Monday with the race setup pretty much how it is now. I knew from training what I wanted. Luckily we have really tires for it.”
Simmons knows how important tire selection and luck can be in a race like Strade Bianche.
Last year, Simmons punctured out of the lead group, and never regained contact with the leaders to finish 54th.
“The gravel is some ways it’s almost over-hyped,” Simmons said. “It’s not super technical compared to what you see in a gravel race. It’s more about positioning going into the sectors. You have to be strong on the climbs and be a good bike-handler — it’s a nice mix. You also have to have good luck. We can’t have the luck we had last year.”
Avoiding that bad luck could come down to tire and pressure selection. Having the legs to win is another story.