A Cyclist's Bucket List
Italy and the Strade Bianche
Italy and cycling, a match made in heaven. From the sport’s greats battling it out on the slopes of the Stelvio to gentle summer jaunts around the banks of Lake Garda, there is more to this Mediterranean country than just prancing horses, pizza and opera halls.
Up until recently though, when it came to cycling, Italy was missing one thing: an early season classic to rival the Flandriens' cobbled monuments. That was until 2007 when the white roads of Tuscany became home to one of Italy’s most exciting one day events: the Strade Bianche.
Unlike most gran fondos and sportives, the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo was in existence before the professional race, capturing amateurs' hearts and love for getting off the beaten track. Keen to experience this unique event, we jetted off to tackle the 2018 Strade Bianche Gran Fondo.
The Calm Before the Strade Storm
Freezing cold, wet, mud, carnage; the professional race, the day prior to the gran fondo, had all three elements in abundance. Thankfully, waking at 5:30am on a brisk Sunday morning and opening the blinds, I was greeted by clear skies and dry roads. Staying approximately 25 kilometres from the start of the gran fondo, in Siena, I departed the hotel and headed over to the historic walled city.
I arrived an hour before the 8:30am start and the atmosphere was already building with a large gantry, the smell of embrocation wafting from the car park and bikes being meticulously prepared for what lay ahead.
Two routes were on offer, an 86 kilometre ‘medium’ and a 138 kilometre ‘gran fondo’. Each covered a number of ‘sectors’, with the former taking in six, while the longer route packed in a leg sapping eight.
Although these sectors are on roads I was told they were mud strewn, technical and featured holes you’d need a passport to get out of. Bike preparation was key.
The weapon of choice for this Tuscan adventure would be a Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod Disc Red eTap Road Bike. Understated, in a stealth black colourway, but with an underlying rich history, being used by the pros at races such as Paris-Roubaix and winning numerous awards in publication bike tests, this was the perfect machine for the ride.
With a more relaxed geometry than its race focused SuperSix brother, the Synapse features a shorter toptube and taller headtube. Time would tell if this would improve handling on the rough roads but for now a 120 millimetre stem with a -17 degree angle would be required to get me in my required position on the bike.
Cannondale had equipped the bike with Hollowgram Si Carbon Clincher Disc Wheelset and 28 millimetre wide Vittoria Corsa G+ Isotech Foldable Clincher Tyres. In a tan wall guise, these added a little colour to this all black machine.
A Fabric Scoop Shallow Pro Saddle and Cannondale finishing kit were light yet reliable additions, while SRAM’s RED eTap was the groupset of choice. Being wireless and electronic and featuring a compact 50/34T chainset, I was left feeling assured I both had enough gears and the knowledge that crisp shifting would be a given.
Unlike the day before, when the pros were greeted by torrential rain and freezing conditions, the gran fondo for me was a dry and mild affair. Starting early I knew it would be a chilly first hour, so I opted for a Sportful Stelvio Rain Jacket to keep me warm. Paired with the Sportful Fiandre NoRain Pro Bib Short and NoRain Leg Warmers this option also ensured that I would be protected, should things turn wet.
Up top and MET's Trenta 3K was the helmet of choice. Weighing in at 215 grams and proven to save 7% when it comes to drag, when riding in a group. The Trenta had been produced to celebrate the company's 30th year and, as a result, is their most technologically advanced model yet.
Under the Stelvio Jacket I wore a Sportful Fiandre Light Short Sleeve Jersey. With three pockets I had sufficient room to store energy bars, my mobile phone and all my other ride essentials. This again was paired with NoRain technology in the form of Sportful NoRain Arm Warmers. A light breathable sleeveless BodyFit Pro Base Layer was chosen due to its fast wicking properties.
The announcer’s voice was booming, the music was being cranked up and 5000 cyclists clipped in and rolled out of the Fortezza. Trek Segafredo’s riders were among the starters, some using it as training after misfortunes cut their race short the previous day, others using it as an opportunity to meet and ride with fans.
Punchy, it was safe to say those riding gran fondos in Italy do not like to hang around. Looking down at my Garmin after 15 kilometres of riding on the wheels, in one strung out line, the pace hadn’t dropped below 40 kilometres an hour.
On to sector one, ‘Vidratta’, and sitting in around 100th position, we transitioned from smooth asphalt to the brown clay-like road at speed. Dodging holes, riders puncturing and trying to pick my line, my Strade Bianche experience had well and truly begun.
I could have blinked and missed it. 2.1 kilometres and a relatively ‘easy’ sector one was complete. I knew this was lulling me into the false sense of security as to what was to come.
Sector two and things started to get interesting. Riding close to the wheel in front I was greeted by a hole of cavernous proportions. Too late to bunny hop it, I gripped onto the handlebars tight and accepted my fate. A loud bang and then nothing, had I punctured? No. Had I lost a bottle? No. Then I realised my bar ends were facing the sky.
Note to self: Check the stem faceplate is done up tightly. A quick stop to adjust my bars and I was off again.
Reaching the 35 kilometre mark and a T-junction, riders were given the choice of either heading left to continue on with the 86 kilometre route or right for the 138 kilometre option. With the sun now shining and the temperature in double digits I thought it would rude not to have a big day out on the Strade.
About a kilometre later and I was starting to question my decision as things started to get significantly hillier. Sectors were now not just rough but also incredibly steep, with the gradient reaching 20% or more in places.
What goes up must come down and the descents were definitely keeping the riders on their toes. Off-camber, 90 degree, muddy and challenging. This was not the time to lose focus. Surprisingly the mud was incredibly grippy, with the tyres remaining planted to the road.
Respite and a 30 kilometre section on the smooth tarmac gave me time to refuel and pick off the kilometres at speed. I was warned by fellow riders, who had done the gran fondo before, to keep something in the tank for the final 25 kilometres. They were not wrong.
Reaching sector seven and I was greeted with what can only be described as a wall. Straight, steep and littered with riders battling the sharp gradient I shifted into my easiest gear and began the grind.
A rollercoaster of a final sector set me up for the final 10 kilometres into Siena. The terrain was anything but gentle, with Siena perched atop a hill, there was only one way the road to the finish was going and it wasn't down.
Reaching the famous, final kilometre, stretch through the walled city streets, the crowds were cheering each and every rider on towards the line. Rounding the last corner and rolling into the spectacular Piazza De Campo I had completed the Strade Bianche.
Four hours, ten minutes of ride time, just over 2000 metres of climbing and one dirty bike, I was buzzing having finished this iconic early season challenge.
For those looking for a truly unique experience, to take in some of Tuscany’s most picturesque roads and to sample one of the coolest gran fondos on the calendar, I would highly recommend heading off to the Strade Bianche.
Find out more about the gran fondo here.