Behind the Scenes
at the Strade Bianche
Tuscany - A wine connoisseur’s paradise, endless rolling fields of olive groves and some of the world’s most iconic renaissance art. Away from the food and culture, every spring the peace is disturbed and the famous white rolling roads become the playground for cycling’s professional riders.
Starting out as a gran fondo in 1997 and since being run every year, Strade Bianche became a pro race in 2007, where Alexandr Kolobnev won the first edition of the Eroica Strade Bianche "Heroic race of the gravel roads".
Fast forward eleven years and this race, held in early March, has become a key addition to the professional cycling calendar. Keen to see what draws some of the sport’s pros to this unique spring classic, we joined Sportful for the 2018 edition of the race.
The Sagan Effect
With Sportful's rich and successful history of sponsoring and working with Peter Sagan, our first stop on our Italian adventure was to visit Bora Hansgrohe, a team the brand are sponsoring for the first time in 2018. Making a quaint hotel on the outskirts of Siena their home for the race, we headed to meet the world champion.
Humble, quietly spoken and ever the pro, we were greeted by Peter. Setting up the team issue Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL6 Road Bikes, the mechanics were busy at work ahead of the next day’s 184 kilometre race.
Signing a Sportful Bora Hansgrohe World Champion’s Jersey for each of the guests, Peter thanked us for our support. Leaving the mechanics working hard into the night we headed to our hotel for an early night, readying ourselves for the main event the next day.
Checking the weather forecast over breakfast it would seem we had brought the British climate over to Italy for the weekend. Heavy rain was scheduled for the women’s and men’s races. Bad weather for the pros meant some truly memorable racing for us fans. Arriving at the historic walled city, Siena was looking soggy.
The women were signing on for the race and behind the sea of umbrellas were stars including current world champion, Chantal Blaak, who had her rainbow band designed Specialized team bike. Huddled under the iconic Siena Fortezza arches, wrapped up for the 138 kilometres that lay ahead, the faces were both anxious and pensive. Flag dropped and the world’s best rolled out to tackle Tuscany’s answer to Paris-Roubaix.
The Race Village
A pro cycling fan’s dream, the latest and most desirable bikes were all on display, glistening in the heavy downpours. Highlights included Team Sky's fleet of Pinarello Dogma F10 Road Bikes, Team Lotto Jumbo's bright green Bianchis, UAE's ultra stylish Colnago C64s and Trek Segafredo's armada of disc brake equipped Domanes.
With the pros tucked away in their team buses, sheltering from the rain, our race had begun as we jumped in the Sportful minibus to head off ahead of the race.
On The Strade
Joined by former world champion and Tuscan resident, Paolo Bettini, we quite possibly had the most well versed guide for the race. Having taken part in the 2008 race, Paolo was well placed to talk us through the sectors.
Stopping on sector four, the rain was now coming down hard and a brave group of hardy souls had dislodged themselves from the peloton and were pressing on towards Siena.
Looking more akin to miners rather than cyclists the white roads had turned brown and the riders were clearly wearing a large amount of the mud. The word 'epic' is bandied around rather too freely, but in this case, it seemed rather fitting.
The peloton, after 60 kilometres, was looking stretched and bedraggled. It was followed shortly after by two riders, one from Team Sky and the other Bora Hansgrohe and Peter Sagan, heavily wrapped up in his kit. Our first glimpse of the race spurred us on to see more, so dragging a tonne of Tuscan mud into our minibus we headed off to the next section.
Not all rain is created equal. Being British we are used to dreary days, seemingly endless showers and wet winters but the downpour out here in Italy was something else. Reaching sector six the roads were turning more stream-like by the minute. A sector made more difficult by it being located on a climb, by the time we saw the pros drag their tired bodies up and past us the bunch, once compact, was now in tatters. After the break had passed only about 40 riders were left in what remained of the peloton, with the remainder of the riders retiring to team cars and heading back to hotels for early showers.
Reaching the Sharp End
Monte Sante Marie. A hilltop vantage point and sector eight for the Strade Bianche. Greeted by a panoramic view, overlooking the rolling Tuscan hills, there was a brief break in the rain as we arrived at our final viewing point.
The race was in tatters, with a select group, featuring none other than race favourite, Peter Sagan, driving on, quite probably thinking of getting the newly acquired mudpack off and world champion stripes cleaned up.
What was left of the peloton followed. In dribs and drabs, threes and fours, the riders battled tired legs and less than ideal conditions. The poker faces were a thing of the past as the pain was more than evident; it was clear no one was having an easy ride.
Retreating to the warmth and dry surroundings of the hill top villa we settled down to watch the final 20 kilometres of the race on the TV. Emerging from the murk Lotto Soudal’s Thijs Benoot showed true Belgian grit to break free from his breakaway companions to take a memorable solo victory in Siena’s beautiful Piazza del Campo.
Followed by a fast finishing Romain Bardet and an evidently exhausted Wout Van Aert, this podium was definitely not one we expected but it just showed how unpredictable this race is and how exciting the outcome can be when conditions play such a big role.
Tired, in need of a warm shower and cup of tea but buzzing from a day we won’t forget on the white roads of Tuscany, we had truly immersed ourselves in one of Italy’s most exciting one day races and we are glad we did.