Strade Bianche is like no other race. The dirt road sectors remind many of Paris-Roubaix, yet the hills of Tuscany are like those of the Ardennes: short, often very steep and painful to ride. Together the dirt roads and the dozens of climbs create a unique race that is suited not only to the best Classics riders but also the Grand Tour climbers.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) can all be contenders, while Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) have shown their ability in the women’s race. Strade Bianche is an event they all love to race and all want to win, despite the pain they may feel at the finish below a veil of dust and lactic acid.
Strade Bianche was inspired by the L’Eroica ride that covers many of the same roads and recalls the heroes of the origins of road racing, when dirt roads were commonplace.
The Italian race’s sections of dirt roads now inspire attacks and sparks selections before the final climb to the centre of Siena and the final turn into Piazza del Campo often decides the winner.
The secret to winning Strade Bianche is knowing how to ride on the dirt roads and having the power to climb up Via Santa Cristina with a final effort. Cyclo-cross skills can play a huge part in avoiding punctures and crashes and holding position in the stretched out peloton, while raw power can open a gap on the final climb.
Van Aert realised the leg-sapping effect of Via Santa Cristina in 2018 when he came to a standstill near the top and then struggled to get back in the saddle. However it was a lesson learnt for last year when he dominated the race with a solo attack on the final dirt sector and then danced to the finish in Siena.
This year’s favourites would do well to watch his performance and learn the secrets of racing Strade Bianche.
The decisive final three sectors
Yet again this year’s men’s race includes 63 kilometres of white gravel dirt roads spread across the 11 sectors of the 184 kilometre race. The women’s race covers 136km, including eight dirt road sectors for a total of 31.6 kilometres.
The women’s race avoids the southernmost part of the men’s route near Montalcino but includes the decisive late dirt roads that inspire the final attacks.
The earlier sectors are often close to 10 kilometres in length, making a gradual natural selection. The San Martino in Grania sector is 9.5 kilometres long and sparks the finale of both races. Usually only those left in the front group here will go on to fight for victory.
The Monteaperti sector comes with 24km left to race and is the first of the final three short but steep sectors of dirt road. Monteaperti is only 800 metres long but includes double-digit gradients and is a perfect place to launch an attack.
Afterwards, a short, road descent passes through Vico d’Arbia and Pieve a Bozzone to the Colle Pinzuto sector. A right through the trees leads to the foot of the first, steep section of the climb, with several hairpins easing the gradient but creating loose gravel.
The roads ease as the views across the hilltops emerge but the dirt road continues to climb for a total of 2.4 kilometres. The descent only starts after the San Giorgio a Lapi winery.
A fast, country road leads to the final dirt sector called Le Tolfe. It is only 1.1 kilometres long but has a section at 18 per cent, offering another place to make an attack. It ends near a hilltop chapel and the finish in Siena is a little more than 12 kilometres away.
The strade bianche weren’t built for bikes
The strade bianche are, like the cobbled roads of northern France or those in Flanders, country roads that have avoided being asphalted. They connect tiny villages, hilltop farms and vineyards. They weren’t built for cars and they especially weren’t built for bikes, with the gradients more suited to tractors or rugged Fiat Panda cars.
The strade bianche are used by local residents and farmers, with their tyres often causing humps in the middle of the road and gravel filled channels on each side. The constant but infrequent traffic means some gradual corners are left with a series of ripples that create a scary washing board vibrating feeling when ridden at speed.
Stones of every dimension can be left on the surface and so ping sideways when hit by a wheel. The local authorities usually fill in the biggest pot holes that are formed by rain puddles, but others remain and are often in the centre of the tyre tracks, perfect traps for a snake-bite puncture.
Cyclingnews studied the final sectors to get a real feel for the conditions the riders will face on Saturday. The Tuscan winter has been mild and very dry in recent weeks but the roads were soaked by continuous rain in early January.
The rain could help to dampen the dust but the winter always leaves its mark. The roads will be more light-brown coloured than dry and bianche (white). The dirt has been compacted by the vehicles but the rain carves deep into the dirt roads, with waterways shaping the corners and revealing the loose stones of every dimension.
Choosing the best line on the dirt roads is vital but riding on a wheel makes it virtually impossible to see what is ahead, hence the peloton becomes lined out and easy to snap.
The climbers would no doubt like to dance on the pedals on the steepest climbs. However riding out of the saddle is very difficult and even risk on the dirt roads. Taking weight off the rear wheel losses traction and can lead to wheel slips. The best way to go up the climbs is to grind round the pedals at a decent cadence while sat firmly in the saddle.
Some rain is expected on Friday but it should be dry and sunny on Saturday for the races.
Tyre choice is important and going tubeless could help avoid punctures. Most riders opt to use their standard road race bike fitted with slightly wider tyres and running lower pressure.
If the roads are dry, disc brakes offer few advantages and could mean slower wheel changes. Bike handling and fitness will make the biggest difference on the day.
The climb to the finish in Siena
When the dirt roads end, Strade Bianche is far from over.
Siena’s magnificent towers and red brick buildings can be seen from the surrounding hill tops but that means there is a final climb to the finish.
Most major roads circulate around the city to ease the gradients but the Strade Bianche follows the strada di Fontebranda to the foot of the city and then goes straight up the Via Santa Cristina.
A chicane marks the start of the final ramp with large stones and a rough surface to provide grip. That makes the 10 per cent gradient feel even steeper, with a gradual ramping up taking it to 16 per cent. The right turn onto flat roads in the city centre offers welcome respite and comes just 500 metres from the finish.
The tifosi usually pack behind the barriers and cheer on the riders at the top of Via Santa Cristina, some sadistically capturing their suffering to post on social media. With Siena in lockdown, they will have to watch from home this year, the only crowds likely to be photographers and local residents hanging out of their windows above the race.
The first rider to the top of Via Santa Cristina often wins Strade Bianche because positioning is key on the final road through Siena. As the road eases on the city streets, there is a final chance to move up to the front but it takes guts, a last sprint effort and good brakes to avoid crashing on the final right turn into Piazza del Campo.
Whoever makes it first into the corner can celebrate as they descend to the finish line at the lowest point of the stunning square outside the ancient town hall building and tower.