Strade Bianche: The White Roads Classic
With classics season well underway after an exciting Opening Weekend that included Omloop Het Nieuwsblad & Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, we now turn to Tuscany for one of the most beautiful races on the calendar, Strade Bianche (Italian for white roads). It is a race that always promises to excite and produces some of the most memorable cycling footage. With the Italian classic kicking off this Saturday, the eyes will be on the Piazza del Campo , to see who will succeed Wout van Aert & Annemiek van Vleuten in crowning themselves King & Queen of the white roads.
The beauty of the Tuscan countryside is on full display in this relatively new race. © Strade Bianche
A story of the young classic
Unbeknown to many, Strade Bianche is one of the youngest races on the professional calendar, with the race only beginning in 2007- making the 2021 edition just the 15th Strade Bianche. A race that perceives to have a rich history and is argued to be the sixth monument, it is surprising to many that the race is so young. This in itself captures the true beauty of the race and proving it a spectacle to behold as it competes with the likes of Paris-Roubaix.
The granfondo, L'Eroica Strade Bianche, began in 1997 and was only open to recreational cyclists, whilst also reserved only for vintage bikes. The success of the sportive led to the birth of the professional race in 2007. The first edition was held in the cold month of October and was sponsored by the world’s oldest bank Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (founded 1472), as the Russian Alexandr Kolobnev went on to take victory.
Alexandr Kolobnev became the winner of the first edition of Strade Bianche in 2007. © Cor Vos
The following year the race was moved to March to gain itself a place within the classics season. Success was brought in the attraction of more teams, who were in the middle of their classics campaign, one being Team CSC. The team famously known for being the home of Spartacus- Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss was crowned the winner of the 2nd edition of the race, before going onto win another two editions in 2012 & 2016. Michał Kwiatkowski is the next most successful rider, taking victory in 2014 and 2017. Cancellara’s three wins of the race earned himself his own gravel sector, called Monte Sante Marie (Settore Cancellara).
For such a young race, the classic gained respect quickly and earned its place as one of the highlights of the classics season. The race eventually gained UCI World Tour status in 2017 and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
A women’s race soon followed the men’s and was called Strade Bianche Donne, the maiden edition coming in 2015. Megan Guarnier won the first edition and the following year Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) tasted success, becoming the first and only British winner of the race. However, this may change as Tom Pidcock throws his hat into the ring after a promising Opening Weekend, where he took a third place at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. The past two editions of Strade Bianche Donne have been won by Annemiek van Vleuten, can she make it a third in 2021 and gain her own sector?
Annemiek van Vleuten won an unusual 2020 edition of Strade Bianche Donne, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees celsius. © Luck Claessen/Getty Images
Classic memories of the race
However young the race may be, it has given us some of the most memorable cycling memories of the 21st century. The hallmark finish in the city of Siena is always a sight for cycling fans to adore; when combined with the white gravel roads, this makes the race truly unique and arguably a monument- there truly are no other races like it. Over the years the race has produced some unique cycling moments, but these have to be my favourites:
Of course it wouldn’t be a tribute to the memories of the race without looking back on the success 'Spartacus' achieved at the classic. Winning his third edition of the race in his 2016 retirement season, the Swiss rider pipped Zdeněk Štybar, who was the reigning champion at the time. However hard Štybar tried to reclaim his title, it was clear that Fabian wanted to make it three before his retirement, with victory being rewarded with his own sector. Monte Sante Marie (Settore Cancellara) is 11.5km in length and a category 5.
Fabian Cancellara racked up three victories at Strade Bianche in his storied career. © Trek
Looking back on the 2010 Giro D’Italia, fans were treated by a remarkable stage 7 in which riders had to face tough gravel sectors and the gruelling hills of Strade Bianche. It was always going to be a special stage of the Giro, but the weather turned the day into an icon of La Corsa Rosa, with mud baths rivalling the 2018 edition of Strade Bianche. Cadel Evans won the battle in his rainbow stripes, ahead of rival Alexandre Vinokourov, though the rainbow was somewhat hidden by the time he hit the line.
Will we see similar mud-drenched scenes on Saturday? © Bettini Photo
My personal favourite edition of Strade Bianche, and the one I believe to be the most memorable we have witnessed, is 2018. In the 2018 edition, we saw the battle between Tiesj Benoot, Romain Bardet and Wout van Aert in mud-drenched scenes that echoed the fabled day at the 2010 Giro d'Italia. The classic shot of Tiesj Benoot covered head to toe in mud from the white roads will live long in the memory of all who watched. However nothing compares to the defining image of Wout Van Aert falling off his bike up the wall of Via Santa Caterina, with the Belgian suffering from cramp and pure exhaustion.
Wout van Aert achieved two podium finishes in succession before sealing his maiden victory last year. © Gruber Images
Worthy of becoming a Monument?
The five Monuments of cycling are considered to be the hardest and most prestigious one-day races in the world, with all five having history dating back to the early 20th century (with some dating backing to the 1800s). Having only begun in 2007, does Strade Bianche make the cut and will it see itself crowned a Monument in the future?
Strade Bianche may be young, however nobody can argue that it isn’t a unique race and has become one of the hardest races on the WorldTour calendar to win. The quality of each year's startlist and the individual features of the race make it comparable to Flanders & Roubaix. Additionally, with the old school style of course provided by the white roads and the cobbled town centre finish, it has the feeling of a Monument, despite its young history. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if in years to come the race is deemed as a Monument, which I believe it to be worthy of.
The main favourites for Saturday
*** Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert
**Tom Pidcock, Jakob Fuglsang, Tadej Pogačar
*Greg Van Avermaet, Alberto Bettiol, Tim Wellens
*** Annemiek van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Marianne Vos
** Elisa Longo Borghini, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Katarzyna Niewiadoma
*Lizzie Deignan, Lianne Lippert, Amanda Spratt
Who will be crowned King & Queen of the white roads?
We now look to Tuscany on Saturday for one of the most exciting races of the season and it is sure to excite. With a 5 star startlist including reigning champion Wout van Aert and his rival Van der Poel, it is sure to be a spectacle. With some rain forecast on Friday in Siena, we may be seeing something similar to the 2018 edition of the race, rather than the scorching 2020 edition.
With the women’s race kicking off at 9.10am (CET), with 136km on the cards and 31.4km of gravel, can Van Vleuten make it three in a row? The men’s race begins at 11.40am (CET), with 184km scheduled, including 63km of gravel sectors.
© Getty Images