This originally started as a little project to look back at what we’ve missed this…
“I’m super excited because the first race back is in Tuscany. It’s really close to where I was born and lived, so it’s double excitement for me.”
– Alberto Bettiol
A hazy blur makes it hard to distinguish where the sky and land meet, the way it shimmers is a cognitive reminder of the blazing heat. The sun’s rays bounce off white gravel roads. The threat of a steamy mid-afternoon storm lingers, whilst a peloton of more than 100 hundred riders prepare themselves on the start line, some 184 kilometers of racing ahead of them. Not the usual scene we’d expect ahead of the one-day-race Strade Bianche, usually held in March, but there’s nothing usual about this year’s racing calendar.
On August 1, WorldTour racing is set to resume in the Tuscan countryside along the infamous strade bianche. As the peloton sets out from Siena there will be 11 gravel sectors between them and the finish line back in Siena’s marvelous Piazza del Campo, and as the peloton gets back together after five months apart, it’s set to be one of the most unpredictable and open races seen in years.
“People are probably more motivated since they haven’t raced a lot this year. They want to show to their teams that they are strong and they want to race and show that they are really prepared. Of course, now the whole world will be back watching cycling,” Alberto Bettiol says.
This area is home turf for the reigning Flander’s champion and like any Italian he’s proud of where he’s from and excited to see his home region have its moment of glory, “I’m super excited because the first race back is in Tuscany, really close to where I was born and lived so it’s double excitement.”
The white gravel sectors breed an intensity into the racing that very few other races on the World Tour calendar do. The gravel roads are lumpy, there’s very little flat and the first sector starts just 11km in. Some just a few kilometers long whilst others pack a punch like sector eight which is 11.5km long and considered one of the hardest in the race with mainly uphill and steep gradients.
Some of those gradients punch up to nearly 20%, such as on sector 10 with the climb toward Colle Pinzuto maxing out at 15%, and the Tolfe, peaking at 18%. It’s then a 12km drag race from the last sector into the centre of Siena leaving the riders staggering and winding around the city’s paved streets with the gradient still relentlessly clawing at their legs.
For its relatively short history, (this is the 13th running) Strade Bianche is an iconic part of the racing calendar and on the bucket list for many riders. One who will be ticking it off their list this year is Mike Woods, who will not only be racing it for the first time but is also lining up for the first time since breaking his femur back in March at Paris-Nice.
Luckily for Woods, he will have the likes of Bettiol and top 10 finisher in 2019, Simon Clarke, on hand for advice, “Mike will need to know where he needs to be in the peloton for this race,” Bettiol says. “Normally there aren’t too many problems because the speeds are not as high, it’s not a super difficult race, there are a few kilometers where you need to stay in the front, the more you are in the front the safer you are. Then after the feedzone, the race really starts. You have to be patient and save energy for the final because there are three or four really steep sections in which Mike could make a difference.”
Understandably there’s a mix of excitement and nerves from the first timer, “When I found out I was going to Strade I felt excited,” Woods says. “I’ve obviously never done it before and it’s a race that I’ve always been really interested in so I have a lot of excitement but also some nervousness going into it as well.”
When it comes to a question of form that’s another topic of uncertainty, not just for Woods but the whole peloton in general. “Fitness wise, I’m in incredible shape and I’m putting numbers out that I’ve never put out before. Mentally, I feel like I’m really comfortable on the bike right now,” Woods says, but agrees that the data from your training roads is never truly tested until you’re back on the road in real-time racing.
“I feel like I’m back to 100% from a bike handling perspective but it’s still not operating that in the confines of a peloton and it’s especially not in a group of guys, in a peloton on gravel roads,” Woods adds.
Our sport director, Fabrizio Guidi agrees that the unknown around rider performance is going to produce an open and exciting race, “Everyone is going in a bit unsure, but we know how strong we are and what we’ve done and we start from there, then the rest we’ll discover race-by-race.”
This season very much feels like a time of discovery, a time of adapting to change and work within the parameters of uncertainty. Guidi and the riders are motivated for the season to restart but he notes that we do so with caution. “It’s a moment where we need to change, we know that it’s not going to be the same but we have to take this still as an opportunity. It’s the dream of young riders to get back to racing but we can’t forget what has happened and we need to take on those changes.”
Race length: 184km (114mi)
Length of gravel sectors: 63km (39mi)
Race start: 1:40pm CET (7:30am EST)
Start & Finish location: Siena, Italy
Key race sectors:
– Sectors 5 (11.9km) and 6 (8km) with only 1km of tarmac in between them. Both are hard, hilly, very punchy and with many bends, climbs and descents
– Sector 8: At 11.5km it’s the hardest of the race, mostly uphill and characterised by tough hills, the most important being those close to Monte Sante Marie
– Next comes the penultimate sector (Sector 10, 2.4km) on the climb toward Colle Pinzuto (with gradients up to 15%). Not much distance separates it with the last sector (Sector 11, 1.1km) which features a sequence of a demanding descents followed by a very punchy climb (max 18%) that ends up at the Tolfe. From here only 12km separate the riders from the finish in Piazza del Campo, Siena.
– In Sienna the riders will have to tackle gradients of up to 16%.