Viva Siena: following Strade Bianche on Tuscany’s white roads
Following Trek-Segafredo and Bahrain-Merida in action as Strade Bianche's popularity continues to grow
There is nowhere to hold a bike race quite like Siena, even among the old locations of bike racing.
The Roubaix velodrome offers good-natured chaos outside and compelling action within, but even those who live there might concede the town has no other appeal.
The Doha peninsula offered the glittering Gulf as a backdrop when the Tour of Qatar was a thing, but Tuscany, and arguably its fairest city, has an architectural beauty to match the natural. The Qatari capital’s ultra-modern skyline cannot compete with Siena’s medieval grandeur.
To be among the teams minutes before they roll out for the Strade Bianche – the white roads classic that in ten years has gained a status to equal its more storied cousins – is a privilege every cycling fan should avail themselves of.
Parked close to the Fortezza Medicea at the top of the town, a walk of no more than ten minutes from the finish in Siena’s majestic Piazza del Campo, the gleaming team buses offer a striking contrast to the soft tones of the surrounding buildings.
There is a presence at the Trek-Segafredo bus that has drawn a huge crowd; one that on investigation turns out to be Fabian Cancellara, the three-time winner, back at the Strade Bianche to have a section of the gravel named after him and to play guest of honour to the race and its accompanying granfondo.
Despite the crush that accompanies the presence of one of cycling’s bona fide superstars, the Trek-Segafredo set up is a welcoming environment, and the array of blood red machinery placed at the riders’ disposal holds an appeal almost to match that of Spartacus.
Take Jasper Stuyen’s Domane, or Domanes to be more precise, for he has a race and spare bike, both built with different specifications (Dura-Ace 9070 with SRM power meter on the race bike; the newer Dura-Ace R9150 with built-in power meter on the spare). Each machine offers evidence of Stuyven’s belt-and-braces approach to shifting: Di2 buttons in the STI levers, sprinter switches in the drops and a neat, two-button unit beneath the tops.
We travel as guests of Sportful, Trek-Segafredo’s clothing supplier, and that of Bahrain-Merida too. The advantages of friends on the inside is made apparent with a privileged view tour of the Bahrain squad’s immaculately upholstered team bus.
Michele Bartoli, winner of five Monument Classics stands outside, talking, though he has no official connection to the team. His presence is another reminder of how quickly the Strade Bianche has become a must-see event.
Driving the white roads
The faithful Sportful van has a “Stampa” [press] banner affixed to the windscreen, allowing us to drive the route, if not to be part of the race convoy. No matter. The view is good enough. We watch the race pass at several different junctures, morning and afternoon, noting the riders’ descent into filth and fatigue.
Strade Bianche is a race to remind the sated fan of the truth behind every cliché about the ‘glory of suffering’. There is a heroic quality writ large on the mud-spattered faces of every rider, their expressions more often than not marked by pain.
“There is a heroic quality writ large on the mud-spattered faces of every rider”
Stuyven, the man whose bikes we inspected, and whom many expect to fill the void left in Belgian cycling when Tom Boonen retires in April after his final Paris-Roubaix, is just one such example.
So strong in attempting to defend his Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne title a week previously, chasing world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to the finish line, today his visage is one of concentrated suffering.
It’s a difficult day in the saddle for Stuyven, and indeed for many of the Trek-Segafredo team. Crashes and punctures end his chances and those of his co-leader Fabio Felline. From the roadside, the classy red and black kit is easily spotted.
When we stop at a restaurant for lunch, the contrast between pampered spectator and suffering rider is thrown into stark relief. As we return to the van, a battered Gianluca Brambilla rolls past, a livid gash at the top of his left thigh visible through the tattered remains of his Quickstep shorts.
Vincenzo Niabli rolls into the Piazza del Campo some 13 minutes and 38 seconds behind the winner, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), but to the thousands gathered in Siena’s majestic square, this is merely a detail.
Nibali is an Italian and Italy, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion and a rider of such ineffable class his low-key finish to another bruising encounter on the white roads of Tuscany will make little difference to his status among his countrymen.
His elegant red and navy Bahrain-Merida kit is spattered with wet gravel. His face is filthy and his glasses are so defiled by the Tuscan mud that it’s a wonder he can see, but the four-time Grand Tour winner is no stranger to such conditions.
Indeed, Nibali was in pink for that most epic of Tuscan encounters, when the Giro d’Italia rolled through in 2010 and Cadel Evans took a victory to rank alongside any recorded in the rainbow stripes.
Siena’s majestic piazza and its surrounding network of narrow streets throng with thousands of fans: amateurs in town for the following day’s granfondo, young families, old men.
It’s a glimpse of bike racing’s continued importance to Italian culture. The older races are dying out with alarming speed, but there is clearly room for the new, if they are as appealing as the Strade Bianche.
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