“The Northern Classic in Southern Europe”

sagan-stybar-2015-strade-bianche-siena-cor-vos
The leaders tackle the sterrato last year (Cor Vos)

At least that’s what RCS claims, but is it an accurate comparison?

After the first classics of the season at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the peloton heads south to Italy and the Strade Bianche. It’s a race that feels decades-old but Saturday sees just the tenth edition of the Tuscan classic.

The wording in the title is from the organisers, RCS Sport, as part of the race promotion. Of course every promoter seeks to liven up their press releases and put a positive spin on their offerings. So, I thought I’d take a closer look at the race and see if the comparison to the likes of Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen holds up.

Non-tarmacked roads are a novelty common to all of these races, and realistically the basis of all comparisons between them. Strade Bianche is, of course, known for (and named after) the white gravel roads (sterrato) that make up sections of the course.

These are roads that are unique in the sport, save for the rare occasion they find their way into the parcours of the Giro d’Italia. Brittany’s ribinoù – the dirt farm tracks found at the Tro-Bro Léon – are perhaps the closest analogue in terms of texture and ride-feel.

Certainly riding the sterrato gives a sensation unlike riding on any other road – the contrast between riding the white gravel or normal roads is as stark as the contrast in appearance between them. Two-time winner Fabian Cancellara is in a better position than most to comment, and the Swiss draws an interesting parallel.

“I remember once I came off the road when I punctured in Qatar,” he says. “I ended up riding through the sand there. That’s the kind of sensation you have at Strade Bianche.”

Sienna - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack - Nissan) pictured during Strade Bianche 2012 - Gaiole in Chianti > Siena 190 km - 03/03/2012 - foto RB/Cor Vos ©2012
Cancellara takes his second win in 2012 (Cor Vos)

These are normal roads too, used by all as opposed to the pavé of northern France – the exclusive domain of heavy-duty farm vehicles. As a result, the gravel is ground down into a mixture of sand and small stones – a world away from the bone-aching cobbles seen on the road to Roubaix.

“It’s harder to manoeuvre at Strade Bianche though,” says Cancellara. “Because when you are riding through a lot of gravel it’s very difficult to keep your bike steady.”

There is one similarity in terms of feeling, and that is the age-old law of ‘the faster you go, the smoother it feels’, as the bike almost glides over the harsher bumps. Well, not glide exactly but you get the drift.

Selectivity is of course an important factor in these classics – more specifically the road’s importance in how selective the race can be. At Roubaix, the cobbles are often where the race is won and lost, but here the hills are the main obstacle. In this regard, Strade Bianche has more in common with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, with gradients upwards of 10% the norm.

There are no stand-out climbs in the race yet, nothing to compare with lionised hills like the Koppenberg or Muur anyway. Instead it’s an attritional slog made up of innumerable of small but sharp hills and rises.

But while the north has Roubaix and its fabled and historic velodrome, the Strade Bianche has Siena and the Piazza del Campo. The town’s medieval main square is associated more with the famous Palio horse race than bike racing, but just look at it. That is a fitting end point for any bike race, and is certainly one of the more memorable finishes in the sport.

Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie Vittoria pictured during Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014 - San Giminiano - Siena 200 km - 08/03/2014 - photo Claudio Minardi/Cor Vos © 2014
The Piazza del Campo, Siena (Cor Vos)

But before riders get there they have to put the hard miles in – and this is another instance in which the race bears no comparison to the Northern Classics. While 1.HC races such as this are restricted by UCI rules to 200km, WorldTour one-day races have a freer reign, and so we see the 250-260km norm for De Ronde and Roubaix. This year Strade Bianche is 176km long, so in that respect the races differ massively.

And what does Cancellara think about the Strade Bianche-Roubaix comparison?

“It isn’t similar to Roubaix at all. The gravel doesn’t feel the same,” he says. “There are some parts where the roads are a little fluffy, but the race is a different experience altogether.”

It’s an unequivocal statement from the man who will be riding his last Strade Bianche on Saturday, but just because the races are so different doesn’t lessen the value of the Tuscan classic.

So the promotional spin exists to draw attention to the race and boost the profile, but it has certainly worked. Strade Bianche has risen from 1.1 status to 1.HC and there’s even talk of it moving up to WorldTour next season. The startlist is already of a quality approaching Paris-Roubaix, with stars like Nibali, Van Avermaet, Valverde, Cancellara, Sagan and Kwiatkowski all riding on Saturday.

Probably the most important factor to consider though, is one that all of these races have in common – the excitement. The chaos, crashes, punctures and heavyweight battles right to the final turn of the wheel that characterise the Northern Classics are here too. And ultimately, that’s what it boils down to – it’s we watch bike racing for.


A final note: It looks like we might see the first ever wet Strade Bianche on Saturday, as showers and thunderstorms are likely in the morning and afternoon. We all know how revered a wet Paris-Roubaix is, but if you want a taste of what a wet Strade Bianche could be like, look no further than stage seven of the 2010 Giro d’Italia.

Strade Bianche 2012
The peloton kicking up dust in 2012 (Cor Vos)
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