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True Grit: Wheelers at Strade Bianche

Considered by many as the unofficial sixth monument, Strade Bianche is undoubtably one of the epic one day races in the calendar. The 18th edition on the 2nd March once again stirred up the “should it be a monument?” debate, especially with the addition of two new gravel sectors, bringing it to over 200km for the first time in its history. Although the sportive ‘only’ covers 140km, the Wheelers who ventured out to tackle the white roads returned ‘monument conquerers’ in our eyes. Tom Kennett reports back from their Tuscan odyssey.

No doubt most people reading this will be familiar with the Strade Bianche, one of the early highlights of any cycling season. Set within the Tuscan hills around Siena, the race is famous for the unpaved white roads which give it its name. The race usually takes place on the first Saturday in March, while the Gran Fondo (open to amateur riders) takes place on the Sunday.

This year a cohort of Wheelers made the trip out, organised by Will Rostron (indeed a veteran of the Strade, having ridden multiple times previously), and I cannot state enough how excellent a job he did herding all of us and going above and beyond in organising logistics.

Travelling on the Friday, we then built up bikes and went for a little ride on the Saturday morning. Despite repeated warnings of rain we were incredibly lucky, with the sun shining while we watched the Men’s race ride on to the first sector. This was an absolute highlight of the trip, as you’ll see from my delight below!

We had actually just ridden this first sector a few minutes previously, and this was key in my own preparation as it would confirm whether or not my choice of a normal road bike with 28 tyres was a howler or not. Luckily, while this first one is easy, it felt easy – indeed, it reminded me a lot of some of the smaller roads in Surrey (and I genuinely say that without irony). I would probably ride again with the same setup, although I did see people riding on everything from hardcore MTBs to deep section aero bikes.

After the race had passed through we then rode up into Siena to sign on for the Sunday, and while we were there we were able to see the finish of the women’s race (the one point where we did get heavily rained on). After this we then enjoyed an afternoon with a few refreshments, before literally being able to step out of the bar and watch Tadej Pogacar put the finishing touch on a dominant performance – before the rest of the riders rode on in ones and twos.

So, to the main event itself. Due to a relatively late sign up I was very far back in the field, while most of the other Wheelers were further ahead. I have to admit, the mostly downhill and then flat first 25km or so was pretty interesting at times, reminding me of some of the more interesting riding seen in Ride London, with riders chopping in left, right, and centre. After this however the hills started to string the field out, and it became much easier to put the power down.

I can only tell my own story, but while the first leg had been ridden as easy as I could, I took the second third of the race on what at least to me was full pelt. Having been incredibly nervous of these sectors 36 hours previously, at one point I found myself taking turns in a strong 3-up with a couple of giant Belgians going well over 45kph on the gravel, which was slightly wild but great fun. There were, inevitably, a few crashes which one could see the aftermath of, and these served as useful reminders to maybe rein it in a little and reduce the risks.

Right before the (very welcome) second feed stop I felt the telltale twinges of cramp, and at this point backed off my effort and took on as much salt and food as I could. It was here that I caught up with numerous other wheelers, and seemingly also went past a stranded Neil Grunshaw (whose story of haggling over an inner tube has to be heard to be believed). At this point, 60% into the course, most of the gravel sectors are done and instead you’re on to a constant series of undulations, much of which reminded me of riding in Kent (with maybe slightly better road surfaces).

The beauty of the Strade Bianche GF is that, at 140km long and with no climbs longer than 4km, it seldom feels particularly like a slog – by the time I had started to feel ready for a beer and some pizza, I was approaching the final 10km. After the finishing loop around Siena, I had a chance to take on the iconic Santa Caterina finishing climb, which as a Hill Climber I was absolutely relishing – fortunately I just about had a clear run, though the volume of people at the top did nearly cause me to grind to a halt!

Shortly after this I reached the finish line, finishing the event just inside the 5 hour marker. It wasn’t long before the rest of the Wheelers started to arrive, and not before time – as we were enjoying a refreshment inside a marquee, a brutal hailstorm ripped open and I felt incredibly sorry for those who were out there. We did, however, all finish – which in itself felt something like a victory, given how treacherous the terrain was at times.

As mentioned, we got incredibly lucky with the weather – across the four day weekend it rained more than it didn’t, and yet across the ten hours or so of riding that we got in, we stayed pretty dry.

It was a brilliant weekend; I can’t think of too many events that combine the beauty of a city such as Siena, two pro bike races attracting plenty of the world’s best riders and then a challenging – but achievable – gran fondo (as well as the food and drink Italy has to offer). I would absolutely recommend it and indeed plan on going again one day.