Cycling's modern monument
EF Education-EasyPost returns to Tuscany for the Strade Bianche
The Strade Bianche is a modern monument.
When you watch the peloton storm over the white, cypress-lined roads that cross the vineyards and olive groves of rural Tuscany and hear the Italian fans roar when the leaders enter Siena for the steep sprint onto the Piazza del Campo, it can seem like an ancient contest. The race hearkens back to a golden age of cycling, when the likes of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali captured millions of Italian imaginations with their heroic exploits on heavy steel bikes. That the Strade Bianche was only founded in 2007, when the organisers of L’Eroica retro sportif decided to hold a professional race to complement their event, doesn’t matter. The Strade Bianche has become one of the most sought-after races on the calendar.
"To win this race, you have to be such a complete rider."
EF Education-EasyPost captain Michael Valgren loves it. He has raced the Strade Bianche three times in the past and always had bad luck. Still, it keeps drawing him back.
“I have always felt really good on the gravel sections,” he says. “To win this race, you have to be such a complete rider. That is what I really like about it. There’s never a surprise winner. It’s going to be a good bike rider who wins this race.”
On Saturday, our team will be able to employ a three-pronged attack.
“Ruben Guerreiro is going really well,” Michael says. “We will be the leaders from the beginning, but I saw during the recon that Jonathan Caceido also looks very, very strong, so we have three dark horses, and then we have a really strong team behind us.”
Neo-pro Marijn van den Berg is excited and a little nervous ahead of the start of his first Strade Bianche. He has had a strong early season, but the twisty dirt roads around Siena will be a lot trickier to navigate than the highways he raced over at the UAE Tour.
“This will be the biggest race that I have done so far, and I hope I can just help the team,” he says. “It will be up and down all day long, with no flat at all. In the pro peloton nobody gives anyone a centimetre, and it can be a little bit stressful. We will make a good race, and I will see how far I can get.”
Classics specialist Tom Scully will be doing the race for the first time too, but he already feels at home in Tuscany.
“It’s just like a postcard, but in real life—the Italians have given us a warm welcome here at our hotel,” he says. “It is going to be a big day for us on Saturday. You mention gravel, and everybody gets a little bit excited, but if you mention gravel to 170-odd professional cyclists, we all get really excited. We’ll enjoy the racing, but it’s not going to be an easy roll.”
Ben Healy got called up to do the race after his stellar performance in Belgium on Opening Weekend, where he made the break both days.
“That was pretty awesome,” the twenty-one-year-old Irishman says. “On the Leberg and the Wolvenberg, the crowds were deafening. To be in that lead group was quite surreal. It was a really good feeling. We’ll see how I’ve recovered from last weekend, but I don’t see why I can’t be going well!”
He and his teammates will have to be going well, because the Strade Bianche is relentless. The race is 184 kilometres long with 63 kilometres on white gravel roads, which buck and pitch through the Tuscan hills. In the finale, the climbs come thick and fast, and there is hardly a moment for the riders to catch their breath, especially if the wind is blowing and they have to watch out for echelons.
“If someone were to kick it off at 110 kilometres, it would just be flat-stick lined out to the finish, because of the parcours,” Ben says.
Michael Valgren agrees.
“The last two and a half hours, you really have to be in the front, and maybe take a risk to get in front of the big favourites,” he says. “We will make our move when it makes sense.”
No matter what, the riders will be greeted by a great roar when they return to Siena for the finish.
“Tuscany is the epicentre of world cycling,” says EF Education-EasyPost director Matti Breschel. “There is so much history here, and the organisers were inspired by that when they founded the race. It’s beautiful here, with the food, the culture, the fans, the gravel roads. It’s always a special feeling to finish in Siena on the Piazza del Campo.”