The racers' race

We’re ready to ride into history at Strade Bianche

March 2, 2023

Strade Bianche is a modern classic that harkens back to cycling’s golden age.

Watch the peloton race through clouds of white dust or mud in the hilly vineyards of Chianti, and you might think the contest is a century old. In truth, Strade Bianche wasn’t founded until 2007 and didn’t become a WorldTour race until 2017, though its home, Tuscany, has long been a heartland of Italian cycling. On the first weekend in March, the region’s white gravel roads return to being one of bike racing’s most beautiful arenas. Before Unbound, before SBT GRVL, before the gravel world champs, Italy’s early bike racing heroes inspired their country people with their feats on Tuscan dirt.

This Saturday, Andrey Amador, Alberto Bettiol, Mikkel Honoré, Jens Keukeleire, Sean Quinn, James Shaw, and Julius van den Berg will race to write their names into the great history of Italian bike racing. Victory on Siena’s Piazza del Campo, after climbing the concrete ramps of the Via Santa Caterina, walled by thousands of cheering Italian fans, would mean as much to our riders as a win in the oldest Monuments, especially for our Tuscan, Alberto Bettiol, who grew up with the race.

“I used to go watch this race when I was a kid,” Alberto says. “I saw the first edition. I saw all of the victories of Cancellara. Strade Bianche is like a jump back in the past. Back in the 40s, the 50s, Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Costante Giradengo used to race on gravel roads. That is why people love this race. In the past we had Gino Bartali, Paolo Bettini, Michele Bartoli, Andrea Tafi. The best cyclists in Italy came from Tuscany. I am a little part of this world, this landscape, this territory. Cycling is really common in Tuscany, because it is so beautiful, not only for racing, but just for fun, for travelling.”

Alberto’s closest fans will come out to cheer him on Saturday.

“I want to win for them, for the people who can only see me at Strade Bianche,” Alberto says. “I live close to Siena. I was born in the province. I grew up really close to Strade Bianche. It is my home race. All of my supporters, my fans will be there. I will see my family, my girlfriend, my friends, the people who support me and can only see me here in Siena. It is a unique opportunity for me and for them.”

The enthusiasm of Italian cycling fans isn’t reserved for Italians.

“They are very passionate,” says our Danish sports director Matti Breschel. “And they love their bike riders. They love their legends. If you are a bike rider and you live in Italy, you’re treated specially. That’s kind of the culture. It’s so rooted deep inside of them, ever since the whole Coppi and Bartali era. They really adore their heroes.”

Matti’s fellow Dane Mikkel Honoré found love in Italy. His wife is Italian. Her mom will cover Strade Bianche as a journalist for an Italian newspaper and her dad will be in the race caravan, dictating the events of the day to the sports directors over radio tour, while Mikkel races to the front of the peloton.

“For me, having an Italian wife, and spending so much of my life in Italy, Strade Bianche is a unique race,” Mikkel says. “It is the first big race of the Italian classics and the spring. The atmosphere is just super unique. You already have the feeling when you do the recon that it is just that time of the year. It is always a little bit chilly and there is a special kind of air and just the scenery itself is so beautiful. That makes it unique for me. Every region in Italy is beautiful on its own, but Tuscany especially, with its great olive oil, with its wine, with its food—it is always a nice place to ride your bike.”

It is—next time, you should come ride the gran fondo with us—but come race day, Tuscany’s white gravel roads are ferocious. From the start, there is a huge fight for position, as the first sector of gravel comes just 18 kilometres into the race. If it’s windy, the peloton could split at any moment, so riders take great risks to stay at the front. That means crashes, especially on the first unpaved roads, as riders skid around corners and have to bunny hop gullies that rainwater has riven into the dirt. The climbs are steep and come one after the other. Cypress trees and the odd castle or villa provide little shelter. If they lose traction for half a second on the loose gravel, riders have to fight hard to close the gap to the wheel in front of them.

"“It is pretty wild,” says Matti Breschel. “The first sector starts early and the race distance is quite short. It is not more than 186 kilometres, so already from the first sector till the end it is wild, and the climbing is brutal, especially because of the gravel, with gradients up to 20%. The whole run in towards Siena makes you feel a little bit like you are a gladiator.”

Mikkel Honoré loves the intensity of the race.

“Even if you are second or third or fourth wheel, you have to hope that everybody handles their bike and nobody is braking too hard or doing a strange move, because you don’t have much margin of error on the roads,” he says. “It is that technical part which I really like on the bike. You go into gravel sector after gravel sector and it is full-gas racing in between. It just goes so quick and is so hectic and beautiful at the same time."

Mikkel and Alberto will lead our team at Strade Bianche, while Sean Quinn will have a free role.

“I hope to be up there in the finale to be in play for the fun part of the race,” Mikkel says. “I think we have got a really strong team. It is also a race that suits me well, so I hope I can be there in the finale to be ready to make a difference so we can win the race.”

Alberto is excited. He is ready to go all-in in front of his home crowd.

“I know this race really, really well,” he says. “We have a good team. I am ambitious, though I know it is going to be really competitive. All of the best riders want to do Strade Bianche. It's a race that fits pure climbers, classic riders, and Ardennes-type riders. You have to go deep, because the race explodes pretty early. I trained well and am happy with how everything is going. I started the season really well. I went to altitude. I am healthy. I am motivated, so let’s see what happens.”

Sports director Matti Breschel won’t temper our ambitions. He knows how hard Strade Bianche is going to be. To win, we’ll need to race with intelligence and grit and be creative, but Matti believes in our riders.

“The aim is to win it,” Matti says. “That is going to be difficult. We are up against some world-class bike riders, so we need to ride as a team and kind of use the other riders and take advantage of their mistakes. It is going to be super, super difficult, but I don’t want to make a strategy or a tactic around top-ten, because we have quality riders too. Once you hit those gravel sectors, you have to be in the front, but it is always a balance between being up there and saving energy. That is why we need the whole team to ride together. And then, with 80 kilometers to go, it will be up to the leaders. From there on in, it is a matter of legs and using your head. But it is also the desire. You need the desire to win it.”

Alberto and Mikkel have that desire. They want to write their names into the history books at Strade Bianche.

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