2021 Strade Bianche Race Preview: It’s not Paris-Roubaix, but the Strade Bianche has its own uniqueness, the Tuscan race may not be a Monument (yet), but it is a Classic of nail-biting proportions. Ed Hood takes his look at the Italian ‘White Roads’ race.
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Some say it should be branded a ‘Monument?’
I say we should wait another 80 or 90 years before we do that; but there’s little doubt that for a newcomer to the European race family – this will be edition 15 – the Strade Bianche has captured the imagination of the tifosi, media and riders – a highly desirable addition to the palmarès. And despite the best efforts of Sen. Covid, the race will run this Saturday – but sadly, minus the tifosi in an area where tight restrictions are in effect for the public.
Piazza del Campo, Siena
Where is it?
In Tuscany, finishing in beautiful Siena, a medieval hilltop town famous for the, twice annually ‘Palio of Siena’ horse race around the Campo where the race finishes. Short, frantic and fast, over in just 90 seconds, its roots go back to the 1644 and the competition between the 10 ‘contrade’ or city wards attracts huge crowds – but perhaps not this year?
Thanks to the Etruscans
What’s with the ‘white roads?’
Tuscany was the hub of the ancient, very advanced Etruscan civilisation – as in the late lamented GP della Costa Etruschi which used to be the traditional Italian season-opener. The Etruscans, some 800 years before the birth of Christ discovered alabaster, a mineral or rock which is soft, used for carving, and is processed for plaster powder. It’s the alabaster in the soil which gives the dust its distinctive white colour.
The Siena white dust
Dirt roads, so it’s like Paris-Roubaix?
No, definitely not. There ain’t no hills in Paris-Roubaix but there certainly are in the Strade Bianche, with some of them lengthy and on the dirt. The race distance is 184 kilometres with 11 sectors of dirt totalling 63 kilometres.
Rubens Bertogliati in the 2011 Strade Bianche
What’s it like to ride?
A year or two ago I spoke to former Tour de France yellow jersey holder, Rubens Bertogliati about riding on that white dirt; ‘In the corners you must be really careful, always using the rear brake and not the front one, it’s very dangerous to attempt front wheel braking – very easy to end up on the dirt.’ Rubens also told me that some think it’s better to ride the race in the wet, in those circumstances the surfaces are easier to read.
What about that finish through those little alleys?
Rubens told me; ‘It’s not so much dangerous as hard; the last 300 metres are very bumpy but there are no big groups coming in together which would make it risky, you’re finishing in small groups.’
Fabian Cancellara in a year he didn’t win – 2010
Who’s the race ‘Recordman?’
Switzerland’s reigning Olympic Time Trial Champion, Fabian Cancellara on three wins, 2008, 2012 and 2016. Brute strength means a lot in this race. The only other rider to win more than twice is Poland’s former World Road Race Champion, Michal Kwiatkowski in 2014 and 2017 but it’s unlikely he can make it three.
Who are the favourites – and why?
My PEZ compañero, Chuck Peña sees it this way and I think he’s not far wrong:
Seeing the rainbow jersey emerging through the dust of Siena would be stunning
‘Lou Lou?’ I guess that’s Julian Alaphilippe then? – Jeez! I hate those French rider nick names. . . But the Frenchman is flying, witness his ride in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where he sacrificed himself for his young Italian, Deceuninck team mate Ballerini. And remember too, the Tour de La Provence where he was duelling with some of the world’s best climbers – and the fact that he won the Strade Bianche in 2019. The joint five star fave in my book.
Wout Van Aert – Good bet
Wout Van Aert (Belgium & Team Jumbo Visma) won the race last year and is three times a World Cyclo-cross Champion in a race where bike handling is paramount. And as a Belgian, he grew up riding sand ‘cross courses so alabaster dust holds no fears for him. This will be his first ‘road’ race of the year but that will be no handicap. Four-and-a-half stars, I say.
MvdP – Top favourite?
There’s a school of thought says that Dutchman Mathieu Van Der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) went up the road with 80K to go in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne as a final killer work-out for the Strade. Remember that Kuurne is prestigious but ‘only’ UCi 1.Pro whilst the Strade is World Tour and a win there would generate so much more publicity. And I hardly need remind you that he’s reigning World Cyclo-cross Champion. . . Joint five star fave for me.
Tom Pidcock doesn’t mind getting dirty
Tom Pidcock (INEOS-Grenadiers & GB) doesn’t fit the image of a bestial ‘Classicer,’ at 1.57 m and 58 kilograms but the way he closed gaps in Het Nieuwsblad and then made the podium at Kuurne spoke volumes for his class and grinta. Again, a top ‘crosser and one of the few to have beaten Wout and Mathieu in the mud. I rate him four stars.
Mike Wood should be in Tuscany
Mike Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation & Canada) wasn’t on the start sheet I saw as we went to press – it was a tad threadbare as teams ponder final line-ups – but if I was the Israeli team I think I’d have him there. He displayed excellent form in the Tour des Alpes Maritime et du Var and the hilly Tuscan parcours would suit him.
Tour winner on the ‘White Roads’
Who else is there?
Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates & Slovenia) is flying, witness his recent win in his team’s home tour. The 22 year-old – hard to believe but true – is one of the new breed along with Wout and Mathieu who can do it all – climb, sprint, time trial and he’s a very capable bike handler. The lead group would do well not to allow him any daylight. And best not forget his team mate and 2020 Strade runner-up, Davide Formolo, giving the men in white two hands to play.
Alberto Bettiol – Better luck in 2021
EF Education-Nippo will surely field Home Boy, 2019 Flanders winner and fourth here last year, Alberto Bettiol?
Jakob Fuglsang will be up there
Astana-Premier Tech, have ‘Danish Dynamite’ – sorry it’s those six day announcers that have put that cliché in my head when talking about Michael Mørkøv – double Monument winner, Jakob Fuglsang who was fifth here last year.
The first Strade Bianche winner, Alexandr Kolobnev was no slouch
What about outsiders?
Doubtful, back in the early days of the race a decade ago, perhaps – but not now, it’s too big, too prestigious and the Great Whites of the peloton will be in a feeding frenzy.
Mathieu’s form isn’t too shabby at the moment
One set of initials?
# Stay PEZ for more pre-Strade Bianche news in EUROTRASH and the PEZ race report on Saturday. #