After a couple of years of monthly savings and Covid delaying the trip Jeroen and I (with wives for moral support) were finally getting to go to ride Strada Bianchi in Italy. It is quite a new pro race but has quickly gained a reputation that many think it should become cycling’s next monument race due to the course across the white roads (Strada Bianchi).
We flew into Rome and briefly met 3 other people from Edinburgh also heading to the start at Sienna also waiting for their bikes in the airport. After bikes appeared (Apple Airtag in bike bag takes away the worry) we went to get our hire car. No sign of the Skoda Superb we booked that we knew would fit the bike bags and instead a far smaller estate that wouldn’t fit them was all available. The other 3 guys from the airport appeared and told us they’d booked a van and offered to take our bikes for us. So Jeroen and I put our bikes and all our kit into some strangers van we only met 10 minutes ago and hoped we’d see them again in a few hours!
We arrived in Siena which sits on the top of a hill, which you can’t bring a car into, and parked the car.
After a walk up a hill with the bags we got to multiple escalators that take you up the final climb into the town centre and to our apartment. We had no bikes yet but thought we may as well get registration completed and see Siena.
Siena is one of the most scenic and amazing places with narrow cobbled streets, steep hills in most directions and the famous Il Campo plaza where the race would finish. If you get the chance you should go….and can do a bike race while you’re there.
After completing registration (and getting our free Sportful SB cycle jersey all included for €80 entry) we got a text from the guys driving the van they’d arrived and so we met them, and we were ready for Sunday. With the promise of buying them beers after the race on Sunday for their help we went to get the first pizza of the weekend 😊
Saturday was the day for the pro races so we went for breakfast and then to the start of the women’s race.
After watching them head off on the course we would ride the next day we went for a short ride and a recce of the final climb up the iconic climb into Siena. Seemed quite simple when we were fresh.
Back to the start line and watch the Men’s pro race leave before some lunch and chilling for the afternoon. We should have chilled but Jeroen decided he needed some alternative kit for our event as what he had brought would be too warm for the predicted weather. We walked back to the start village where every long sleeve jersey was sold out so he’d have to wear what he brought. In a few hours once the sun disappeared again that would be the sensible choice anyway as even though it looks like warm blue skies on TV with the pro’s in short sleeves it’s actually very cold and we aren’t going fast enough for shorts!
We went back to Il Campo Plaza to watch the end of the brilliant Women’s race before some more chilling out and watching Pogacar dominate the Men’s race.
Sunday morning and it was our turn with 6000 other people at the start line. No debate about clothes (it was cold), bikes had arrived and were good to go. Originally the course had been 130km with 32km of gravel white roads but a couple of weeks earlier they announced it would be 142km with 55km of gravel. What seemed like a race you could “blag” through with limited training for the time of year became a bit more of a worrying prospect but no going back now, we’d just have to be careful on the pacing, at which point you head down the hill out of Siena at 70km/hr in a melee of riders!
I’d made reminder notes for my top tube of all the gravel sections and we only had a couple of km’s to go until the 1st one when another rider pointed to my front bottle cage which was rattling around. A quick stop to tighten it and we kept going which was quite lucky as we were soon to see bottles strewn across the gravel.
We hit the first section of gravel which was only 2km long and quite flat. After a lot of research, I’d gone with 28mm road tyres (80psi) and would now find out how they worked and if they would work. All was good and the bike felt easy to control and no punctures. This should be easy!
That was the last time for the day thinking it would be easy. The gravel itself is not too hard the problem is the hills where the gravel roads take you. These are just farm tracks allowing the farmer to access his land. In section 2 (5.8km) we found out the reality, short steep climbs that normally go above 15% and this is what it would be like for the rest of the ride. There are no easy flat sections where you ride in a peloton, you’re on your own all day even if surrounded by people.
What makes the whole ride so special though is the Tuscany countryside you are passing through. With the white roads stretching into the distance and the dust kicked up by the bikes it is dramatic. It is also a constant reminder of what is coming next in the distance.
By the time we got to the 1st feed stop at 73km we were making good time and had done some long gravel sections. We were beginning to feel more confident about the whole ride. The hardest sections in places were actually the steep descents on the gravel where you knew you had to not brake and let the bike flow but it’s not so easy to do when a 90-degree bend of loose gravel is at the bottom of the hill.
As we went through sector 7, the longest one at 11.5km, I saw someone fall off their bike on a steep hill for the first time. They stood up on their pedals to get up the hill and their back wheel slipped away making them fall straight off on top of the photographer at the side of the road. It wouldn’t be the last time we’d see someone’s legs just give way and watch them fall sideways. What I didn’t realise was someone else watching the crash had not been paying attention behind me and forced Jeroen off the road. As I didn’t want to stop and let the people I’d just overtaken weaving up the hill get passed again I kept riding and then met him at the end of the section. I also met Jamie, one of the guys from the van and had a chat with him for a couple of km’s and it turned out he used to work with Colin in the club, small world! We thought with only 40km to go and 3 small gravel sections that the ride was now in the bag. Only Linlithgow loop to go we thought, how wrong.
The road was unrelenting with continual steep climbs and in each gravel section the hills seemed steeper again. From about 30km to go my left hamstring started cramping on each climb and it was a relief to get to the last feed stop at 120km and get some Coke and food.
Onto the final gravel section, only 1.1km but cruelly you drop down a very steep hill just to go up again at the other side.
Finally, we got to the 10km to go sign and could see Siena again. You arrive back via a more modern ugly suburb we climbed up to the outskirts of the old town walls before descending back down to the other side lining up for the final iconic climb of the race. The climb gradually rises up one of Siena’s cobbled streets before ramping up sharply for the last 100m. With crowds cheering at the side of the street I didn’t want to be one of the people who just fell over. With about 30m to go you hit the final steepest part and to shouts of “Forza” it was soon all over. The day before on the recce it had seemed quite easy though at the end of 3000m of climbing it was a different challenge and makes you appreciate just how strong the pro’s are that attack on this part of the course.
It was then a few hundred metres through the narrow streets and barriers back into Il Campo Plaza to cross the finish line together. We had taken about an hour longer than we expected and were informed by Kirst and Fran it was far livelier if we had got back quicker!
Due to my personal challenge to run at least 15mins every day of 2022, I still had to get my run done. A very slow shuffle from the flat back through the square and there were still riders coming through the finish line after the cut-off time at 3pm. The finish line was barriered off so they couldn’t get a time but someone was still there amongst all the barriers being taken down to hand them their medals.
We met up with the 3 guys from Edinburgh in the plaza in the evening for the beers we promised them to find out 2 of them had missed the cut off time but all had enjoyed the race. Then on to an Italian restaurant to finish off a great day.