Throwback Thursday: Strade Bianche and how it became cycling’s first modern masterpiece

No new race on the international calendar in the past 20 years has had as much immediate impact as Strade Bianche. The Italian classic is now in a class of its own.

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Strade Bianche is many things to many people.

And it is really hard to imagine that a race that is less than two decades old has managed to enter the collective imagination of the sport of cycling. But ever since its inception in 2007, the race over the white roads of Tuscany has blossomed like no other. It is a true classic and a near monument.

RCS Sport, the race organizers staged a real coup with Strade Bianche, creating a modern masterpiece and a real “must” for any self-respecting single-day rider.

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The addition of Strade Bianche just before Tirreno-Adriatico also focused the attention of racing in March away from the historic Paris-Nice race and firmly into Italy, as an ever-increasing number of riders prefer to line up for Strade, Tirreno, and then Milano-Sanremo.

The Tour de France may own the month of July, but it’s now obvious that early spring belongs to Italy.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, European editors James Startt and Andrew Hood look at how the Italian race is now an instant classic on the racing calendar.

Strade Bianche is an ‘instant’ classic, what makes the race so special?

Wout van Aert powered to victory in 2020. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

James Startt: Well, it has everything: hard roads, unpredictable weather, all set against the stunning landscape that is Italy’s Tuscany, not to mention its historic finish in the heart of Siena. And then in an uncanny way really, the race was ahead of its time, as it was a real precursor to the gravel movement.

So the race is both ancient and modern in all of the best ways. And the racing is always spectacular. It can produce unlikely heroes like French climber Romain Bardet, who somehow finished second in one of the most grueling editions ever back in 2018, while huge champions like Wout van Aert have literally been brought to their knees. What more can you ask?

Andrew Hood: Strade Bianche is cycling’s first truly modern race.

Many of cycling’s biggest events on the men’s calendar are holdovers and icons from the sport’s deepest roots.

Strade Bianche is unique in that it harkens back to the earliest days of racing in Europe, especially at a time when many of the roads more than a century ago were not paved. And it blends that with a very modern feel, both in its appeal to today’s younger generation and how well RCS Sport has marketed and promoted the race.

It’s truly become a model for how racing can become relevant to a young generation without losing its base among the hardcore fans.

The racing, the backdrop, the demands, and the white roads all add up to something magical. It’s one of the top most-important innovations in men’s racing of the past 20 years, and all of its success is well-deserved.

Gravel is ‘in,’ what’s your take on how it should be incorporated into road races? Does gravel have a place in grand tours or stage races?

The white roads of Tuscany deliver one of modern cycling’s gems. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Hood: I am always torn between adding sectors of gravel or cobbles to a stage race, and the question of whether they “belong” or not.

Typically, those days over the past 10 years or so that have featured cobbles or gravel have produced some dramatic moments. Yet I also get it how teams and riders invest so much into being at their absolute best for a race like the Tour de France that it is almost an insult to the athlete and the sacrifices made across an organization.

Millions of dollars are put into signing, prepping, training, coaching, and building up for the Tour. Is it fair that a few sectors of cobbles or gravel could ruin all of that investment in an instant for, let’s admit it, are some pretty cheap thrills?

On the other hand, I also understand that a bike rider, especially a Tour de France winner, should be the best cyclist in the bunch. And that means being able to hand everything that’s thrown at them.

Though I haven’t studied it in depth, anecdotally it seems that relatively few big-name riders get whacked in some of these cobbles or gravel sectors. Yet plenty have been eliminated by splits in the bunch caused by crosswinds, or by high-speed crashes on poorly designed finales. So where do you draw the line?

As a fan, I love seeing riders taking on different road surfaces and challenges. I can also understand how team managers and sport directors lose sleep over it at night.

Startt: Yes, and especially if it is a natural part of the landscape of the race. I always love when the Tour de France includes a cobblestone stage when racing through the north of the country.

Some complain and say that cobbles don’t belong in the grand tours, but who ever said that a grand tour should just be decided on the time trials and climbs? And so if a race goes into an area where there are a lot of gravel roads then yes those roads are fair game for the race organizers.

Some call Strade Bianche cycling’s ‘sixth’ monument, is it at that level? Or will it ever be?

Julian Alaphilippe, a winner in 2019, will be a favorite Saturday.

Startt: That’s a good question and hard to answer. In some ways it almost is. And it has been incredible to see the prestige of the race grow. Today a rider that wins Strade has clearly added a very huge victory to their career.

But to call a race that is not even 200 kilometers long a monument doesn’t really add up, as distance is always an important ingredient in the historic monuments. That said, the race doesn’t need to be any longer, and if it was 250 kilometers there probably wouldn’t be a single rider left standing.

And yet, the fact that it is so much shorter, makes it hard to identify it as a true monument. And to be honest I don’t think a single rider in the world would trade a victory in Sanremo, Flanders or Roubaix for a victory in Strade.

Hood: Strade Bianche isn’t a monument, and never will be. Is it a great race? Absolutely.

Monument status, at least by the conventional wisdom in the bunch, is reserved for older races (all five are more than a century old) and long-distance races (all five also hit or come close to 250km or more).

What makes monument-style racing so intriguing is what happens in that “magical” sixth hour, when there are more than 200km in the legs, and everything is on the line.

Strade Bianche doesn’t hit any of those thresholds. And RCS Sport is smart to keep the race just the way it is. The relatively shorter distance is what helps make Strade Bianche such a wild and explosive race. Add 75km to the race, and it’s likely going to be a much more controlled and less explosive race.

Monuments are monuments, and Strade Bianche, at least right now, is in a class of its own.

Philippe Gilbert, shown here in 2020, will be skipping what would be his final Strade Bianche. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

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