Ask The Dust: On the ground at Strade Bianche

I knew that this year’s race would be like no other. I didn’t know what to expect, but still somehow, I expected greatness. I did not leave disappointed.

Photo: James Startt

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It is safe to say that American writer John Fante is better known to the European audience than to his native audience. His succinct prose is easily translatable and his countless stories like Ask The Dust, recounting the son of an Italian immigrant’s quest for literary fame are full of irony and wit. I am not sure that Fante actually spent any time in Italy, but I couldn’t help think of him and his masterpiece this weekend as I ventured to Siena to experience my first Strade Bianche. And it was not the magnificent medieval city of Siena that called to mind Fante, but rather my day in the dust.

For years I have dreamed of covering this race in the springtime, but my schedule and commitments forced me to be at Paris-Nice. This year, however, was different, as the calendar was significantly reshuffled due to the coronavirus crisis. That said, I knew that this year’s race would be like no other. I didn’t know what to expect, but still somehow, I expected greatness. I did not leave disappointed.

Wout van Aert meters from his 2020 Strade win. Photo: James Startt

For anyone who has visited Siena in the summer, they know that the annual Palio is central to the city and its history. Going back to medieval times, the festival horse race has run in the central Piazza del Campo. It is a timeless event that unites the city.

This year, however, it was canceled due to the COVID-19. But as a result of extraordinary efforts by the city, as well as the U.C.I., this year’s Strade still managed to finish on the Piazzo del Campo. And perhaps, in its own small way, it gave the people here something to cheer about.

The Strade itself, was one of the first races canceled last March as COVID-19 swept across much of Europe. And so it was perhaps only fitting that it kicked off the World Tour calendar on August 1.

But everybody knew that it would be a very different race. While the Strade is known for its epic conditions, they are usually the snow, rain, and freezing temperatures that can hit Tuscany in the springtime. This year’s edition was epic due firstly to the soaring temperatures, and the sunbaked, dry, dusty roads filled with loose gravel. That coupled with the fact that so many riders were coming into the race uncertain of their true condition after months away from racing, produced countless surprises.

The white dust of the Strade Bianche.
The white dust of the Strade Bianche. Photo: James Startt

The mood at the start was surprisingly calm. There were virtually no fans and media had no access to riders as a result of the many sanitary measures put in place. Call it the calm before the storm if you will, it was a start like no other, as riders rolled up to sign-in with face masks, void of cheering fans.

But once out on the road, it was clear that this would be a special day. On years when the sun shines on the Strade, one is immediately impressed by the sheer amount of dust the event can produce as it races over more than 60 kilometers of its trademark white dirt roads. But it is simply mind-bending how much dust is produced in the middle of summer in Tuscany.

“Filthy, unbelievably hot. Just baking hot,” American Brent Bookwalter said after the race. “It was madness on the sectors!” But Bookwalter, who finished seventh at the age of 36 was one of the success stories. There were many defeats.

As the pack raced from one section to another it splintered relentlessly. I often assumed that the dirt roads here were in some way comparable to the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix. Not as immediately treacherous, they are often considerably longer, and possess a brutality all their own. And I saw just how lethal they could be on the 9.5-kilometer section of San Martino in Grania.

Peter Sagan at the 2020 Strade Bianche
Peter Sagan at the 2020 Strade Bianche. Photo: James Startt

Although we were still very much at the mid-way point in the race, the pack was reduced to perhaps 25 riders at best. Behind them — well behind — came some of the world’s best classics riders like Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert, both riding at a virtual standstill, clearly empty. Nearly seventy kilometers of racing still remained.

Driving back to Siena to position myself on the final climb, I listened to the radio and got updates from colleagues watching the race live as the Strade continued to shatter as eventual winner Wout Van Aert increasingly put pressure on all rivals.

I waited for him as he approached the town and the devasting final climb up the via Santa Caterina. Because of potential security issues, we actually left the race early to position ourselves on the climb, and I have images of the climb packed with crowds in years past. But this year the final climb, the impressive wall with its 16 percent pitches, was void of any public, as local authorities closed the street off for the entire day. No, on this day, as Van Aert approached, there were no fans, only the gold stucco facades of the houses lining the street—that and the long extension of barriers.

As Van Aert came into view at the bottom of this 500-meter wall I could not help but think of how he struggled up just two years ago, literally falling off his bike as a result of extreme cramping. But as he threw his bike back and forth making his way up this year, it was clear that this was a very different Van Aert. He had no fans to encourage him, but I can only imagine that he found inspiring knowing that, with each pedal stroke, he was putting the memories of his struggle here two years ago, not to mention his horrific crash in the Tour de France last summer, well behind him.

Van Aert finally topped the podium at the Strade Bianche after two third-place finishes.
Van Aert finally topped the podium at the Strade Bianche after two third-place finishes. Photo: James Startt

As he crested the climb and made his way to the finish at the Piazza del Campo, I watched as countless riders finished behind him, all in various states of exhaustion. Defending champion Julian Alaphilippe cruised in over 15 minutes behind. But then the Strade Bianche is like that. Like Paris-Roubaix, it is one of the few races that riders respect so much, that simply finishing is an honor.

In the end, I don’t know if this year’s race was a true success or not. For the people of Siena, there must be at least a hint of frustration as they were not allowed on the final climb or in the Piazza del Campo. But for those of us out on the race route, it was a tremendous success. Why exactly I don’t know. Just ask the dust!

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