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Strade Bianche — cycling’s best new race in a generation — is front and center this weekend to deliver one of the most tantalizing and dynamic days of racing on the men’s international calendar.
What’s not to love? There are the Tuscan hills, arguably cycling’s best finishing stadium in the historic Piazza del Campo in Siena, and more than 60km of its namesake roads.
With the men’s event now in its 16th edition, the 184km course loops up and around some of Italy’s most spectacular backdrops. Vineyards, green hills, ancient farms, and dusty powdery roads with the peloton’s biggest names racing for victory — it’s all straight out of a Fellini film set.
Let’s dive into a quick primer on what to watch Saturday in the men’s race:
Strade Bianche, a race where the course is the star
Much like Paris-Roubaix and its notorious cobbles, the course at Strade Bianche is just as much the star as the marquee names lining up in Siena on Saturday morning.
What makes Strade Bianche so unique is that about one-third of its course is contested over the loose, dusty “white roads” of Tuscany. That’s a lot of gravel and sets up for a race of attrition in what’s one of the spring’s first major dates.
The big draw is the 11 sectors of gravel, called “sterrati” in Italian if you want to impress your coworkers around the copy machine at the office.
These sectors have changed over the years, but the course has settled into a familiar pattern. Much like the numbered sectors of cobbles at Roubaix, these gravel sectors are featured both up and down the steep hills, adding an advantage for anyone with exceptional bike-handling skills.
The gravel comes fast and heavy, with the first sector just 11km into the race. Things get interesting at sector 2, with 5.8km of the white stuff on a climb at 10 percent.
“La Piana” at sector 4 is one of the race’s classic views before the gemstones at the Montalcino climb (4km at 5 percent) and the back-to-back sectors at 5 and 6, with nearly 20km of gravel grinding, with steep climbs and technical descents.
The gravel sectors grow progressively more challenging as the race unfolds, with sector 7 ending atop a twisting climb leading toward the Asciano sector 8, at 11.5km, as one of the most grueling of the race. The Colle Pinzuto at 15 percent grades at sector 10 leads to the final sector coming off a very technical descent.
Of course, the paved sections of road prove just as decisive, and none more than the final wall into Siena.
With grades up to 16 percent, it’s often in the final kilometer where the race is decided. The final wall leads to a quick series of turns and leads the cycling gladiators right into the heart of the Piazza del Campo.
The race is a tactical race of attrition. Flats, crashes, and splits all add up. With such a demanding route, it’s never going to be a reduced bunch sprint. The drama leads to the crowning moment, sometimes just meters before entering the Piazza del Campo.
Just don’t call it a ‘monument’
Nearly everyone loves Strade Bianche. Dubbed the “northern classic set in southern Europe,” the race quickly emerged as a fan and peloton favorite perhaps faster than any new race in recent history.
And some are quick to call it cycling’s “sixth monument.”
There’s been plenty of debate with opinions as varied as Italy’s parliamentary history, and it comes down to a question of semantics or perceived rules. To be a monument, at least by general consensus, a race has to be old, around 250km, and hold a special prestige in the sport.
Of course, no one’s ever said there cannot be more. Yet Strade Bianche doesn’t come close to the 250km threshold, nor is it that old. It packs plenty of prestige.
Nearly everyone agrees it’s an absolutely fantastic race, one that is arguably better and more engaging than a few of the aforementioned monuments. In terms of one-day racing, it is right up there on par with Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
Organizers so far are hesitant to make the race any longer or harder. The profile already is very challenging, with more than 3,000m of vertical climbing, and with about one-third of the course paced on the gravel roads. The route already serves up a sufficient challenge so early in the season.
What would the race gain by adding another 60 to 80km to the course to kick up to “monument” level?
Probably not a lot, because much of that distance would be on pavement, and it might work to stifle the action. All the “good stuff” happens in that magical final hour in the longer monuments, but Strade Bianche often hits out hotter and faster, delivering a more dynamic and entertaining race.
Longer is not always better in bike racing, and the RCS Sport organizers are quick to acknowledge that the race is just fine the way it is.
Most fans couldn’t agree more.
No Wout or ‘MvdP’: A wide-open field
It’s a race that suits many kinds of riders, and even grand tour specialists Egan Bernal and Romain Bardet can hit the podium. It’s the race where Wout van Aert made his name on the road and helped to stake his claim as one of the biggest stars in the peloton.
Mathieu van der Poel shook the earth in 2021 with a stunning victory that seemed to harken a dawn of a new era. Now, 12 months later, “MvdP” won’t even be racing due to nagging back problems. Van Aert is also missing, deciding to taper his form ahead of his monument quest later this spring.
So, it’s a wide-open field with the likes of Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) all starting with pre-race favorites status.
Behind them, there are a whole bunch of other challengers, including Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), two-time winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), and Quinn Simmons (Trek Segafredo) all in the mix.
The race usually delivers a “big” winner, but this year, a lot of big names will be missing. Along with van der Poel and van Aert, two-time runner-up Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) is also giving the white roads a detour.
Who can stop Pogačar? Is Pidcock ready to pop? Maybe the “Durango Kid” will use his mountain bike chops to good use on the gravel? There’s no shortage of storylines.
That means it could be quite the wide-open edition. Check back to VeloNews.com later this week for a full breakdown of the pre-race favorites. VeloNews will also have a full preview of the women’s race.
Weather: Overnight rain with cool temperatures
There won’t be a repeat of October’s muddy hell on wheels race at Paris-Roubaix, but forecasters are calling for showers Friday that could add a slicker twist to Saturday’s racing.
Depending on how much it rains, moisture will knock down some of the dust on the gravel sectors. It’s unlikely there will be any major puddles or wet areas because drainage on the roads is fairly good unless the skies really open up. Damper and perhaps grippier conditions will influence tire selection and pressure, but roads will be slicker if it does rain a lot.
Forecasters are calling for highs in the high 40s and low 50s, with only a decreasing chance of showers across race day. Winds typically kick up in the afternoon, and forecasters are calling for 12 to 15mph winds out of north/northeast, meaning that could be a factor as the route chases back toward Siena in the second half of the race.
The route of #StradeBianche @eolo_it 2022 has been officially confirmed!
The race will start from the Fortezza Medicea in Siena and end in Piazza del Campo in siena , after 184km, 11 sectors and 63km on gravel roads. 🤩 pic.twitter.com/t5A55PDJYW
— Strade Bianche (@StradeBianche) February 16, 2022
Key times: Five hours of intense racing
The rollout on March 5 is about 11:40 a.m. and ends roughly at 4:30 p.m., all CET times, so get up early or sleep in late, depending on where you live.
The race starts and finishes in Siena, and arrives in the heart of the UNESCO-declared, postcard-popping Piazza del Campo.
It’s hard to find a better finishing straight in cycling. Now we just have to find the best aperitivo bar to round out the afternoon.
Check back to VeloNews.com for a full preview of the women’s race as well as full coverage of all the Strade Bianche action this week.