Riding the Strade Bianche Grand Fondo 2017

Suddenly the tarmac ends. Gravel pings from beneath tyres. The white limestone paste is kicked up by wheels; hitting shins, feet and back-side. Your grip tightens on the hoods; riders swerve around potholes and large stones in front.

Benvenuto a Strade Bianche…

Torrential Tuscany

In the weeks before an event I often find myself scanning the local weather forecast; trying to decide on kit, and crossing my fingers for good weather.

The forecast for the historic Italian city of Siena seemed to deteriorate every time I checked it though; starting with 'occasional rain showers', it evolved into 'thunderstorms and heavy rain' by the day before the event.

Welcome to Flanders, in Tuscany. This was going to be a true 'Spring Classic'.

Kitting up

After watching Elisa Longo Borghini solo to victory for Wiggle High5 on the Saturday, and then standing on the finish line for the men's race a few hours later, I gained an idea of what was to come… there would be no dust on the Strade Bianche (White Roads) this spring; we were in for a whole new level of skin whitening.

Given the forecast, my kit choice was predominately the Fiandre range from Sportful: with their NoRain Leg Warmers and Arm Warmers, and their Fiandre Light NoRain Bib Shorts providing protection from the spray; then the Sportful WS LRR Jacket covering my core. My extremities were protected with GripGrab's Neoprene Gloves and RaceAqua Overshoes. Finally, I had a Gore Bike Wear ONE 1985 ShakeDry Jacket stuffed in my pocket, for serious waterproof back-up.

Time to head into the elements…

The Ride

The 25 kilometres from our hotel to the start-line set expectations; water runs off every surface of my body, as I shuffle into the starting pen with the 2,000 other intrepid riders.

Descending out of Siena, the spray from our peloton is thrown high into the air. Blending with the rain from above, it creates a powerful 360-degree jet wash.

The route twists and turns into the Tuscany countryside. The conga line of riders presenting thousands of concentrated and determined faces.

Then we hit the first of the Strade Segmenti…

Tyres squirm, faces contort, grips tighten. The white paste is thrown up onto every surface of bike and body; creating a peloton of face-painted ghosts.

My hands click down a gear; move to tops, and loosen their grip - allowing the bike to move beneath me. Ride out the Segmenti. Ride out the storm.

Hours tick past. The gravel segments are interspersed with long tarmac drags, in the strong wind. The relatively clean road spray rinses away the Bianche paste; before the next section of gravel brings a fresh painting. Tooth whitening takes on a whole new meaning.

Blue skies show some promise of relief at around the 100 kilometre mark; the Tuscany landscape glistening in the early afternoon sun. The change makes the 20 percent gradients on the final few sectors that much more manageable. As we approach Siena though, the skies open once more; pressure washing the dirt from my shins, to reveal the reddened skin beneath.

There is one final hurdle to overcome, as we pass under the Flamme Rouge. The climb to the piazza of Siena is a gradient that would leave most legs wilting. The ancient street stones are slippery, to the extent that standing results in instant wheel spinning; no choice but to sit and grind it out. Legs and mind yearning for the finish.

Rolling down into the central square, I wipe the grit and water from my glasses. The Strade Bianche has proven its place as a Spring Classic - a challenge for bike, body and mind. My kind of road race.

I finished the event in 04:16:42 riding time - placing me 85th on the Grand Fondo route, and the top Brit at the event.

In a similar vein to the TorTour Cyclocross race last month, it leaves me in praise of the diverse challenge and interesting riding created by a mixed-surface race.

Strade Bianche - perhaps the true genesis of the ever-growing 'gravel' scene?


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