146 Felix Lowe
Felix Lowe asks whether Strade Bianche, at just 12 years old, is already a Monument in everything but name
Eurosport’s pro cycling blogger on the unique spectacle that is Strade Bianche
Have you heard the one about the gran fondo that was so popular it spawned a pro race so popular it reached legendary status within a decade?
These things usually happen in reverse, and in slow motion. It took a full century for those monoliths of cobbled cruelty, Roubaix and Flanders, to be spun off into sportives.
But there’s nothing usual about Strade Bianche. Piggybacking on the retro wool ’n’ vintage bike craze of the Eroica gran fondo, Strade Bianche is a festival of nostalgia – even if the thoroughly recent Fabian Cancellara has won it more times than anyone else with his successes in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
This March, the race dubbed ‘Europe’s most southern Northern Classic’ turns 12 years old – an age at which most of us haven’t plucked up the courage to talk to the opposite sex, let alone boast immortality. Yet, such is its popularity that there are already clamours for Strade Bianche to join the illustrious list of Monuments – average age, 107.
There’s no doubt it boasts the requisite ingredients to cook up a Classic: the Chianti vineyards; the olive groves; Tuscany’s rolling hills, cypress trees and open vistas; the iconic finish in Siena’s Piazza del Campo (in the shadow of the Torre del Mangia); and those eponymous white dirt tracks.
The sterrati are the true USP of Strade Bianche. Roubaix has its cobbles; Flanders its bergs; Liège-bastogne-liège its côtes; Milan-san Remo the Poggio and Cipressa; and Lombardia the glistening waters of Lake Como. But the calling card of Strade Bianche is the leg-sapping stretches of gravel that zigzag their way through farmland and tear the pack apart more than any crosswind could.
Played out in unpredictable weather, it’s a rough-and-tumble affair and also boasts what photographer Jered Gruber calls the ‘best finishing kilometre ever’ – an 18% flagstone climb of the Via Santa Caterina.
It’s a race that deserves to have witnessed duels between Coppi and Bartali – over shared swigs from a straw-encased bidon of rosso. You could imagine Hinault triumphing in Siena before swearing never to return to such an ‘idiot pig festival’.
So, what’s stopping us from labelling Strade Bianche the sixth Monument? Size and age. The youngest existing Monument, the Tour of Flanders, is a wrinkly 105 years old, while the average distance of around 260km dwarves the paltry Tuscan 175km.
That said, it is worth remembering that the reputation of the two most famous Monuments is partly an illusion: early editions of Roubaix featured no Arenberg and very few cobbles; ditto Flanders with its hellingen and the Muur.
At least Strade Bianche has set out its stall early. For all its faux-history, built on the back of a gimmicky gran fondo, it’s the antithesis of the mythical. Which is ironic, because if you ask people to recall their favourite edition, they will probably erroneously bring up Cadel Evans’ muddy victory in the ‘mythical’ 2010 edition – which was actually a stage of the Giro d’italia.
Strade Bianche is a race almost always won by one of a select group. All but two of the previous victors have been Monument champions, Olympic medallists or World Champions. So, until we witness an edition for the annals – a race pulverised by rain or one in which the first around the final bend doesn’t win, a Monument title is a no-go.
In short, until Strade Bianche’s Wikipedia page is filled with tales of suffering that outdirty Cadel’s spattered rainbow stripes, the youngest Classic will not be a Monument. If sterrati were pasta, Felix Lowe would eat them for breakfast