146 Felix Lowe

Felix Lowe asks whether Strade Bianche, at just 12 years old, is al­ready a Mon­u­ment in ev­ery­thing but name

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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

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