Although it falls in classics season, you can’t call Strade Bianche a classic. It’s only eleven. Not old enough to drink, vote or have sex.
But it’s starting to feel like a classic.
Chianti. The region the race spends much of its time. But also a wine, a celebrated Italian export, made to a strict recipe. Mainly Sangiovese, that most famous of Italian grapes, perhaps with some Canaiolo, another Italian grape, too. Or some Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (grapes most famous in Bordeaux). Or Syrah (best known in the Rhône Valley).
Bringing together some of the best ingredients from across Europe, blending them to make something wonderful.
Strade Bianche is put together in much the same way.
A pinch of the short, steep hills from the Tour of Flanders. Something to make the legs burn, to keep the peloton guessing. Plentiful opportunities for the masochistic to escape the bunch. Each climb seeming to produce another selection.
A dash of the pavé from Roubaix, but with a local twist. The eponymous strade bianche, the sterrati or white roads themselves. Not cobbles but dirt tracks made of crushed marble giving them their ghostly hue. Throwing up long clouds of dust to mark the passage of the riders like the advance of a marching army. Eleven sectors in all, covering more than a third of the race distance.
Some local ingredients too.
A huge dollop of Tuscan countryside. Views like the canvasses for sale in every piazza in Florence. Cypress trees standing proud among the farmland and vineyards. Farmhouses left empty while their owners work in Islington or Notting Hill.
To round it all off, a sprinkling of culture. The hill town of Siena and the finish in the Piazza del Campo. A basin of a public square most famous for il Palio, a race of another kind, for horses. A race which can trace its origins back over 400 years. Pre-dating la Doyenne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, by the narrow margin of three centuries. But we prefer the bikes.
Blended together, these ingredients create something more than the the sum of their parts. A race that somehow shouldn’t be so compelling. But one that is already a must-see, a must-ride.
There was no dramatic attack. Michal Kwiatowski simply rode off the front. Later, he said it was because the others weren’t cooperating well. That he decided just to ride at his own tempo.
Leaning on his elbows where he could, sitting up for the twists and climbs. Bullying the pedals round. Emptying the tank. Leaving all his energy amongst the vines.
Behind him Tim Wellens, Zdeněk Štyber and Greg van Avermaet worked together to bring him back. An exceptional trio. But they couldn’t. Kwiatowski had the strength of three men. Unassisted.
Unless you count the TV moto.
In search of a head-up shot, it kept riding in front of him. Kwiatowski grateful for the slipstream. Never mind what was in the envelope. Who did Team Sky have riding the moto?
It wasn’t all helpful. Buzzing round him as though trying to shoot a single camera Hollywood epic, the moto got too close for comfort. The Polish Kwiatowski communicated in obvious Anglo-Saxon.
The beauty of the Tuscan countryside gave way to the beauty of Siena. Or at least it did after passing a much less-beautiful builders yard. The lead hovered around thirty seconds. More than enough.
Entering Siena, the steep incline on rain-damp flag stones made Kwiatowski look like a club rider with a hangover. As the course levelled off in the heart of town, he eased back, taking the slippery final corners with all the poise of Bambi learning to stand.
Thirty seconds was an age. He rolled down the final few metres towards the finish, waving an imaginary Palio standard in his hand. A warrior returning victorious.
His second Strade Bianche title. One victory away from having a section of sterrati named after him. Chianti would be taken.
As the race winds its way through the Tuscan countryside, it passes through the hilltop town of Montalcino. A town of just 5,000 souls. The sort of place you would be amazed by, until you realise there are dozens of towns just like this in Tuscany.
But try the wine. Brunello di Montalcino. Aromatic wood, berries and vanilla dance on your tongue like Claudio Chiappucci on the pedals. Far better than the more famous Chianti. So good, the Italians keep most if for themselves.
Just because something is well known, it doesn’t mean it is the best. Just because something is older, it doesn’t make it better.
Strade Bianche may not have the profile of the Flanders classics (yet). But it will. History has to start somewhere.
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