A few years ago I had booked a holiday in Tuscany. As delightful as it was — and it really was — the setting was not the picture postcard Tuscany I had mistakenly expected. Nestled in the northern most point of the province, a short bike ride to San Pellegrino in Alpe near the border of Emilia-Romagna, there was not a single Cypress tree in sight.
In 2017 I returned, not to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana but instead to the small town of Gaiole in Chianti near Siena to finally get my first sighting of the rolling hills and trees so synonymous with the region. This time though the purpose of the trip was not a holiday but instead to tackle L’Eroica, the hugely popular annual retro bike ride.
Having elected to ride the long 209km route it was an early start. Dressed in the kind of kit that seemed acceptable when I was growing up and getting into cycling — wooly, itchy and a little bit too warm — and having been presented with a heavy steel bike, off we set at 5am. The plan all along had been to ride in a group, but as the road out of Gaiole in Chianti started to rise up through the woods the group reduced to just two. Shrouded in darkness beneath overhanging trees and pillowy clouds disguising behind them the glow of the moonlight, we pushed on.
All the way up the short 10-minute climb the pair of us had been toing-and-froing, testing each other’s mettle before rolling over the top, still in the big ring. Descending at speed in the pitch black on unfamiliar bikes with brakes that barely worked was probably not the sensible thing to do, but Andrea was a kindred spirit. Other than occasional instructions — “piano, piano” — we barely spoke.
Conscious of what lay ahead — another 200km on roads that often appeared unfinished — we stuck together like the glue holding the tubulars to our old steel rims. The flame-lit ride up towards Castello di Brolio not only evoked a time long before electric-powered lights, but also provided us our first experience of the strade bianche, or white roads, that lends one of the most popular one-day races on the WorldTour calendar its name. Though the movement beneath the wheels on this relatively benign drag of hard-packed chalky gravel felt odd at first, once settled into a rhythm it was fine. Manageable, even. Once over the top, though, it was an entirely different story.
With morning threatening to break and having adjusted to our surroundings confidence was growing. Reaching forward to the downtube I flicked a gear lever, pressing on and gathering speed along the hard-packed gravel road, over-taking fellow riders with ease. Then, though, as the hard-packed gravel became soft our bikes twisted, uncontrollably, left to right, but with the brakes barely functioning there was not much to do other than pedal harder and desperately search for a narrow strip of this unforgiving track to find some traction. Before long the surface changed again. Now we were riding over small ridges that covered the entire width of the road — like hundreds of tiny sleeping policemen — there was no escape from the constant juddering from the bike frame, through the feet, hands and arms. It was horrific. With old cotton handlebar tape, the kind of which I had not seen since the early 1980s, there was no cushioning for the palms and it hurt — it was not Paris-Roubaix-style pain, but still surprisingly tough.
The first sighting of Cypress trees, backlit by the early-morning sun, was most welcome as were the long stretches of smooth asphalt that provided succour from the dusty, and painful, strade bianche.
Unlike Paris-Roubaix where the longest stretch of cobbles is around 4.5km, the sections of white roads in the professional's race can extend to almost 12km. Though not as brutal as Paris-Roubaix the roads around Siena can be surprisingly inhospitable. Do not be fooled by the picture postcard backdrop to Strade Bianche, it's a real brute to ride. Little wonder its list of former winners is made up of the hardmen of the early-season classics: Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar and Michal Kwiatkowski have all won the race that has quickly become a fans' favourite. Indeed, many fans now refer to the race as the 'sixth monument', though defending champion Julian Alaphilippe was happy to describe the race as a “piccolo monument” during a pre-season interview.
Strade Bianche is a unique race in the professional calendar. While amateurs are often found aping their heroes at cyclosportives or granfondos, the first Italian race of the WorldTour season in fact reverses the paradigm. Taking its lead from L'Eroica, RCS Sport launched Strade Bianche, then called Monte Paschi Eroica, in October 2007 when Alexandr Kolobnev won the inaugural edition.
The weather can play a huge role in how the race plays out — warm and dry and the course turns into a dust bowl, wet and the riders have to battle through rivers of grey sludge. Imagine Paris-Roubaix meets Liège-Bastogne-Liège raced over a cyclo-cross course and you are somewhere close. Unlike those northern European races, though, Strade Bianche is set in one of the most stunning parts of Italy. Indeed, Greg Van Avermaet has previously described Strade Bianche as "one of the most beautiful races of the whole season".
Around 100km into our ride and after bouncing over one rock too many, the entire rear derailleur flew off my bike. It had had enough and jettisoned itself into a field somewhere. The professionals on Saturday will have back-up bikes, I did not so I walked five kilometres to the next feed stop where I sat alone, Andrea had gone. My day was done. I ate cheese and local cakes, washed down with Chianti. The riders sped through the dust and into the distance. It was tough, but one of the most beautiful bike rides of my life. One day soon I will return, on my vintage Colnago, and complete the ride.