Gran Fondo Strade Bianche
Sunday 5th March 2017
The longer pro version of this race has become so popular that apparently momentum is gathering to make this the sixth Monument. I was very excited about some early season warm weather riding on the iconic white gravel roads that give this event its name.
The trip was organised for us by Julian Cousins who takes groups to Gran Fondo events like Tour of Flanders , Paris Roubaix and Giro di Lombardia while keeping the costs down. We flew from Heathrow to Pisa with a 2 hour transfer to Siena at the other end. The BA flight was full of cyclists and after a delayed take-off we were informed that 17 bikes had been left behind. Having been through this before with Ryanair and experienced their shocking lack of customer service, BA were far more helpful. Luckily my bike box appeared but I felt for the few that had to wait another day to build their bikes the night before the race.
On Saturday we went for a 60km recce ride, saw part of the pro women’s race (same route as the Gran Fondo)and were back in time to be in the Piazza Del campo to see Michał Kwiatkowski win the Men’s race with a super strong solo attack with 10k to go. Siena is one of the most stunning cities I’ve visited and I was amazed at how close to the action we were, not only at the finish but where the team buses were parked and the roads before the race. No-one seemed to care that we were on bikes on the same road, with no barriers, at the start while Sagan, Nibali etc rode up to sign on. The whole event was characterised by an informality and relaxed approach that was refreshing. I was thrilled to see Paolo Bettini and Spartacus himself strolling around the start village.
The day of the Gran Fondo did not deliver the spring-like conditions I’d hoped for. We awoke to weather of heavy rain and 6 °C that didn’t change much for the whole day. In the start pens the well prepared (not the old meaning!) riders had stolen shower caps from their hotels to stick on their helmets and were sheltering under mini umbrellas. I even saw one rider in a full disposable bio-hazard suit to keep dry.
The race itself stated off at a manic pace and I’d been warned that the Italians descended like maniacs which was certainly true. However they soon slowed down when the roads went uphill! This was a race ideally suited for riders who ride hard in the Chilterns week in, week out. There wasn’t a great deal of flats but plenty of short sharp climbs; 2,230m of climbing over 129km. The main difference was that most of the climbing was on the Strade, dirt tracks that in the dry are dusty and firm. However, in the wet they were slippery and created a fine yellow paste that got every where. At times it was like riding on the beach but at 18 degree elevations. The best tactic was to ride up the small streams that flowed down hill as it gave a firm gravel base. The other tactic I found was to go as hard as you could on the Strade. If you held back the road controlled you but pace made the rough surface more manageable. I’ve never seen so many people lose their back wheels and keep going. I can only assume the same was happening to me.
The yellow paste I mentioned earlier took a terrible toll on the bikes, after a few K there was no lube left on the chains and the group sounded like a bag of spanners. We started riding through puddles in an effort to try and lubricate the drive train. Worst of all, with 50km to go my brakes had worn down completely and I had no way of stopping on the numerous, steep descents other than dragging my foot along the ground. I passed riders zig-zagging on the grass verge to try and slow down. Eventually one of my group caught up and I grabbed his gilet while he braked for both of us.
I realize that this report makes the event sound miserable but despite the conditions I really enjoyed it. It was hard, but finishing strong, overcoming the conditions and passing proper riders walking up the climbs made it feel like a real achievement. The informality and proximity to the pros also made it feel like a shared experience. It felt fantastic going up the viciously steep (16 degrees) climb towards the Piazza del Campo that the day before the winner had soled on to victory. The weather could not hide the amazing scenery and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the event to anyone!