Strade Bianche, one hundred and eighty K’s across the rolling hills and white roads of Tuscany, Italy, is all about the gravel. Thick-tyred bikes and dust-caked bodies. A constant puff of drama in the air.
For our 2020 edition, and the return of pro cycling, the gravel worked its magic.
By being, y’know, gravel
It’s the road surface du jour. To be a cyclist and not own a gravel bike in 2020 will see you kicked off Instagram and shamed into solo rides by your group of pals. Doesn’t matter how bushy your beard, how strong your sock game, or how much you obsess about coffee, you are persona non grata.
A modern leper.
For this reason, Strade Bianche is the very zeitgeist of the sport.
If the dust settles…
With forty kilometres remaining we had six riders clear. First in slick co-operation but soon launching attacks, bluffs, and counter bluffs. Max Schachmann, the German, wobbly head betraying his effort, went clear. Wout van Aert followed.
The chasers chased.
Our two were soon out of sight.
For Formolo, Fuglsang, Bettiol and van Avermaet, the dust the leaders kicked up hung in the air. A trail of airborne earth. Suspended particles a guide to the gap. If the dust settles the leaders are away, and gone, and the race is whittled to two.
The gap too great.
The chasers, headlong, into the murk.
From a distance, overhead, the scene is like a cartoon fight in a cloud of fists and curse words. The race emerging, each time, from a gravel sector, where we check in and see who’s still left.
Until the next white road.
And of course, all this gravel, in the parched, sweaty, thirty-seven-degree heat, encases bodies and bikes. Riders increasingly hollow eyed, each one of them has seen a ghost. A visual rendering of the tough attrition of the race.
It’s war paint. For a pro, deep into a career-long game of who’s the hardest, it’s a great look.
Van Aert, Belgian cyclo-crosser and previous Strade Bianche nearly-man, knows this. Sneaking, grinding clear alone with fifteen K’s to go and the finish town of Siena, up on that hill, in his eyeline.
Single minded, slightly gormless looking in full flow, a Tony Martin-esque floppiness in his lower face, and fixated on the road beyond his front wheel. The classic seven seconds lead…thirteen…nineteen…is it enough?
And then, all at once, it’s immediately enough. The dust has settled. Formolo and Schachmann accepting the podium.
Van Aert hits the finish straight, roars, and punches the clear, dust-free Siena air. Laid out, back against the hoardings, cameras crowding around, comes the money shot.
Transformed with the removal of helmet and a dousing of bottled water, from dribble-mouthed lummox into chiselled movie star. Hero. Icon.
White badger stripe in his hair, white gravel dust sluicing down his face, the attritional hardman’s attritional hardman.