Pro cycling is a beautiful sport, and Tuscany is a beautiful place, so the sheer visual spectacle of Strade Bianche, the southern European one-day classic and rolling five-hour tourist board commercial, came as no surprise.
We plonked our collective arse on the settee and bathed in la Bella Italia. Watching on with love-heart-emoji eyes as the peloton arced and swooped a line of least resistance through the Tuscan countryside. The riders spinning circles of grace and power. Dust thrown up from rustic gravel roads, instant atmosphere, like an 80’s smoke machine at a stadium gig.
We oohed and ahhed as a leading group, clear with fifty K’s to go, crested each gravel strewn lip to topple into another bowl of rolling landscape.Embed from Getty Images
Its relative youth (est. 2007), roots in the heritage event of L’Eroica, and long sections of gravel roads give Strade Bianche a hipster (are they still a thing?) vibe. Cycling Instagram, as we know, is thick with gravel. You cannot move for the stuff. It is the road surface du jour.
Had Wout van Aert emerged from the swirling dust sporting full barista beard and plaid shirt, with Mathieu van der Poel in hot pursuit, cylindrical bar bag (so beloved of the gravel crowd) in place and resplendent in cargo shorts and flapping puffa jacket, we wouldn’t have been surprised.
Thankfully, for the sake of the race, they’d mainly shaved and stuck to Lycra.
Once all the gravel (sixty-odd kilometres of it…) was out of the way Strade Bianche gave us the final, exquisite flourish in Siena.
The race organisers, wisely, give our eyeballs a brief respite from the relentless pretty by looping in an around the outskirts of town, which look like any other generic euro-place; cheapo hotels, non-descript affordable housing, and industrial units.
Beauty-o-meter reset, we were ready to be wowed.
An elite group of Van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal entered the old town to contest the finish. The money-shot being the via Santa Caterina; a steep, narrow, paved climb, hemmed in by shuttered, pastel-hued buildings, a Unesco World Heritage Site cum sporting backdrop.
When lined with fans and cacophonous it might be the most beautiful, most dramatic finish to any race anywhere, but even sparse and Covid-secure it generates atmosphere, cinematic light and photogenic perspective.Embed from Getty Images
The only worry being the damage Van der Poel was doing to the very structural integrity of this ancient road, such was the power being forced through his cranks. Attacking at the bottom, almost pulling his own bike to pieces with the ferocity, he left his challengers in his wake, ducking and diving through the final curves to win, gloriously, savagely, and beautifully in the square of Piazza del Campo.
There are dozens of great bike races in the pro cycling calendar. There might even be better races than this one (though not many). But I put it to you that for sheer visual indulgence none comes close to Strade Bianche.