Everything runs chaotically smoothly around here. A white Fiat, washed maybe once in its 30-year life, zips by us. Though the road is no more than a lane-and-a-half wide, the sub-compact itself is hardly wider than two cyclists side by side; it squeezes by without us ever feeling in danger. Drivers overtake all day long on blind turns, yet no collisions ever happen. A few beeps are exchanged here and there, but the Italian driver signals his intentions through a time-honed, non-verbal communication protocol handed down through the generations. We outsiders would be foolish to attempt to understand it in our few days of riding in Tuscany.
The Italian countryside is everything we imagined: verdant hills, terraced vineyards, rogue splotches of pastel wildflowers and, in August, boiling hot and muggy. The Italians have mostly abandoned the inland areas and fled en masse to the coast for the month. Many shops simply cease to operate for a few weeks this time of year; only a handwritten sign taped onto a dark window alerts tourists and the few locals still in town of their absence. But we don’t mind. We’re here to explore the land of Strade Bianche, not shop, and we get to do so on quieter roads.
Even the most unkempt roadside vegetation in Tuscany catches the eye. And the occasional home next to the rows of vineyards and farmland is full of character, with earth-tone walls, some covered in ivy, accented by orange-red tiled roofs. Everything is set against a perpetual soundtrack of cicadas—a cacophony of buzzing, like an overloaded power line in the summer.
After an hour of riding, and well over a thousand feet of rolling hills climbed, we spot the first white road in the distance. Our excitement grows.
Strade Bianche is undeniably one of the most spectacular bike races in the world. Stitching together the Tuscan countryside’s famous white gravel roads, this race has quickly become a fan favorite. But what is lost among the peaceful, wide helicopter TV shots of vineyards accented by a single vein of white road is an appreciation of how rough these namesake strade really are.
On the race broadcast, everything looks smooth. There are the trademark clouds of dust engulfing the race caravan, but from afar the roads otherwise look like hard-packed gravel, forming a mostly flat, if slightly slow, surface.
But these roads are used daily, and they have the scars to prove it. They don’t close on rainy days—water pools up and runs off, leaving remnants of small streams. Cars and heavy farm machinery run over newly wet spots making the surface uneven. When dry, the potholes grow with each car pass. Patches of gravel give way to dirt, then to debris fields of rocks of all sizes. The character of the roads changes daily.
The roughness of the strade bianche makes us glad we thought ahead on equipment. We’ve set up cushy 30mm Schwalbe Pro One tires. Running them at 60psi, or even lower, allows some forgiveness for a less-than-optimal line. And tubeless is a necessity on what amounts to no more than the quality of a mountain fire road, with sharp rocks embedded in the ground being slowly revealed with each gust of wind and passing vehicle.
When there are only a few people riding, you can attempt to choose the best line. When there is an entire peloton squeezed onto these narrow roads, where is there to go? The pros must stick to a line, no matter what potholes get in their way. Even for our small group, at times there is no best line. We simply hold on and hope for it to get better soon. Amazingly, no one flats through a section of sharp softball-sized rocks, a testament to how far tubeless technology has come.
A couple of miles later, the sector runs into a busy paved road. We’re each covered in a light layer of dust and need to wash out our mouths with a swish of our dwindling water supply. And that is after riding just one sector; the WorldTour pros must race in these conditions over 114 miles, with 39 of those being on the famed white gravel roads (while the women race for 84.5 miles with almost 20 miles of gravel).
Riding away from that sector, we can’t help but be left with a newfound appreciation for this race, which, at only 13 years old, is still in its infancy compared to the decades and even century-plus of history of the oldest classics. Yet in just a dozen years, the race has carved out a unique identity that will continue to evolve every spring.
We have miles of gorgeous countryside left ahead of us to explore on this trip, but all we can think about is next year’s Strade Bianche. We’re only six months away from getting to watch this beautiful race again—this time, with a new respect for the race and the racers. It’s beautiful, but it’s unforgiving. We can’t wait for March.