Of all the races that have been added to the UCI WorldTour this year, one race stands out as truly worthy of its elevation: Strade Bianche. And as befits today’s more encompassing cycling template, both men’s and women’s versions of the Italian classic take place this Saturday. Although men’s defending champion Fabian Cancellara has retired (and the race will be very different without him!), Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) is defending her women’s title at the head of the powerful Boels-Dolmans squad on the infamous white roads of Tuscany.

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada

Anyone who has stepped or ridden on these scenic back roads knows about their erratic turns and undulations, their often impossibly steep gradients (just try climbing one of those double-digit pitches on gravel!), and panoramas that take in lines of cypress trees, vineyards and wheat fields climbing toward hilltop towns and medieval castles. This is perhaps the most beautiful terrain in the world. It makes an amazing backdrop for the Strade Bianche races, and with rain forecast for Saturday afternoon in the start-finish city of Siena those white roads could be tougher than ever to negotiate.

The strade bianche date back thousands of years. In the Middle Ages, Italy’s patron saint Santa Caterina would walk the pilgrimage route that links Siena with Rome, parts of which the modern-day racers will follow on the early part of Saturday’s race. For cycling, these roads have been used for the past two decades, dating back to the 1997 Eroica Gran Fondo, which is contested by riders on vintage bikes, most of them wearing vintage kits. The concept was to recreate cycling’s so-called Heroic Era from the first half of the 20th century, when most races were ridden on dirt or cobblestones.

L’Eroica became so popular that the concept was adopted in 2007 as a professional road race, first called the Monte dei Paschi Eroica in reference to its first sponsor, the Siena-based Monte dei Paschi, the world’s oldest bank, founded in 1472. That first edition was held in October, but the race moved its second year to early March, its now traditional date.

Renamed the Strade Bianche, it is organized by RCS, which also promotes Tirreno–Adriatico and Milan–San Remo later this month, and the Giro d’Italia in May. Because of the success of its new “instant classic”, RCS began to include some of Tuscany’s white roads in the Giro—such as the now legendary 222-kilometer stage 7 in 2010 from Carrara to Montalcino won by Cadel Evans, held on a day of persistent rain and strong winds. Among the men who raced that apocalyptic stage seven years ago are Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain-Merida (bib No. 31 on Saturday) and Jan Bakelants (who is No. 1, because his AG2R La Mondiale team is the first in the alphabet and his surname is first in the team’s alphabet).

Vincenzo Nibali, who rode the white roads at the 2010 Giro d'Italia, is also starting this weekend's Strade Bianche.
Vincenzo Nibali, who rode the white roads at the 2010 Giro d’Italia, is also starting this weekend’s Strade Bianche.

Normally, major races give the defending champion the No. 1 bib, but three-time Strade Bianche winner Cancellara is now retired. The big Swiss would have loved this 2017 edition of the race, because not only has the combined length of the 11 sectors of gravel roads been increased to 62 kilometers (that’s 35 percent of the 175-kilometer distance!) but also the forecast rain showers will make the race tougher than ever. The women’s race, in its third year, features eight sectors of white roads measuring 30 kilometers (or 24 percent of their 127 kilometers).

This 11th edition of Strade Bianche starts from Siena’s 16th century brick-built Fortezza Medicea, named for the House of Medici, the renowned Italian banking family, where a statue of Santa Caterina looks over the ancient city. The course first heads southwest and hits four sectors of white roads in the opening 50 kilometers: the first a flat 2.1 kilometers, the second, a stiff 4.7-kilometer uphill at Bagnaia, not used last year, followed by a rolling 4.4-kilometer stretch and then a mostly downhill 5.5 kilometers.

This takes the race to the foot of the longest climb, 4 kilometers at a steady 5 percent grade, to the highest point on the course, 1,515 feet (462 meters), at Montalcino, the hill town where the infamous 2010 Giro stage ended. This is also the home of Brunello di Montalcino, one of the most renowned Italian wines, produced from Sangiovese grapes. This is the most southerly point on the course before it heads east and north to two of the longest stretches of gravel: the rolling 11.9-kilometer section at Lucignano d’Asso and the mostly downhill 8-kilometer stretch at Pieve a Salti. The racers now pass through the feed zone, with 90 kilometers covered and with five more stretches of gravel facing them in the last 85 kilometers.

Next up, after 12 kilometers of paved roads, is a mostly uphill 9.5-kilometer gravel section prior to what is considered the hardest stretch of all—11.5 kilometers long with severe ups and down through the village of Monte Sante Marie—which is being named for Cancellara in a dedication ceremony this Friday. By this point in the race, with just over 40 kilometers remaining, only the strongest riders will be left; and though the next 17.5 kilometers is on pavement, it features significant climbing before they hit an 800-meter uphill with double-digit grades at Monteaperti.

Only two more gravel sections remain, one of 2.4 kilometers opening with a 15-percent, the other of 1.1 kilometers ending with an 18-percent kicker. This is where Cancellara would make his power felt, a role that will likely be taken by world champion Peter Sagan this year—and in future years. Only 12 kilometers remain in an intricate loop around the north and east side of Siena before the course heads back into the city. After a fast 2-kilometer downhill, the road starts climbing 1.75 kilometer from the finish. After hitting the 1-kilometer-to-go mark and passing through the ancient city gate, the gradient punches up to a maximum of 16 percent on the red-stone paving slabs of Via Santa Caterina, where the narrow street passes the townhouse where Santa Caterina lived with her parents and 24 siblings in the 14th century.

In past years, only one or two riders have been left together to fight for the victory in the final 500 meters that include sharp right, left and right turns before a short downhill to the finish in Siena’s famed Piazza del Campo. This grand, dish-shaped town square is filled with thousands of spectators each July and August for two drama-filled horse races, known as the Palio di Siena, which have been held for more than 500 years. Today, Strade Bianche has become the city’s newest tourist attraction—especially as it’s followed on Sunday by a popular gran fondo.

In Cancellara’s absence, the race favorites for this year’s WorldTour race include former winners Zdenek Stybar of Quick-Step Floors (2015), Michael Kwiatkowski of Team Sky (2014) and Moreno Moser of Team Astana (2013). Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) came in second to both Moser and Kwiatkowski, and he was also a protagonist last year, placing fourth; but after his victory last Sunday in Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne he’ll be looking for the 2017 win in Siena. Also fired up is BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet, who defeated Sagan a week ago in Omloop Her Nieuwsblad.