White Knuckle Roads

Strade Bianche and Italian champion Elena Cecchini

Flying round the narrow track and into the Piazza del Campo, the colourful riders thrash their trusty steeds towards the finish line. There’s little regard for safety, but the crowds aren’t bothered – it’s a thrilling sight.

The Palio di Siena horse race and Strade Bianche bike race, both of which end in Siena’s main square, share many similarities, but a long history isn’t one of them. A gritty battle across 200km of beautiful Tuscan landscape and over eleven sun-bleached gravel road sectors, Strade Bianche is only ten years old, to the Palio’s some 500 years.

And yet, in a sport that leans heavily on the past, this young bike race has captured the attention of riders and fans around the world. It is an anomaly: a new event which has gained instant prestige, and which seems in a healthy condition (although race organiser RCS refuse to say whether it makes any money or not).

Bianche

Elevated to UCI WorldTour status this year, Strade Bianche takes place on Sunday, 4th March. The women’s peloton, including Rapha-sponsored CANYON//SRAM and their Italian champion Elena Cecchini [see interview below], will race in the morning, followed by the men.

It is a route for tough riders, rather than specialists, which is part of the thrill – you are just as likely to see a tenacious little climber competing for the win as you are a cobble-crunching rouleur up the steep narrow streets towards the finish in the piazza.

In the men’s race, the now-retired Fabian Cancellara is the ‘Sorceror of Siena’, with three wins and a gravel sector named after him, but who will succeed the Swiss? In the women’s race, which has only run since 2015, Megan Guarnier and Lizzie Deignan have shown their gladiatorial strength.

Whoever wins, just like the Palio, Strade Bianche guarantees a fine spectacle. These white knuckle roads make for exciting competition – may the strongest man and woman win.

Rapha Travel is in Tuscany this weekend to ride the Eroica sportive and watch Strade Bianche. We’ll be back in May, however, to savour the culture, food, fine wine and of course, the riding. Join us for a taste of La Dolce Vita.

Triple Tricolore

Three-time Italian national champion Elena Cecchini on Strade Bianche.

Hello Elena, we’re looking forward to seeing you compete at Strade Bianche this weekend. Can you tell us what makes the race special?

Hello Rapha! Strade Bianche is unique. We race a lot on cobbles, a lot on steep climbs, but never on gravel sections. From a mechanical point of view, it’s also totally different: our bikes are set up in a special way, with wider tyres and smaller gears.

Do you enjoy racing it?

I like racing it because my parents and my fan club come to watch, which gives me some extra motivation. Plus, it’s an Italian race, and I’ll be wearing my national champion’s jersey, and that means a lot to me.

You’ll be wearing the tricolore, and showing it off in a very beautiful part of your country.

Yes, Tuscany is really beautiful. I think that if I was not from Friuli, I would have liked to have been from Tuscany. I like the weather here – it’s a bit warmer because of the sea, and there is a stronger cycling culture. They have awesome wines and meats too, like the famous ‘Fiorentina’. I would recommend to everyone, whether Italian or not, to go to Tuscany for their holidays!

Elena-Racing

The race takes its name from the famous white gravel roads. Can you give us some advice on how to ride them?

Sure. These gravel sections are slippery so you have to try not to be too stiff, and instead gently handle your bars, otherwise you risk crashing on the corners.

The women’s race is on the same day as the men’s. Do you think this is a good thing, or would you rather have your own day?

Yes, I like competing on the same day, but I think that there is no need to make us start so early! There are about three hours from when we finish until the men finish. Anyway, having the race on the same day is important for the media, but most of all to show that women’s cycling can put on a great show.

You have finished in the top ten here in the past – how are your legs for this weekend?

I did my first race last Saturday (25th February) at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and I felt good but was still missing that ‘something’… [Elena was CANYON//SRAM’s top performer, in 13th position] When you train hard for three months without any competition, it is difficult to then suddenly go over the limit. Let’s say that the peloton made me aware of how much I will suffer in Strade Bianche… but I like it.

Designed to perform - CANYON//SRAM

New CANYON//SRAM products are now available for purchase. Featuring the same racewear worn by the team during competition, you’ll be able to show your support while wearing the best possible kit.