If it does not have the history of the venerable classics of Northern Europe, the Strade Bianche, whose 17th edition takes place on Saturday in Tuscany, has found its place with its “muri”, its dirt roads and the finish in the heart of Siena.
Having become so popular with runners that some refer to it as the “sixth Monument” of cycling, the race brings together a high plateau with in particular Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe, even if Wout Van Aert and last year’s winner Tadej Pogacar skipped this year.
“The most difficult? But everything is difficult! It’s only ups and downs,” Fabian Cancellara, three times winner (the record) told AFP in Piazza del Campo, the famous curved square where disputes since the horse races of the “Palio” for centuries.
The successes of the Swiss have punctuated the young history of Strade Bianche.
It won the second edition, in 2008, when it was still called the “Monte Paschi Eroica”. When he did it again in 2012, it had just adopted its current name, due to the white dirt paths along the route. The last, in 2016, is his “most beautiful” because he won during his last season as a professional.
“This race really has something special”, underlines the one who knew how to tame the paths and the “muri” (coasts) of Tuscany thanks in particular to his past in cyclo-cross.
“She is important, before the classics, to test her legs and her physique,” adds the Swiss, 41, who believes that the profile is suitable for different types of runners.
Provided, of course, that you are not allergic to these terrible narrow and slippery paths.
– “Cycling of yesteryear” –
“There is a lot of tension, from the first kilometres. Before each section of dirt, it’s as if there was a sprint to be in front to avoid falls”, explains to AFP Moreno Moser, the only Italian winner. , in 2013.
“The sections are so narrow that it’s really a fight!” Adds the 32-year-old retiree. “I’ve always done a lot of mountain biking in the winter. It helped me a lot to be confident on the trails”, he explains, even if, in the event of a fall in front of you, “there’s no not much to do.”
Julian Alaphilippe, victim of an impressive fall last year, will not say the opposite.
These thrills, beyond the magnificent Tuscan hills, explain, according to him, the growing success of the race: “To see riders covered in dust or mud, dirty bikes, clouds of earth escaping from the peloton, it’s spectacular and refers to the cycling of yesteryear”, emphasizes Moser.
“The race is out of traditional patterns,” says Mauro Vegni, director of cycling at RCS, the organizer.
– Four-star awards –
He recalls in passing the importance of technique: “What is difficult (on the paths, editor’s note) is not so much the climbs as the descents where, at each turn, you can fall.”
For the luckiest and the most acrobatic, the reward is to be the first to get the ovation of the tifosi in the final climb of via Santa Caterina, in Siena, with a peak of 16% on the cobblestones.
“At that moment, the adrenaline that the public gives you is so strong that you no longer feel anything, not even the pain in your legs”, recalls Moser.
This adrenaline, the best have tasted it in recent years: Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert, Matthieu van der Poel or Tadej Pogacar, the last four winners. A luxurious track record which confirms the rise in power of the race.
“At the first edition, we were a little worried because it was a very different race from what was done elsewhere. But it has become an important moment at the start of the season”, rejoices at RCS, which has developed in parallel a female version have the 9th edition also taking place on Saturday.
“I would not allow myself to compare it to Paris-Roubaix and its rich history, but it is growing little by little, with its particularity”, concludes Mauro Vegni, referring to TV audiences “increasing” and “approaching” the monument. Milan-Sanremo.