As part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is one of the sections of the Strade Bianche or “white roads” in Italy’s central Tuscany region. The idea is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether as part of cycling’s history or to look at the route on a day without racing and it is open to all.
The white roads are unsealed roads that can be found in many parts of Italy but local geology in this region provides a greyish rock which, when ground, produces a white dust. These roads are old but have been seized in modern times for cycling, whether the retro L’Eroica ride or the Strade Bianche race.
Unlike a mountain pass with only a few approaches or even an infamous cobbled sector, the strade bianche are a collection of roads. There’s no famous must-ride portion. Faced with this choice, let’s take a touristy choice with the scenic road above Gaiole in Chianti, used in the past as the start town of the Strade Bianche race. The road is the SS429 and climbs out of Gaiole to a ridge north of the town. It could be any but it’s in the heart of the Chianti region and because it offers a climb – or a descent – it gives a better feel for the land. But this could easily be another road.
The road is wide enough for two cars to pass and perfectly normal. This is not a road for 4x4s or agricultural traffic, signs point tourists to restaurants and brown panels indicate the route of the L’Eroica ride all year round. Start and you quickly leave town, passing orderly rows of olive trees and fields of wheat with soil the colour of wholemeal pasta.
There’s a moment’s hesitation before taking one these roads. The rough surface might deter some but for others there’s the dust and dirt, a ride means you will have to clean your bike after the ride and will get a layer of dust on the skin like a new tanline.
Otherwise the road is not technical when done uphill. You can pick your line to avoid holes, puddles or protruding rocks but generally these roads are well maintained and the regular passage of vehicles grinds the gravel into a fine layer. But generally the roads are quiet, one of the attractions here is that you can escape the traffic, these roads are quiet with light local traffic, the occasional Ape and maybe a wild boar. Note these roads are so normal that if you pick a route on a map you might find the the printed route turns out to be dusty.
Do not think of this as an Italian Paris-Roubaix or even a moderate section of Flemish cobbles, no, this is much faster. The difficulty here is more the climbing, the roads rise and fall across the landscapes and double-digit gradients are normal. Again to insist on the point these roads are ordinary and quotidien. Farmers access their fields, parents drive their kids to school, teenagers crash puny motorbikes.
All changes though if it is wet or you are descending. Rain is like dripping water onto flour, at first the white dust turns to a beige paste that sticks and with more water it liquefies into a total mess. Fine for pros with mechanics but if you’re visiting, wait for a dry day. And take care on the descents as even in the dry the dust means less grip. But generally throw caution to the wind and enjoy the feeling of losing control, the sense where your bike or at least its trajectory, doesn’t have the usual instant response. It’s off road action for a road bike, you can get up plenty of speed but still feel the loose material under the bike.
The racers have to go during the afternoon but if you want something better, wait for the sunset and ride because the white roads glow orange in the fading light.
Eroica means heroic and this is an amateur gran fondo with a difference. Participants must ride bikes that are at least 25 years old so it is retro fest of cycling. It’s also close to Italy’s “slow food” movement as the race takes time to appreciate the scenery and the rifornimento food stops supply chianti wine, bread and ham. I don’t think there’s an energy gel in sight.
The ride has soared in popularity and entries are now hard to come by even if you have a retro bike at the ready. Many dress up in retro kit and if bikes have to be at last 25 years old, some come with machines much older.
Strada is road in Italian but it’s strade “stra-day” in the plural and bianche is “bee-an-kay”. The term strade bianche is a poetic licence and locals call the roads sterrati.
There are many places to stay in the region and a tip is to stay in the countryside. Gaiole itself offers hotels and homestays alike and the whole region has fine cycling. Florence/Firenze is easily reached with a high speed rail link whilst Pisa is a busy regional airport with links to many European capitals.
Tuscany is a big area for cycling but many riders live in the more densely populated areas near the coast which the visiting tourist might want to avoid. Talking of avoiding places, think twice before visiting the region in July or August as every road gets packed with tourists, at times every third car seems to have German plates. May and September are good months to visit and like many parts of Italy, towns often have a ride starting from a central point at 9.00am or try riding on a Sunday morning where you can find many locals on the road.
The strade bianche aren’t unique to this area of Italy. There are gravel roads all over the country like the Col de Finestre in the Alps near the French border which has been used for the Giro or the Kronplatz-Plan de Corones over in the Dolomites. But these roads are everywhere and we don’t need the Giro to find them.
This post is out today in 2014 but done before with a race preview. The old preview’s no longer relevant so it’s been tidied up and added to.
Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute
Part XVI – Col du Pin Bouchain
Part XVII – Puy de Dôme
Part XVIII – La Planche des Belles Filles
Part XIX – Col du Lautaret
Part XX – Col du Palaquit
Part XXI – Champs Elysées
Part XXII: The Col du Galibier
Part XXIII: The Lacets de Montvernier
Part XXIV: Hautacam
Thanks to Kelly Servinksi for the close-up image of the gravel surface