Liège-Bastogne-Liège was first run in 1892, Paris-Roubaix in 1896, the Tour of Flanders in 1913. These races have become legendary thanks to their rich history. The Strade Bianche race can trace its history back to 2007, a time when Jay-Z and Rihanna topped the charts. This weekend marks the tenth edition of the race. It has become an instant classic.
With new races springing up and 21 new applicants for the World Tour calendar what can the instant success of this race tell us?
What’s made this race a roaring success? It’s the same question as what makes the race a must watch this weekend: a quality field lines up in San Gimignano, a UNESCO heritage site, races over selective, dramatic roads before a majestic finish in Siena, another UNESCO heritage site. It’s a race many want to watch and most of the peloton wants to ride.
The hilly route is selective and allows classics contenders to compete alongside a few hardy stage race specialists. It works well on TV and arguably better in the photos afterwards.
The Strade Bianche exploits Italy’s rural connection. The hilltop towns, the cypress trees and other cues come straight from the tourist brochures and make this a region to ride whether in a race, a training camp or a touring holiday. Interestingly the charm of the race comes from the region as a whole, the sum total of 50km of gravel roads rather than the celebration of a particular “wall” or an infernal gravel sector in the way we respect the Kapelmuur or the Arenberg Forest.
The Strade Bianche name is itself part of the branding. Literally the “White Roads” it gives a poetic touch to roads referred to by locals as, well, “roads”: these gravel tracks are a totally normal part of the local transport network and called roads or sometimes sterrato. On a normal day people commute to work, kids are ferried to school and farmers access their fields on these tertiary roads.
From the Col de Finestre to the heel of Italy’s boot much of the country has sterrato gravel road but the Eroica is run in Tuscany, a hotbed of Italian cycling which produces a disproportionate share of the country’s professionals, from Gino Bartali to Mario Cipollini and Vincenzo Nibali made his way to this region to turn pro. This provides the cultural root onto which a pro race can be grafted, something that can’t be done in many other countries. This base explains origins of the race, it grew out of the Eroica vintage gran fondo where people ride retro bikes and road side feedzones offer salami and red wine rather than gels. Visit the region and all year round there are brown road signs that signal the route of L’Eroica. This isn’t a race that pops up overnight with neon plastic signs ziptied around the course, it’s quietly part of the landscape.
Some outside factors help too. Central Italy typically offers mild weather in March and the offroad sections mean skills practice for the classics. It’s also held before Tirreno-Adriatico race so teams need only need fly in earlier and the early slot on the calendar means we follow it as part of the classics build up. It’s run by RCS which helps with notoriety and promotion, they can reach parts of the media at home and abroad that a local organising committee cannot all while getting the race on TV. Interestingly RCS has been said to pay riders to start its events but the Strade Bianche is a race where many riders want to be, you know they show up to pin on a number rather than bank some cash. Finally sponsors like it too, US cycling has undergone a gravel cycling boom and manufacturers are keen to supply bikes to this burgeoning market and need shop windows in the pro circuit for this. Paris-Roubaix has been the traditional trade exhibition but another helps too and teams will back a race like this.
So far so good
All these reasons explain the success but they’re a problem for the rest of the sport. Want a new race? Good luck if you can’t get the right spot on the calendar, it’s not in a traditional hotbed of cycling surrounded by UNESCO sites with geography to exploit in between. Do all races have to hark back to the past and ride through rural landscapes? Is it impossible to bring the race to the people use cityscapes?
Roma Maxima derelictus
The Strade Bianche is thriving but Roma Maxima has stopped. It shared so much with the Strade Bianche: RCS’s backing, fine landscapes, history via the Giro del Lazio, tough roads and a stunning finish outside Rome’s Colosseum, scenery to rival the Tour de France’s Champs Elysées. But it’s gone, the race was dropped in 2015 with talk of a return but it’s not back now. Perhaps we had less time to grow attached to this race but its demise is something to lament as it was the only race on the calendar that actually visited the Italian capital. Even the Giro d’Italia rarely visits.
There are more and more gravel roads in races, at least compared to a decade ago. The upcoming Paris-Nice is going to feature some off road sectors, ideal because if you watched last year the wind never got up to split the field and the sprint finishes were inevitable. But if it’s new in Paris-Nice it’s not new to the peloton, the same sectors have been used in the Tour du Loir et Cher already and there’s even an U23 stage race in the Alps that uses gravel roads. Plus there’s the Tro Bro Leon, the best race many have not heard of. It began as an amateur race in the 1980s and exploits the ribins or ribinous in local dialect, these are gravel roads and farm tracks and takes place in a hotbed region for cycling. It all sounds familiar but remains inferior to the Strade Bianche. Part of this is down to money but for me it comes after the cobbled classics so the anticipation is reduced. It’s only live on local TV and its location in Brittany means a long journey for some even if this is another hotbed of cycling. Plus there’s no historic finish, Lannilis cannot offer the theatre of Siena.
The sport doesn’t have to choose between a sepia past and a digital future. The Greeks told the tale Theseus’s ship, where over the years he replaced the deck timbers and new oars were bought. In time the whole boat had changed but it was still Theseus’s ship. The same goes for today’s races, Milan-Sanremo has seen numerous course changes; Paris-Roubaix only became a cobbled demolition derby in the late 1960s. Today the route of the Tour de France is increasingly designed for television audiences; next week’s Paris-Nice uses gravel roads and so on . These races retain their name but quietly change their offering.
Does this mean a great race has to get dirty and dangerous just to compete or stay relevant? If dirt roads become the norm then we’d take them for granted. There’s a risk of inflation here where competing races start to outbid each other for infernal roads and the sport becomes a circus. But the sport is concious of this, see how ASO and RCS use the pavé and strade bianche sparingly in their grand tours.
Copy and paste
What can a new race take from the success of the Strade Bianche?
- exploit the local geography and use local features. A race on ordinary roads means an ordinary race
- borrow from the local history. The finish in the hilltop town Siena can be mimicked by arrivals next to local landmarks
- organic growth that builds on existing events helps and patience is required to make it work, a three year plan is not long enough
- why not start with a popular mass participation event? If the course is challenging and people travel to take part then the chances are it builds the foundation for a durable pro race
- Add a women‘s race. The Strade Bianche is for men and women and perhaps the UCI should be admitting new events to the World Tour after asking what they’re doing for women’s cycling?
The Strade Bianche is an instant success, a must-watch with almost as much prestige as some races that began in the nineteenth century. Let’s not exaggerate, nobody dreams of this ahead of the Ronde or Roubaix but it has taken a romantic hold on the sport and given it’s a physical test that cannot be fluked, winning here surely means as much as, say, the GP E3 or Paris-Tours. But without disappearing down the rabbit hole of trying to establish a hierarchy of races the point is that it’s impressive for a race in its tenth edition.
Its success is a case study in taking a new race and turning it into a hit. But replicating it elsewhere is hard, problematic even. Select geography, scenic roads and a rich history of cycling gives this race more than a head start over other new races, it provides the foundation on which to add a pro race.
- Note: loyal readers might recognise this piece. It is a rework of an older post but updated and rewritten in parts