Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In the Wake of Spartacus - Riding the white roads of Siena

One-day bike races become classics because of their great and storied past in the lexicon of cycling. When I think of these classics, which take place in the spring of the pro-racing calendar, the names Paris-Roubaix and Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) immediately come to mind.  In recent years, however, there is a third race that is rapidly gaining stature and popularity in the classics hierarchy.  This race is Le Strade Bianche (white gravel roads).  The race is 188 kilometers long and takes place in the Tuscan countryside all around Siena. The course profile is a lot like the Tour of Flanders in that it is made up of many short steep hill sections.  The race organizers then throw in 8 sections of gravel roads which are similar to the cobble sections of Paris-Roubaix.  Strade has all the elements of a truly great Spring Classic, and it is quite possibly one of the most exciting bike races to watch all year. 

The Tuscan countryside around Siena
Unlike the other classics, Le Strade Bianche doesn't have a long storied past, in fact, it has only been in existence since 2007.  By 2008 the event was incorporated into the "Spring Classics" season, and by 2013 --- only its sixth year running --- it is already considered by many to be one of the citadels of spring racing.  The course has all the elements of an epic day on a bike - varied terrain, strategic white gravel sections, very tough hills, and is set against a backdrop of Tuscan vineyards, olive groves, and beautiful medieval villages and towns.

Liam and I had wanted to go to Siena to check out this great event since last year when we saw Fabian Cancellara (Spartacus) win the race. We had been planning a late winter training camp in Lucca, Italy around the same time, but it just didn't look like the timing was going to work to get there this year.  While we were in Lucca, however, I got a message from our friend Jose Been asking if we were going to be at the race.  Jose (Tour de Jose) is a cycling reporter and she was covering the Strade imbedded with the Vacansoliel Team. That tipped the scale in favor of Siena and a white road pre-race recon.  Unfortunately, it wasn't possible to stay in Siena for the entire race, but we would be able to ride part of the course the day before, and go to Gaiole in Chianti for the start race morning.

Fabian looking over his racing steed
 We arrived in Siena on Friday morning, which was the day before the race.  We found our hotel, immediately got the bikes together, and then headed out in search of the famous white roads.  We were on a mission.  I had briefly looked at a map, but really didn't have a great idea where we were going.  I just figured we would ride and take things as they came.  Siena is a little hectic near the city center, and I was starting to regret not having a good map with me.  Just then in the distance we saw the Radioshack Leopard Trek team bus at a hotel just on the outskirts of town.  I figured we could stop by, say hello, and that they could possibly be able to point us in the right direction.  What took place next is hard to believe --- so it is a good thing I captured it on video.  Spartacus himself was getting ready to do a training session and dial in his totally awesome Trek Domane bike for the race.  Even better was the fact that he was heading out to a section of the Strade Bianche.  We had a guide, now all we had to do was keep up! 

Riding in the wake of Spartacus
I was beginning to feel like we were in a scene of Alice in Wonderland.  Instead of following the white rabbit though, we were following Spartacus himself out to the white stoned roads.  We rode behind in the wake of the legend at a distance of 5 to 7 meters (triathlon anti-drafting rule style) in order to give Fabian space to do what he needed to do to prepare for the race, but it was still a really cool experience.  And, just as promised, after about 20k of chasing the champion, we hit the first Strade Bianche gravel section.

Tough climbs on sections of the Strade

Liam was digging it!
We parted ways with Fabian and hit the white roads with everything we had.  Dust was flying and we were having a blast.  The climbs were tough, but some of the descents - especially on the corners - were gnarly.  Hats off to the pros - they make it look easy.

Liam and Jose in Siena
 That evening, we met up with Jose for a beer/Coke and had a great time talking cycling and watching several of the teams prepare for the upcoming race.  The logistics that go into getting a professional cycling team prepared for a race like Strade Bianche are amazingly complex.  (That no doubt will be the subject of a future blog post...)  The next morning we headed out to Gaiole in Chianti and watched the race start.  The riders headed south towards Siena, but we had to head north towards France for a seven hour dash back to Provence.  It was a great introduction to a classic race which I'm sure we will be closely following for years to come!  

The race start at Gaiole in Chianti

Live Strong, Train Safe and Live Well!

This is Bill and Liam signing out.


  1. This sounds incredible. Let's do the ride together in April. With snow greetings from Spartacus' home town
    Big T

  2. Great post! That's fantastic that you had Spartacus as your own professional 'guide'. I enjoy all your posts and videos. Best of luck.