My sister asked a question on Facebook that I’m sure you’ve all probably heard a few times before – ‘why do you put yourself through all that torture?’. Normally, I have a good handful of standard replies for questions like that, but on the last 18% muddy climb that we had to get over to make it back into Sienna, I don’t think I could have produced much in the way of a convincing answer.
The worst part of all this, of course, is that I even knew what I was getting myself into, having ridden Strade Bianche 2017. Humans are complex beings.
But back to the start…
This year a group of us descended on Tuscany from 3 corners of the world (Paris, New York and Nimes) to watch the newest, most exciting race on the pro calendar (on Saturday) and then ride it ourselves (on Sunday). Here are a couple of us on our 10-hour drive from home.
We drove through rain, hail and snow to get to Sienna, so we were very happy to see Stephen in our ‘apartment’, especially since he had the stove full of wood. On that first night we ate with a friendly group of cyclists from Ipswich in a 1000 year old mill that our host family owns.
And they kept filling up those big carafes of wine. What little resistance I ever claimed to have was gone, but miraculously I woke up the following morning not quite ready to ride, but definitely up to driving into Sienna to pick up our bibs and goody bags.
If you’ve had the chance to watch this year’s pro race (do it, you’ll love it), you’ll know that the conditions were, as runner-up Roman Bardet said at the end, ‘Dantesque’. It was truly a crappy day to be anywhere but somewhere warm, so three of us went back to the ranch and watched the men suffer for a couple of hours, all the while praying that the forecast wouldn’t change overnight and we could ride without having to surgically remove mud from our bodies.
And it didn’t. The morning broke cloudy and cold but not raining. We all put on pretty much everything we owned in the way of cycling kit (I even put on something I didn’t own – thanks Stephen for the Gabba!) and hit our respective pens.
And then Dante’s Hell broke loose. I only know my own inner and outer turmoil for the next 5 hours, so I’ll give you that. If the others want to chime in, I for one love to hear of the sufferings of others.
Oh, but before that, I have to tell you something that you won’t be surprised about. My Garmin bit the dust a few days before the event and I don’t own a watch, so I only had Karsten’s very handy little top tube parcours follower that I taped on the bike and tried to read and ride at the same time.
I wish he had included that pothole I hit on the very first gravel section…
Yes, 20 km into the race and my Bianchi’s back wheel violently seized up, resulting in a lot of Italians yelling a lot of Italian. I got myself safely over to the side of the road and frantically wondered what the heck had happened. All I knew was that my back brakes had clamped tight, so I worked on that. After what seemed like an hour (mostly likely 3 minutes), and with a steady stream of riders passing me relentlessly by, I had worked my brakes loose enough to ride. As I climbed back on I immediately realized what had happened: my full weight had been on my hoods as I hit that crater and the shock had knocked my right brake lever-thingy down the handlebars a couple of centimeters, stretching both the brake and shifter cables. I spent the next hour or so trying to muscle the hoods back up (don’t try this, it doesn’t work) and eventually stopped one more time to pee and totally loosen the back brake so it wouldn’t rub on the rim and slow me down.
But that wasn’t the only drama that happened on that first, flat section of ‘white road’. Stephen lost his saddle bag with his two CO2 cartridges and the road was strewn with what appeared to be 50% of the peloton’s bidons. Stephen insisted that if we had gone back to that section later in the day we could have opened a bike shop with the loot we could find. It was mayhem. Here is that stretch of road in happier times, the day before.
After I learned to live with my situation I rode reasonably well, not burning my matches on the climbs and hiding behind anyone I could find on the flats. For the first 80 km I felt remarkably fresh.
But I knew what was coming because nothing had changed since last year, plus our accommodation owner, Andrea, told me repeatedly that ‘the last 30 km are tough’. To say that the Strade Bianche is ‘back loaded’ is, well, true. There are a series of very steep and not-too-short dirt climbs that suck any energy you thought you were saving out of you. It’s a cruel 2nd Act that can make a grown man weep (or so they say..).
And once you’ve maneuvered your way to the top of that last climb out in the countryside, you know that there’s one more to go. The run-in to Sienna is really nice, with a few great views of the old city itself on the hill, but all the time you’re spending riding towards the Piazza del Campo, you know that you have to will yourself and your bike up the dreaded grades of that final paving-stone ascent.
But it’s not that long in the end and after you crest that one you’re home free. You spin the last 500 meters down Sunday-quiet medieval streets till the course dumps you out into the most dramatic ending of any bike event.
I’m no sure about the rest of the gang, but I spent a few minutes coming back to life before even attempting to move. The immediate feeling after that was over is encapsulated in the look on Karsten and Sarah’s faces after their ordeal was over.
As for ‘performance’, I was pretty happy with the way I went this year, despite my mishap on the gravel in the beginning.
My average speed over 2017 was up one kph to 28 and although my overall placing was the same (top 30%), my age category position was better (top 25%). This proves that I am still improving with age (or at least within my age…?), but I’m 50 in a few days, so I expect there might be a u-turn coming soon.
While I wait for that to happen, I’m planning a return to Tuscany in 2019 if anyone wants to join the fun.