Words: © Matthew Bailey. Images: © Chris Auld.
In a sport that claims to be built on century-old tradition, it sure comes as a surprise to see one of the season’s youngest races, Strade Bianche – a mere 12 editions old – have such a lasting impression on both riders and fans alike. The race may not have established history, or a long list of winners – but it does have its own, unique terroir.
The professional peloton first raced on the white roads of Tuscany in 2007. Back then the event was called Monte Paschi Eroica, after sponsor Monte Paschi (an Italian bank) and Eroica Strade Bianche, a Gran Fondo for vintage bikes which had been run over the same terrain for a decade beforehand.
Just a dozen years (and a couple of changes to the name and route) later, Strade Bianche is one of the highlights of the cycling calendar, popular with spectators and a serious early-season target for a number of riders. Past winners include Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, Michal Kwiatkowski (twice) and Fabian Cancellara (three times).
How can Strade Bianche have become such a significant and well-established race in such a short time when it lacks the history and tradition that are – surely! – key to a race’s importance? All of cycling’s other major races have been around for much, much longer: the Tour since 1903, Paris-Roubaix since 1896 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Doyenne, famously the oldest Monument, first graced the roads of the Ardennes as long ago as 1892.
But a moment’s reflection surely shows that sheer age is nothing like enough for greatness, or even survival. Bordeaux-Paris started in 1891, before any of the races listed above, but hasn’t been missed much since the last professional edition in 1988. Tradition too is a nebulous thing in cycling, with apparently essential elements of even the most important races regularly abandoned for organizational or financial reasons. Notoriously, Paris-Roubaix hasn’t started anywhere near Paris since 1976. Even the finish of that great race isn’t sacred: from 1986-88 it was moved away from the Roubaix Velodrome to the Avenue des Nations-Unies, home to corporate headquarters of mail order company and race sponsor La Redoute. No one seems to remember that Flanders Classics did something similar with the Ronde in 2012 when they moved the finish line to Oudenaarde to accommodate more beer tents, taking the hallowed Kapelmuur out of the race altogether.
So if not history and tradition, what makes a race great?
The French have a word, ‘terroir’, shorthand for all the things about a place that affect the way a crop grows there, and most commonly (though not only) used when discussing wine. An area’s terroir includes climatic conditions, farming techniques, soil type, whether its slope faces north or south, what other crops grow in the vicinity and potentially many other things besides. France’s entire appellation d'origine contrôlée system of classifying wines is based on the idea that an area’s terroir gives the grapes that grow there a unique quality.
Of course, all wine-producing places have terroir, in the sense that all grapes grow on vines in fields full of some kind of soil, and open to the elements, whatever they are. But wine is only said to have terroir when it expresses all these factors through its character – not only its taste, but its other features including colour, bouquet, sediment and ‘mouthfeel’.
In a similar way, all places where bicycle races take place have terroir in the sense that they all take place on particular roads at a certain time of year and under more or less consistent conditions. But like wine, not every race has terroir. By analogy with wine, we might say a race has terroir only to the degree that the interplay of a wide range of natural features of the land, climate and environment has the potential to decide the way the race pans out.
The terroir of the Giro includes endless mountains and a chill in the air. The terroir of the Tour also includes mountains, though fewer of them, but also more time-trialling and the July heat. The terroir of Paris-Roubaix includes, of course, the pavé. Of the Ronde, the short sharp climbs. Of Classics racing in general, the side winds and the battered old farm tracks. All of these naturally occurring elements of the environment are also essential features of the race, in the sense that they can force a selection and together decide the result.
Wine-lovers argue endlessly whether terroir is real, or a marketing fiction, or just a lot of pretentious nonsense. But in cycling there is no debate. It is the possession of terroir that has the potential to make a bicycle race truly great, allowing each edition to unite location and event and so to transform both.
Conversely, races that lack much by way of terroir are much less involving. Take Liège-Bastogne-Liège. There has been much muttering in recent times about the race’s relative decline in importance, often attributed to the decision to move the finish from Liège itself to Ans. The result is that the race is often decided by a single feature, namely, the final climb. Much the same can be said of La Flèche Wallone, comprising as it usually does a long group ride to the base of the Mur de Huy, where begins an international hill climb championship. The consequence is that these two races are no longer an expression of the Ardennes region through which they pass, since the region plays no meaningful role in the result. Such races seem less vivid, less meaningful than races truly rooted in their terroir. Something similar might even be said about Milan-San Remo and the Poggio.
Strade Bianche, on the other hand, has terroir by the tractor load. The 2018 edition incorporated 63 kilometres of the white gravelled country lanes and farm tracks that lend the race its unique character as well as its name. Their uneven, loose surface recalls the pavé of Paris-Roubaix. Tuscany’s short steep hills make not only the perfect setting for vineyards and orchards, but also create numerous punchy climbs of a kind that bring to mind the hellingen of the Ronde.
Organisers RCS consciously echoed both the great northern Monuments. But Strade Bianche has its own character too, not least because of the sheer length of the stretches of gravel. The longest sector of the 2018 route, named Lucignano d’Asso, measured up to 12 km, and all the sectors together made up a third of the race’s route. For comparison, the cobbles of northern France comprised barely a fifth of this year’s Paris-Roubaix and the longest stretch was only 3.7 km long.
In this year’s wet conditions the gravel roads determined almost every aspect of the race. A breakaway formed, but then the pre-race favourites combined to shatter the peloton behind them and catch the group ahead after the seventh sector, with 60 km still to race. On the eighth sector a ten-strong group moved clear, including such luminaries of the peloton as Tom Dumoulin, Giovanni Visconti, Tiesj Benoot, Romain Bardet and world cyclo-cross champion, Wout van Aert, as well as a late-arriving Peter Sagan. Attacks came thick and fast on the loose surface before the eventual winner, Benoot, broke away from Bardet and van Aert immediately after the penultimate stretch of gravel. He made a decisive second attack on a steep climb in the final sector and rode away over the final 10 km to the finish line in Siena’s spectacular Piazza del Palio.
Strade Bianche has already played fast and loose with its own short-lived “traditions”. The 2007 edition was held in October, but the date was switched to March in 2008 to fit into the Spring Classics season. The race’s official name changed in 2009, 2010 and again in 2015. The start changed in 2014 and in 2016. Oh, and of course this year, thanks to the weather, the roads weren’t even white (though Strade Marroni has a ring to it too).
But it doesn’t matter. You don’t need tradition if you have terroir.
This feature first appeared in Conquista issue 19.