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Strade Bianche: The Finish Line Awaits in Siena

These one-day classic cycling events are a thrill to watch. Bikes, dust, short sprints, long hills and only one day to stand on the podium’s highest step. These are the races the legends watch. The pros bring their A-game, racing as fast as they can. Yet the Strade Bianche is unlike any other spring racing event, and it is certainly no picnic.

The Strade Bianche is – without a doubt – the best gravel race on the UCI circuit. Its the best of the Tuscan bike tours. If you are familiar with Siena’s palio madness, then you’ll fit right in along the Strade Bianche. It is the hardest, professional, single-day cycling event – more challenging than the Paris-Roubaix. But, where the Roubaix has cobblestones, the Strade Bianche has unforgivable dirt roads, snaking through the cypresses of the Tuscan countryside. And best of all, it takes place in Tuscany Bicycle’s backyard on our Tuscany Gravel destination.


Thanks to the recent “gravel-crazy” frenzy, this unique bike race has rediscovered a wave of popularity. However, the origins of the Strade Bianche stretch back further than most fans realize. There isn’t much written history about the event before its “re-installment” in 2007. Like many Tuscan cycling legends, the allure of the Strade Bianche is rich with tales of courage and perseverance.

The race archives in Florence attest to the creation of a “Great Race” in Tuscany. Founded by the popular wine establishment Gallo in the Tuscan hills, the organizers sought to bring notoriety to their vintages. Around the turn of the century, the epic Bordeaux-Paris bike race of 1891 drew attention to France’s premier wine growing districts. Why not draw the same attention to Tuscany?

The Gallo family race was a success in 1893, highlighting the interconnected roads between Tuscany’s most powerful wineries. But regional politics regarding bicycle races changed the direction of the early Giro di Toscana into an edition more suited on paved roads. In addition, internal difficulties within the Gallo family divided the estate, and stole leadership from the great race on dirt roads. But no destination is better for excellent biking and excellent wines like Chianti.

Those first editions of the Strade Bianche had its fair share of heroes, such as legendary Costante Girardengo. Considered the original campionissimo, Girardengo was able to bike the over 300km on treacherous, trenched dirt roads. This “Giro di Toscana” was the modern precursor to the Strade Bianche. And as each region began to have its official road race on paved roads, the thrills of the dirt got left in the dust. Until the popularity of gravel biking came along in 2006.

His and Hers

2007 was when the men’s edition of the Strade Bianche became an official UCI event.  Noteworthy names like Cancellara, Segan, Gilbert and last year’s Alaphilippe have made their way to the podium over the years. This race is as important as the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Brest classic competitions. But now, due to the coronavirus outbreak, dates have been rearranged and professionals will be hitting the dirt later in the season.  Of course, most of then haven’t been racing this year, but the weather in March is typically cold and rainy. Now – in the throws of the Tuscan summer – this gritty test of courage will be unleashed during the hottest month of the year: August 1st.

So, have no fear. The 2020 edition of the dusty duel has not been canceled. Actually, it will be an incredible display of skill and determination. The varied and rolling course extends over 184 grueling kilometers. There is a lack of long climbs, however the race is speckled with short steep sections on dirt and sand. There are 63 total kilometers of dirt, (with 8km similar to the women’s edition) and over 8 sections with well-maintained, hard-packed dirt.

From the historic Siena departure, the first interesting section of dirt road will be at km 18, perfectly straight and narrow. The women have been dirt racing in Tuscany since 2015. The Strade Bianche has been an official qualifying race in the UCI Women’s World Tour since 2016. The winner of the first ever edition was American cyclist Megan Guarnier who also won the female Gio d’Italia in 2016. The first place finisher of the official UCI race was Britan’s Elizabeth Armistead. Italy’s Elisa Borghini brought home the highest podium finsh in 2017. This year the women’s edition of the Strade Bianche boasts 136 total kilometers with over 30km of dirt road. Expect it to be a battle of the best – especially over the 9.5 km section of S. Martino in Granaia. It is bound to be a dusty battle for the title.

It’s All Downhill From Here

Although there are dirt road stretches of 11km near Asciano, most of the difficulty lies in the hillier parts of the race. But climbing uphill isn’t the problem: you need to be carful when going downhill. The Strade Bianche are notorious for their technical descents – on dirt. Sections like Lucignano or the descent from Pieve a Santi will put a professional’s bike-handling skills to the fire. Positioning, route knowledge and sheer luck will play major roles in who will be fortunate enough to cross the finish line.

Why White Roads?

The Crete Senesi are the quintessential hills of southern Tuscany. If you have ever traveled to this famous Italian region to visit Pienza’s Palazzo Piccolomini and eat tagliatelle al cinghiale, you’ll have recognized the unique coloring to the rock. This dry earth limestone mix of small pebbles and sand give the roads a spectacular white hue to them. One look over the lush green hills of the countryside and you’ll see a mesmerizing matrix of white interconnecting farm roads.

Strade Bianche and Bartali

Gino Bartali is possibly one of the best-known Italian bike racers of the 30s and 40s. Born just outside of Florence, he and Fausto Coppi made cycling history with their epic duels over mountain passes and across a city’s cobbled streets. But Gino Bartali’s heroic efforts during WWII took place directly on the white roads of Tuscany.

It is known Bartali couriered false identification documents in his bicycle frame to avoid the fascist authorities during the war. He often would travel on his bicycle between Florence and Assisi for the Italian Resistance, delivering pictures of Jewish citizens residing in his hometown. The counterfeiters in Assisi would create falsified documents using these pictures. Eventually, he would return to pick up the fake ids and help distribute them among his Jewish compatriots.

His actions protected hundreds of Florentine citizens. And his route from Florence to Assisi took place on these same White Roads between Tuscany and Umbria.

Bartali rode the Strade Bianche – the white vineyard paths – remaining distant from the wondering eye of the Gastapo. The military patrolled these dirt roads infrequently, expecting to find only simple farmers and ignorant locals along them.

Gino Bartali used his persona to justify his biking the 180km distance from Assisi to Florence as training.  Already by 1938, the Italian government – including Mussolini – considered Bartali a true compatriot, claiming he was “god-like” in public. As an untouchable, Bartali would use his fame and his political connections to justify his Strade Bianche training, if ever he were stopped en route to Assisi. A race on the Strade Bianche isn’t just a professional bike race. It is a test of strength and courage, not only within the context of athletic tenacity, but as a measure of human justice. A race on dirt roads is remembering what good humanity can achieve when faced with some of the world’s deadliest challenges.

Looking for the gravel experience of your life? Get in touch with our staff at Tuscany Bicycle and get yourself ready to start digging in the dirt.

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Gabriel Del Rossi

Gabriel is a writer and an adventure travel guide working in Europe on bicycle, hiking, skiing and kayaking holidays. You can read more about him at https://oxwriter.com/

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