A day in the most beautiful hell

Spring Classics are coming! Although they are called classics due to their long history, one could even better call them spring-epics, the iconic one-day-races at the beginning of the race season in Europe. And there is the queen of spring classics: Paris-Roubaix, the hell of the north. But is it also the queen of the spring-epics?

The sector-names like ‘Trouée d’Arenberg’ or ‘Carrefour de l’Arbre’ are well known synonyms for decisive moments in pro cycling as well as kilometers of not ending pain for those, who did the Paris-Roubaix-Challenge, but there are some new names in the business. They are called ‘Colle Pinzuto’, ‘Le Tolfe’ and ‘Via Santa Caterina’.While not a classic race in the common sense, the race I talk about has become a famous UCI world-tour race in only a decade. And for me, this still young race is the reason to expand the spring-classics to the spring-epics including the hell of Tuscany, Strade Bianche.

As a photographer for the Gran Fondo Strade Bianche which took place on Sunday, I had a free Saturday and decided to have a look on the pro race as well as taking the medio-fondo route to check out some photogenic spots for Sunday. I knew Strade Bianche is all about short steep climbs and white gravel roads, so I decided to leave my road bike at home and took my heavy custom travel-gravel-bike with me as it has wide tyres (50-622) and a good gearing for steep climbs (smallest gear 24×34).

While the tyres and the gearing were good decisions, taking a bike with mudguards to Strade Bianche is a stupid idea unless you have half a meter of space between mudguards and tyres.

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A look to the profile told me that the first couple of kilometers would mostly be flat and I expected no difficulties until I arrived at the first sector of white roads where the rain has formed a slippery surface of mud and the strong winds of up to 80 km/h made me feel like pedaling uphill a gradient of 7-10%. The first climb (with only single digit gradients) gave me hope to have an easy going day and by the way, I found this nice place.

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From that point on I was on the true roads of Strade Bianche, where Tuscany explains to you on every meter that gradients of ‘only’ 10% are not enough to define such a beautiful landscape. There was not a single flat meter for the rest of the day. The descents are too short to recover and the climbs are too long to reach their top with the speed of the descents. So it is all about riding at the physical limit for most of the time while your hands have a lot to do with keeping your bike on the road. But don’t forget to have a look around from time to time; you might miss some beautiful views!

And then, I faced the last 25 km (same as the pro race finish), where you can find those names like ‘Colle Pinzuto’ mentioned above. All of them are challenges on their own, but packed into the end of the course, they form the most decisive finish, I have ever seen. I was most of the time close to 20% gradients, mostly on the white gravel roads, Strade Bianche got its name from. I even had problems with the grip of my wide tyres so I have no idea how the Pros did the course with their thin slicks.

The last gravel sector is just crazy! Within only 1.2 km, you descend at 14%, then you go around a tight corner and finally you go straight uphill at immediately 18%

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After all those climbs and white road sectors, you head directly to the beautiful center of Siena where the last challenge is waiting for you. I’ve never heard such a beautiful name for such an evil road, but you will know what I mean when you face the ‘Via Santa Caterina’ on the last km.

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After the last meters of the labyrinth through the narrow roads of Siena, you arrive on the Piazza del Campo, an incredible scenery for the finish line.

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What I would recommend if you want to ride Strade Bianche:

Get the widest tyres possible for your road bike (pray, it would be more than 25 mm), choose a compact crank set like 50-34 and try to fit a cassette with 32T, prepare your legs for some really steep climbs! Think about your pedal setup as well, as it might be useful to be able to clip out fast when you realize that the gradient is too steep for your smallest gear or when you lose grip in an uphill section and your velocity turns to zero. If you are already in good shape in March, you might even fight with this famous person, who won the Pro-Race Strade Bianche 3 times.

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Or even better: take this race as an excuse to buy a gravel bike. No one will say it was a useless investment when you arrive at the finish line at Piazza del Campo with a smile on your mud marked face, knowing that you had an epic ride through the beautiful hell of Tuscany.

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