How the hell … ? is Journal Velo‘s regular column, giving readers food for thought and topics for discussion. This week, it’s time to tackle one of cycling’s great questions… how do races become true classics?
In cycling, “Classic” is a term with no properly defined meaning. One broad definition is that a classic is a one-day race, tends to happen in Western Europe and it usually has a long and deep history. Many races call themselves a classic but it’s not an accolade you can bestow on yourself (Ride London, I’m looking at you). It’s an honour that has to be earned. Without that certain something, races are just … races.Embed from Getty Images
However, for fans and riders alike, Tuscany’s Strade Bianche is considered a classic, despite being only 11 years old. So, how the hell did it become a classic so quickly?
Strade Bianche starts with a major handicap: the race has no deep history. There are no black-and-white memories of Fausto Coppi winning it with an air of nonchalance. There are no technicolour flashbacks to an era of Eddie Merckx domination. Strade Bianche started in 2007 and only eight riders have won it – these are not the credentials of a classic.
But Strade has something wannabe classic races crave – a unique and distinguishing feature. And that is the white gravel roads that give the race its name and, more importantly, give the race its own visual identity and character.Embed from Getty Images
Some races are known for their terrain; some races get famous through scenery; some races are all about the challenge of their surfaces. Strade combines all three. Whereas the most distinguishing feature of Ride London is the Nando’s in Putney, Strade Bianche paints a beautiful picture of the Tuscan landscape. Once the white stuff is finished, there’s a fairly industrial run into Siena, up a slip road or two and past the Esso petrol station, but you’ll soon forget suburbia as the race then takes a turn back in time.Embed from Getty Images
The parcours runs through the ancient city walls and up the narrow steep sinewy paths to the centre of Siena for the most beautiful final kilometre in professional cycling. Riders flash past buildings that have stood unaltered for centuries until eventually, the winner emerges, delivered seemingly into the centre of a huge crowd.Embed from Getty Images
If it were just the beauty, Strade Bianche still wouldn’t be a classic, it’s the challenge of the parcours itself. The white gravel sectors are a test of balance and strength – not as decisive or as punishing as the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix but probably better for it – while the run-in to Siena tests tactics and endurance and the steep finish forces the riders to give everything they have left in their bid for glory.
The calibre of past winners says it all – Fabian Cancellara (three times), Michal Kwiatkowski (twice), Zdenek Stybar, Phillippe Gilbert –as do the names of riders who haven’t been able to crack it. Greg Van Avermaet, Alejandro Valverde and Peter Sagan have all been on the podium but never the top step. And in the ‘every dog has his day’ scenario of a true class, Moreno Moser has won it.
It’s a race that gives the best riders a proper test and looks like no other.
So how the hell did Strade Bianche become such an instant classic? Because it deserves to be one.