Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA


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“At the end of the ride my first sight of Carl was near the car.”

We’d very conveniently parked a few hundred metres away from the start of the course rather than riding the 15 or so km from or hotel. We could spot him from a distance shivering with a big white towel wrapped around his upper body. The closer and closer we got to him the wider and wider his grin was. And that’s when we knew that his experience of the Strade Bianche Gran Fondo equalled or excelled ours.

It started innocently enough some two days earlier. The first clue lay at Pisa airport (I prefer the locals more musical name – Aeroporto Internazionale Galileo Galilei. Bike boxes being wheels off flights with slim tanned gentleman who have never seen the needle of their scales edge past 65kg. This was the weekend of the Strade Bianche – a new classic in the making. And we were attempting the Gran Fondo – 125km of rolling hills that turned out to be not so rolling.

Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA

Our hosts were who put on a weekend of cycling and hospitality that was second to none. Their local knowledge of the Tuscan area, entwined with their passion for cycling was contagious and very reassuring. Here’s a weekend where I could talk about Di2 groupsets without the wife glazing over. Paradise.

Rewind a few weeks back I’d gone all spontaneous and blabbed out to my wife over breakfast I’d like to do some Sportive over in Italy. I can’t remember her exact response but it included the phrases ‘bucket list’ and ‘just do it’. That’s good enough for me.

The trip from Pisa airport was peppered with vineyards and countryside that reminded me of my childhood holidays to visit the family near Florence. We were instead headed some 75km south of Florence, just South of the Chianti Classico region to the walled city of Siena. Host to the bi-annual Palio di Siena – the horse race where ten bareback riders circle the Piazza del Campo at terrifying speeds. This was to be substituted by modern day carbon steeds raced by the likes of Canceralla and Nibali in the Pro race on the Saturday and us mere mortals on the Sunday.

Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA

The guys at La Corsa packed a lot into the weekend. Our bikes were ready and gleaming on the Friday afternoon. Hey, it would be a shame not to get out there in the soft afternoon sunshine and see what the Giant propels with Di2 can do. After a quick route discussion we headed out for a swift 35km south of the hotel to stretch the legs. The first thing I noticed were the roads, no giant potholes from Kent and Surrey here but decent tarmac with local drivers who have canny knack for texting and driving at the same time without cause for any concern.

The spinout was short and sweet – with an obligatory Expresso nestled in the middle. We agreed over Chianti and antipasto that night at the local watering hole that speed in km and elevation in feet was a good compromise to make us look a bit more heroic.

Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA

Saturday was as similar length ride in the morning visiting some incredibly beautiful Tuscan hilltops handpicked by our guides Andy and Chris. They both have infinite experience in doing these tours and can easily gauge the mood of the party to make sure no-one is left behind or left out. Our route criss-crossed the very Strade Bianche that the woman’s route was taking – the exact same route we would be on tomorrow. However the buzz of the overhead helicopters was way in the distance so these particular white roads lay untouched by the Pros wheels. We found out later Lizzie Armistead had graced Siena with a courageous victory. What a performance.

We headed back to the hotel, taking turns in a polite train and then headed via car the 13km into Siena for the end of the mens race. The timing was perfect. We had time for a exquisite pasta luch at a restaurant which conveniently had the race beamed live to a large LCD screen. The place was buzzing with mechanics earning a well earned rest transfixed by the ensuing battle on the big screen and woman’s pro cycling teams excitedly swopping their post race stories.

Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA

Andy guided us to the best place to view the cyclists entrance to the city – an impossibly steep hill that was fun of cycling fanatics ready to cheer on their heroes. We took our position just round the corner at the top of the hill. I was a little worried we were ‘out of the action’ not being able to see down the hill but my fears weren’t justified. The roar of the crowd followed the cyclist up the unrelenting gradient, from murmur to crescendo we couldn’t miss the them grunting towards us. And in a flash they were gone. Canceralla swopped past to move into second on that bend and took the win on the winding streets of Siena to rapturous applause. The hand drawn banner a few feet from us hailed Sparticus and in the theatre of the Piazza del Campo he duly delivered. It was our turn tomorrow – but I’m certain no one’s naming a Strade Bianche section after us mere mortals (an honour bestowed on Canceralla after winning for the third time).

The day started innocently enough. Again our bikes were sorted for us and checked and rechecked – the new 25mm tyres were holding up incredibly well.

We are informed that our start time was around 9am so we arrived at Siena in plenty of time only to understand that although Italains mostly live up the the life-long mantra of things will happen ‘in their own time’ those sentiments don’t quite ring true for Grand Fondos. Bruno, one of my colleagues on the ride, counted 35 people behind us in the start line – which meant about 2,200 in front of us.

Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA

However its wasn’t long after the countdown that we were shuffling our way past the huge start sign and the simultaneous beeping of timing chips and Garmins creating a odd musical sendoff. With rolling roadblocks and mototcyclists loaded with spare wheels dancing around the lycra we were off. The sensation of being able to use the whole of the road to corners the swooping descents out of Siena was a delight and the amount of cyclists never posed a problem. The local Grand Fondo aficionados were tearing the pace up at the front finishing well over 80 minutes in front of us.

But it’s not about the clock time. Taking part in these types of events is much more about the experience. Any our experience was truly memorable.

The first section of unmade white roads came in a flash and was rather a tame introduction being only a slight elevation. Our host Chris’s great advice of gearing up to float above the bumpy surface worked a treat.

The first real test came not on the famed gravel roads but on the Passo del Rospatoio – 5km at 5% starting to test the legs. The great thing is there were lots of cyclists going backwards on this one so you soon shoot past a few hundred people. The food stations (of which there are three) are amply stocked – apparently lemon tea is offered – I was more obsessed by grabbing handfuls of delicious figs to fuel my ride.

Strade Bianche - Grand Fondo - LA CORSA

The first real challenge of the legs and bike handling skills starts with the gravel section of San Martino in Grania. Pick your line, avoid the holes and the puddles of water.  The scenery is stunning as we constantly blast up and down. I glance behind me and spot the unmistakable darkness of a thunder cloud on the horizon. It’s chasing us rapidly to ruin the rapidly declining sunshine. And it duly reaches us as we head up towards the top of this 9.5km section of gravel. We are greeted by a smattering of spectators and photographers shivering in the cold opening their umbrellas. We’ve nowhere to hide and are now resigned to the fact that things are going to get messy – and they do.

The second half of the course has four more sections of gravel road – each one with it’s own unique twists and turns. Going downhill I see Chris’s wheel slip and slide away and for a split second mine does the same as though in harmony. Thankfully we both stay upright ready to take the next gradient.

The thing you notice is the grinding effect of dust and grit in the drivetrain. It’s thrown up in unrelenting white mist from the Strade Bianche. These unsealed white farmers roads cross cross the Tuscany region competing with one another to be the steepest and slippiest.

I start up a conversion with a gentlemen from London Dynamo cycle club (I know a few members). It turns out we had both done the Kentish Killer sportive the Sunday before (6500ft climbing) so I’m going to forgive him his expletives as the poor fella ground up a particluarly steep climb. By the way, if you ever read this you will know that you were wrong – there were bigger hills to come.

The sign loomed on a welcome decent in big pink letters – 15km to go. The course however is designed to tease you. You feel so close to the end but as the route winds like spaghetti around the city walls those last few km seem to go on forever.

Then you enter the arched entrance to the city with the imposing  terracotta walls closing in on each side. Skip round a corner and the hill we glimpsed from the top during the Pro race hits you. And it’s steep. Head down, repeat the mantra ‘thou must not cramp’ and take it easy. It’s steep but over in a flash, and you are up and onto the last few hundreds metres of descent and down a sharp incline speeding under the finish line.

Strade Bianche Grand Fondo done!

Directly are the finish kine I was accosted by a very enthusiastic Italian commentator who pushed a microphone in my face – pointed to the large screen and wanted to interview me for the onlookers. Non capisco my friend!

And what happened to Carl – our man in the white towel?

He missed some course signage and headed out for an extra 14km of wind, rain and fun. He toppled over a few times on the steep climbs. He got battered by the hailstones and admitted to pushing the bike up a few hills (no point hiding the fact as the official photo are out!). But would he do it all again? Hell yes. In one word – it was Epic.

Huge thanks to Andy and Chris at LaCorsa. Their tours are very special indeed. Everything is taken care of leaving you ample time on the bike and also time to unwind.

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