After being pulled out of last year’s Strade Bianche just a few days before the start, I have been itching to get back. Being a new guy on MTS, I’ve been very accepting and open to management’s proposed program, but this was the one race that I asked to do. I was grateful they supported my ambition to get back on the white roads of Tuscany.
My first edition of Strade was back in 2010 and I was instantly hooked. Although it carries a high dose of madness, danger, and difficulty like most one-day classic style races, this is a race that gets me amped up just thinking about it and that finish line scene in Sienna is my favorite in the sport.
Coming off UAE and less than a week in-between, I knew to anticipate a shock to the system as we blazed through the technical neutral and into km 0. This was the first time I've done this race without a recon the day before and that amplified the shock. Add to new tires that I had never ridden on these surfaces and being a bit unsure of pressure, the anticipation ramped up even more.
Our young guys did a great job marking early moves, which allowed the rest of us to stay as calm as possible. It was still a fight into the first sectors, and I think everyone was blown away by the amazing amount of dust and extreme lack of visibility. This was the loosest and driest Strade I've ever seen it. Some areas felt like loose gravel while others were nearly beach sand. Even at the front of the bunch, it was dusty as the cars and motos in front of the race kicked up a huge cloud.
The race played out as we expected over the first 60 or so km. It was very fast, aggressive and lots of dust! A quick regroup as we did the longest paved climb of the race up to Montalcino (the iconic 2010 TDF stage finish that Cadel won was my first foray into the Strade Bianche roads even before the official race). This is where things started to get intense with the next 20 km being continuous dirt, up, down, twisting, off-camber and windy exposed. It’s hard to stay together as a team during those intense moments, and I was reminded that we are still learning to ride together.
The following sectors didn't disappoint when it came to drama. I saw multiple guys bite the dust, suffer punctures and on more than one occasion, I found my wheels ricocheting off riders on the ground, barely getting over and around them. There are so many close calls in a race like this that we quickly lose track of them so that we can stay present and focused.
It was my job to stay with our leaders Luke and Chris into the next sectors where the race would likely explode, and the early final of the race began. I could feel the repeated maximum efforts wearing on my legs but stayed vigilant to be up front and with those guys. In previous editions, I had escaped in late counterattack breaks on these sections and wanted to keep an eye out for the same chances. I did find myself on the front of the bunch on a few occasions with one of our protected guys, Chris, on my wheel and out of trouble.
The Mont St Marie sector almost always proves decisive. The out of control downhill pavement into this sector sets it up and makes positioning very difficult. We all ended up freelancing a bit and turned left onto the dirt a little farther back than what was ideal. The lead-out guys were now exploding, and leaders started to make their moves. It was another max effort of desperation to make up as much ground as possible, but the splits were already happening and the damage was done. Over the top, I linked up with Chris, Luke and other team leaders such as Nibili, Thomas, Kung, Dillier--whose teams had also missed the front selection.
I dug in and began working to keep the front group in check, hoping that things would get tactical and a moment’s hesitation would allow us to come back and keep Luke and Chris in play. Luke had a problem with his saddle that required a trip to the car and put a dent in his legs. Eventually, all three of us were riding through in a last-ditch effort to stay in the game. The gap came down to 20 seconds as the front group started splitting, but as we often see in these brutal one-day races, there seems to be a terminal velocity of any group on the road and gaps became exponentially harder to close the deeper you go into the race.
As we approached Sienna, our group began jockeying to race for a top 15 place. I had spent all my bullets in the chase, so knew I would be in survival mode up to Sienna. I arrived there having left everything out on the road and grateful to survive in one piece. I made sure to soak up the fantastic finish line environment. Personally, I know there is definite room to improve, and in terms of the team, but I am enjoying riding with them and staying focused on the process and what is in our control to improve.
Next up, a big week in Italy at Tirreno Adriatico that will serve up another big step up in difficulty with some mountainous terrain, long stages, TTT and ITT and some new teammates to race with for the first time.
Race Images: Getty Images