The words Strade Bianche takes me back to a two hundred metre stretch of greasy stone slabs. Screaming fans adorn the barriers to my left and to my right and the Danish rider Michael Valgren is at my side, handlebars swinging as we muster all the leverage available to conquer the final arduous metres.
My chain grinds and grates as I enter the stunning piazza of Siena. I can’t hear it, due to the ruckus of the thousands of tifosi crammed onto the medieval square, but I can feel it with every rotation of the pedals. As I look down, the sandy colored material which cakes my entire bicycle brings the experiences of a few hours earlier flooding back:
Just under one hundred kilometres to go the race had exploded in to chaos, a large crash fracturing the peloton into ones and twos, never to fully re-form. Our man, Michal, had just managed to avoid the melee, slipping off the front with a dozen others, including a strong trio of young Belgians from Lotto-Soudal. Behind, various teams chased for the remainder of the race, coming to the fore at different moments but never really making an impact upon the leaders advantage.
In what at the time seemed like minutes, but in hindsight was over an hour of flat-out racing, we reached the mythical sector of Santa Maria. What remained of the peloton exploded. About twenty riders, myself included, tearing away on the Strade’s incredible ramps, twists and turns. The dirt road required absolute concentration, losing the wheel in front at this point in the race, simply not an option. I still don’t know if I was truly in control of my bike as we soared up and flew down the gravel road.
About halfway through the sector, Fabio Aru attacked, his team, Astana, one of those to have missed the lead group that had always hovered a minute or so ahead since the crash. As he flew off up the steep incline, I mustered my remaining energy and stood up to cover the attack, stamping on the pedals. And as I did so, I noticed someone in the corner of my eye, standing at the side of the road holding an umbrella. He wasn’t screaming and running like many of the other fans watching the race. No he stood still as a stone, phone in hand to capture the moment, a grin spread wide across his face. Due to the gradient, no doubt expertly chosen by the ex-pro, I had plenty of time to blow Joao a kiss as I rode past him, laughing to myself for the next few seconds.
An hour or so later, I crossed the line, a little chuckle with Valgren as we jokingly lunged for 36th and 37th place. I pedaled a metre or two further into the piazza before the fatigue hit me. What a day it had been, four hours and forty-two minutes of absolute concentration and flat-out racing. I was tired.
I’d thought that Joao’s would be the biggest smile I would see that day, but then I noticed our Carer stood waiting for me, drink and jacket in hand. He’d probably been standing in the rain for hours, but from one look at his face I knew immediately Kwiato had won.
The atmosphere on the bus was great and I was over the moon. A race I had watched for years, my first one-day World Tour race, a race as special as Strade Bianche – and we had won it. As I have come to expect in Italy, we were treated like kings at our hotel that night. The joy of the race carried into the evening as we enjoyed a delicious meal.
By eleven we were, of course, already in bed. The next races, of a busy calendar, already looming large on the horizon. But as I went to sleep, I couldnt help but think about how much I was already looking forward to the 2018 Strade Bianche. It is truly one of a kind, nothing like anything else, experience. A brutal, but beautiful day on the bike.
If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you book ingamba’s Strade Bianche trip immediately. I will be in Lecchi with the inGamba crew on the 28th February for another delicious Italian meal, to recount the race in 2017 and look ahead to the 2018 edition, which will be just a few days later.