Dusty Tuscan Roads
UK women's pro rider, Lizzy Banks, takes us through the twists and turns of Strade Bianche race day through Tuscany.
By Lizzy Banks
5 min read by Lizzy Banks
Pro Rider, Lizzy Banks, gives us an insight to what Tuscany has to offer
“Tuscany has been calling me back to its dusty winding roads ever since first visiting Montepulciano and Siena for my honeymoon in 2016. Back then we explored on foot and by Vespa, but it was the other type of two-wheeled transport that we longed to return with, our beloved bikes…
Every man and his dog knows of the cliche of Tuscany’s beauty.
But still, nothing quite prepares you for the jaw-dropping scenery that awaits.
Endlessly rolling landscape scattered with ancient hilltop villages, picture-perfect dusty white roads winding up the hillsides lined with the most immaculate looking cypress trees.
As a professional cyclist, so much of the time you fly into a race, do the race, and fly out again immediately, hardly having a moment to explore or take in the areas you’re travelling to.
But Strade Bianche is different.
This is a race that commands respect. A modern classic, a gruelling race no matter the conditions and a race that requires excellent preparation. What this really means is that when travelling to this race I get to spend an extra few days in Siena, enjoying great Italian food and most importantly, riding those famous white roads.
The women’s race route starts and finishes in Siena
Totally 136km with 8 gravel sectors and 31km total on the famous gravel roads
The whole race route is a big day out, but it’s also possible to create shorter loops taking in fewer of the sectors, giving you a bit more time to stop for that hugely deserved glass of wine at San Giorgio a Lapi Winery after the leg-stinging ascent on the Colle Pinzuto of Sector 7.
Rolling out from Siena, the route starts with a long and winding downhill before hitting sector 1, Vidritta. At 2.1km long this is one of the shorter sectors on the menu but it merely serves as a teaser for what’s to come. Straight and very slightly downhill, Vidritta gives you a chance to get your gravel legs ready for what’s next and you needn’t wait long as sector 2 is around the corner.
The 2nd sector is also the second-longest at 5.8km and a short descent sweeps you round a left-hand corner into a tough gravel climb that just keeps on climbing, up and up through the trees topping out around 12%. Once the gravel abates the road continues to dip and dive through the hills as it passes the village of Radi before heading towards sector 3 and another 4.4km of pristine white gravel gold.
A chance for an early breakaway perhaps to forge onwards on yet another steep ramp in sector 3. The final sector in the first half of the route offers a bit of welcome relief from the climbs. Sector 4, La Piana, 5.5km of slightly darker and deeper gravel winds its way gently downhill with a series of sweeping gravel hairpins to put your bike handling skills to the test!
With the first half of the route done and dusted, it’s time for a well earned rest stop before tackling the longest sector of San Martino in Grania at 9.5km. As the valley road gently heads towards sector 5, the route passes the picturesque villages of Ponte d’Arbia, Lucignano d’Arbia and Monteroni d’Arbia, and there are plenty of options for an espresso. But the race itself shows no mercy, it would be wishful thinking to dream of a coffee stop here. Sector 5 looms ahead and it’s all guns blazing as the peloton charges into Monteroni d’Arbia in the fight for the narrow right-hand turn from valley road that signals the arrival of the sector.
Now the race is on!
San Martino in Grania is the sector that has it all! Steep climbs, fast descents and most importantly, views galore. Here, the Tuscan landscape comes alive. Every rise rewards you with those iconic Strade Bianche views, and come race day, the air is electric as you can see the dust rising in the distance as the peloton charges towards you and races up the climbs.
Continuing along the race route, the constantly rolling terrain attempts to prepare you for the final few sectors. Short but with not so sweet gradients in double digits, Sector 6 near Monteaperti is an 800m taste of the challenges still yet to come and before you know it, Sector 7 is upon you, or should I say above you!
The road kicks up and darts back on itself as the right-hand hairpin makes a valiant attempt at reducing the gradient. Sit back in the saddle here and watch those back wheels as you make that big effort to the top of the Colle Pinzuto.
From the top of the climb, the gravel continues but the gradient fades in this 2.4km long penultimate sector. The end of the sector is nigh as you roll through the vineyards of the San Giorgi a Lapi winery and if you’re not in pursuit of the rider ahead then stop for a glass of Dutch courage before the final sector!
Le Tolfe. Sector 8.
The rollercoaster. The beast.
Save the best ‘til last and feel the burn in the legs. Let the brakes go on this steep fast descent at the start of the sector as a fast right-left sweeps you around the corner before your eyes rise up to the wall of white gravel ahead.
This is Le Tolfe and this is where to attack. It’s make or break, as only your legs can decide who will forge ahead on these brutally steep ramps.
The Piazza del Campo awaits. Eleven more kilometres of unforgivingly rolling Tuscan roads bring you winding through the Siena’s back streets where a panoramic view towards the hilltop city reveals the challenge of the final ascent.
With 1km to go the road kicks up but don’t go too soon The sight of the 13th-century Fontebranda fountain just to your left marks the start of the final climb, the Via Santa Caterina, the historic site of many a battle between the world’s top cyclists. The viciously steep ramps towards the top of this ancient paved climb draw you right into the centre of Siena.
Right at the top. Then left. Keep pushing.
Now the final right turn as you drop into the spectacular Piazza del Campo. What a finish!
A day in the dust to remember and the white coating on the bike tells the story of the day.
By Lizzy Banks
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