Elisa Longo Borghini and Valentina Scandolara preview Strade Bianche

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Strade Bianche is a race full of history. It began as an amateur fondo called l’Eroica, which is held in October in Tuscany each year following the Road World Championships. The ride is a throwback to earlier days. All participants ride bicycles built before 1982. Many wear vintage clothing and accessories.

L'Eroica for biketourists 2014

The professional event began as a men’s only affair in 2007 – and for the first time this year, the women have been invited to the party. What the race lacks in age, it makes up for in the allure of the race. Strade Bianche means ‘white road’ in Italian, and the race name comes from the gravel sections of the race course. The dirt roads aren’t the only challenge. There is plenty of climbing along the way, including a finish climb into Siena.

The stunning scenery through the Tuscan hills and quaint Italian villages provides a feast for the eyes – and for the belly.

Who better to consult about the inaugural Strade Bianche women’s race than the Italians? Ella CyclingTips reached out to Valentina Scandolara (Orica-AIS) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) for insight on what we can expect come Saturday.

The course

Everyone is talking about the gravel roads – and understandably so. There are five sections of gravel roads totaling 17 km of gravel throughout the 103 km course. Only one stretch of gravel features in the first half of the race. The remaining four are included in the second half, including the longest gravel section (9.5 km) that comes at 58 km.

Whilst the gravel roads provide unique challenges, incredible photos and give the race its name, these sections by no means are the only major challenges. Tuscany is notoriously hilly, and the heavy course will inevitably prove selective.

As usual, Velofocus has you covered with more specifics on the route description – including the course profile and route map.

Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014

Valentina Scandolara says:

Everyone is talking about the gravel. The problem is not the gravel roads. The problem is that there is not one metre of flat. I think it’s going to be harder than Flèche Wallone.

The second gravel section is really the only one with loose gravel. The other gravel sections are more solid, but you still have to be careful. By the middle and by the sides is where the gravel gathers, especially in the second section. It’s really tricky to ride there.

It will be like the cobbles where we race for position before the gravel sections and the climbs. It’s dangerous unless you’re at the front. If someone brakes in front of you or you have to changes lines, you risk crashing. That’s going to play a big part in the race. Everyone will want to be in front.

The climbs are hard and steep – and there are a lot of them. It’s definitely going to be a race of attrition.

Elisa Longo Borghini says:

The gravel sections will be the most decisive. It’s not common terrain for us road cyclists. It’s really important to be confident with your bike and to handle your bike very well over these sections. Bike handling skills will be very important.

I expect the race to be very hectic, so it will be very important to keep all the time at the front of the peloton. The course gives no time to recover the legs or the mind. You always have to pay attention.

The popularity of Strade Bianche

The excitement around Strade Bianche is palpable. It seems since the day the women’s cycling calendar was published, we’ve been counting down the days to the Italian one day classic. Riders like Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) and Tiffany Cromwell (Velocio-SRAM) have named Strade Bianche as a target. Why is this race so popular?

Strade Bianche 2012

Elisa Longo Borghini says:

The race is interesting because of the gravel. It’s something different we don’t see every day, and I think that’s why it’s so exciting. It’s also a really nice area of Italy and altogether it makes the race one of the most charming races on the calendar.

Valentina Scandolara says:

This race is special. It’s like no other race. The men’s race has always been exciting because you never know what’s going to happen. There are flat tyres and crashes and riders that blow-up before Siena.

Now that I have ridden the course, I really understand it. You have to be smart with your energy and know yourself a lot. You can’t underestimate the course. It gets harder and harder and harder all day. You never get any rest. I think that’s the big thing about the race that makes it so exciting. For sure, a strong rider will win.

Also, I love Siena. This place in Tuscany – the part between Siena and Florence with all the hills – is one of the best in Italy. I think that plays a bit role in the excitement about the race. It’s a place where tourists like to come and a lot of cyclists ride here every year. There’s also L’Eroica here in October – 6,000 people on old bikes and in old clothes. It shows this is a popular place for cyclists.

Significance of a women’s race

The women’s calendar has undergone several significant positive changes over the last few years. The inclusion of a women’s race at Strade Bianche is part of a larger trend that sees already-existing men’s races add women’s races to their programme.

Elisa Longo Borghini says:

The women’s peloton asked for more races next to the men’s ones and finally RCS (which organises Giro d’Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico, Strade Bianche and Milan – Sanremo) gave us this wonderful opportunity.

This races means a lot to me as an athlete. I think all our efforts as women cyclists are finally noticed and rewarded with some new and exciting races.

Predictions

The likes of Armitstead and Cromwell have been vocal about their ambitions in Siena. While Armitstead’s performances have been stronger to date, Cromwell has quietly been improving since racing in Australia in January.

We can’t count out Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) following her win last weekend and podium at Le Samyn, and Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) has shown the form we’ve come to expect from her in the spring on Wednesday.

Le Samyn 2015 women

Elisa Longo Borghini says:

I think my team can perform well, but honestly, I just want to race without pressure and to enjoy Strade Bianche by giving my best.

I don’t know how to expect the race to play out, but I do think most of the teams will race in an aggressive way. It’s a new race, and everybody is really excited to be on the road.

My predications? First is the strongest. Second is the second strongest. Third is the third strongest.

Valentina Scandolara says:

In the end, as we see in the men’s race with one men arriving alone or with only a few men, I think we will see the same in our race. It’s too hard to come in with a big bunch. The stronger teams are going to make the race hard because it’s an important occasion for teams to be seen.

I think it’s a good race for Anna van der Breggen (Rabo Liv) and my teammate Emma Johansson hopefully. The Boels-Dolmans girls will also be there at the end. We’ve already seen who is in good form, and I don’t think that will change. It will just become more clear on Saturday.

Bonus predications from Ella CyclingTips editor Anne-Marije Rook:

Anna van der Breggen (Rabo Liv): Fully recovered from her nasty pelvis fracture, van der Breggen is riding incredibly strong with a big victory at Omloop het Nieuwsblad and a second place finish at Le Samyn. She’s a strong climber who can go the distance so I’m expecting her to do well.

A Boels-Dolman rider, possibly Lizzie Armitstead: It’s hard to guess who it’ll be – Lizzie Armitstead, Ellen van Dijk, Megan Guarnier or Chantal Blaak — but a Boels-Dolman rider will surely end up on the podium. Boels-Dolman has already pocketed five wins this season, and they’re appearing to be the team to beat. Given the rolling terrain and a decisive climb, I’m leaning toward Lizzie.

Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle-Honda): The two-time World Champion is surely one of the hometown crowd favourites for this race, alongside teammate Elisa Longo Borghini. Either could win this race, but if Wiggle can get Bronzini in a sprint, she’ll be the one to watch.

Beyond the racing

Lucky enough to be at the race? Be sure to explore the are beyond the race course.

Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014

Valentina Scandolara says:

Enjoy Siena. It really is one of the best places in Italy. Have a stroll in the town. It is such a special little old town. It is restricted to cars, all cobbled and built in rock and bricks.

Piazza del Campo is a must. This is where they race the Palio di Siena every year, and I would highly recommend it if you can come back, especially if you can spend the week with a local, living every moment of the event (like the assignment of the horses and the blessing of them in the churches!) and also the actual race and the tactics.

Around Siena you have a lot of little nice villages to see: Monteriggioni, San Giminiano, Pienza.

The hills are amazing, they are called Crete Senesi and on summer they are covered in golden flour.

Eat the pici cacio e pepe. It’s a homemade pasta with cheese and pepper that is known especially in this region. And, of course, you have to taste the Brunello di Montalcino! The race will be even more awesome after some glasses.

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