A moment of appreciation for the beautiful new ‘Spanish Strade Bianche’

by Ronan Mc Laughlin

The Spanish province of Jaen in Andalusia today hosted the inaugural edition of the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior. As an early-season UCI 1.1 level race in the South of Spain with six WorldTour squads amongst the 19 teams on the start line, the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior might have passed us by without so much as a second thought. Not so, though, the race organisers decision to include seven sectors of gravel taking riders through the lanes and hillsides of Andalucia gave the race the feel of a classic in its very first edition.

Riders were treated to an unusually cold, wet, and windy morning, but despite a small detour, the race was unaffected as the sun quickly broke through. With 40 km of the race’s 196 km on unsealed surfaces and some 3,100 m of climbing, and live TV coverage, the Clásica Jaén looked set to be the most modern of early-season races. As the race went live on our screens with 47km remaining the bunch was already whittled down on the gravel roads among just some of the 64 million olive trees in the region. The course and intense racing had clearly created an attritional race with every uphill section of the course on loose gravel. The sight of groups of threes and fours, riders frantically chasing, faces grimacing, bikes sliding with still almost 50 km of racing remaining was reminiscent of the very first modern Strade Bianche just 15 years ago in 2007. Strade has now become one of the most loved races of the season and is annually touted as the next “monument” by many.

Alexey Lutsenko was part of the leading group as live pictures came to our screens and later attacked solo to take the win. Lutsenko first broke clear with still 45 km remaining. That initial move was neutralised before Lutsenko made his decisive move with 28 km to go. From there the former Kazak champion never looked light faltering and repeated his victory in the first “pros only” gravel race after conquering the steep cobbled climb to the finish.

The results today, though, very much played second fiddle to the racing spectacle. With olive grove lined gravel roads, steep climbs, cobbled streets, and exciting racing, the Clásica Jaén looks every bit a classic in making. At the very least this new race seems like perfect preparation for Strade Bianche, just 19 days away. Fast forward to this time next year, might we expect to see many more World Tour teams take the start?

Our only quibble, and it’s a big one, is the lack of a women’s race. Maybe next year?

One rider we are unlikely to see line up next year might be Chris Froome. The Clásica Jaén, a showcase of all that is good about including gravel in road bike races, comes less than 48hrs after Froome questioned gravel, time trialling and cobbles place in stage racing. Granted, the four-time Tour de France champion was referring to stage racing and followed similar comments from Remco Evenpoel at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, but today gravel made its counter-argument.

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