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25-03-2024 | Yda Smets

Strade Bianche 2024: a dream came true

In 2021, as I watched Mathieu van der Poel's majestic victory at Strade Bianche, I faced my own struggles with uncertain health and an impending operation. During a conversation with a cycling friend that evening, we vowed to ride the Strade Bianche together once I regained fitness.

Gran fondo Strade Bianche
Photo: The iconic cypress-lined paths.

The journey to Siena

Fast forward three years, with my health issues behind me, I had completed my first gran fondo last June and spent the winter honing my skills on the gravel bike.

Joined by my son Caspar and cycling friends Edgar and Marco, we set off for Siena. Faced with a grim weather forecast, we debated over the best tire choices for our bikes. Caspar settled for 28 mm all-weather tires on his road bike, while I chose tubeless 33 mm profile tires for my gravel bike. Our reconnaissance ride on Thursday was blessed with dry weather, revealing the well-maintained gravel lanes and the mesmerizing Tuscan landscape.

The following day, we explored the city and collected our start packages at the Expo Village in Fortezza Medicea, marveling at how cyclists, pedestrians, and cars seamlessly shared the old city's streets.

Photo: Scouting the route on Thursday.

Trailing the pros

Saturday morning was spent wandering past stands filled with cycling gadgets, culminating in a visit to Via Santa Caterina for the women's final. We witnessed the exhilarating ascent of Kopecky and Longo Borghini up the steep street, and later joined the crowd at Piazza del Campo for the awards ceremony.

From our apartment, we watched the men's race unfold on a large screen. As the racers approached Siena, we headed to Piazza del Campo, where the sun's emergence created a magical atmosphere for the winner's arrival.

Challenging start

The following morning, we were up early for breakfast, eager to begin our ride under promising skies. In the cacophony of the starting area near Fortezza Medicea, Caspar’s call came through, asking for directions. With over seven thousand riders, the chances of meeting on the route seemed slim.

As the race commenced at 8:00 am, the scene was chaotic, with cyclists eagerly overtaking each other, shouting 'Destra, destra!' as they jostled for position.

Photo: A bustling start.

The initial twenty kilometers were a breeze, as was the first gravel section. Skipping the first feed station, I pressed on. However, as more unpaved climbs emerged, my average speed began to fall. The trail was littered with water bottles, rain jackets, and debris, making navigation tricky. What struck me most was the sight of intentionally discarded gel packs and other trash along the route.

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Further along, the stage's sixth and longest gravel section, a picturesque 9.5 km stretch by San Martino in Grania, begins. Atop a challenging climb, I encounter the second supply station amidst chaos — cyclists jostling to continue, bikes strewn about, and long lines at food and drink tables.

Soon after, descending alongside a Dutch rider in an orange KNWU shirt, he shouts over his shoulder about his fondness for "CycloWorld the podcast" before speeding ahead with his companion.

Unexpected help on the road

Marco catches up from the fifth start box, having begun eight minutes after me. We ride together briefly, but eventually seek a larger group to combat the headwind. I fall back from a fast-paced group, and then, an Italian cyclist recognizing my name from my jersey, alerts me to a loose thru-axle on my bike. Thankfully, Romeo — yes, his real name — helps tighten it. We continue, chatting amidst the Tuscan landscape dotted with cypress trees and expansive views.

Photo: With Romeo, my roadside hero.

I tackle Le Tolfe, the notorious final gravel section, at my own pace, but by the top, my legs are spent. The last thirteen kilometers to Siena, peppered with tough climbs, are a true test. Just shy of the city walls, I reunite with Marco. We approach the finish at Via Santa Caterina to the crowd's cheers. My legs fail me on the steepest part, forcing me to walk momentarily. Back on my bike, I cross the finish line in Piazza del Campo, exhausted but triumphant.

Photo: Exhausted but elated at the finish line.

Euphoria and camaraderie

The euphoria is overwhelming as all four of us complete the challenge. We celebrate with a photo session in Piazza del Campo under darkening skies, just before a brief hailstorm. Dry under an awning, we then head to the pasta party at Fortezza Medicea, where a spirit of camaraderie fills the air. Amid shared stories and laughter, even the long queue at the pasta buffet can't dampen our spirits.

Photo: With my son Casper in Piazza del Campo.

We conclude the day at La Capannina, agreeing unanimously: witnessing Mathieu's Strade Bianche win is breathtaking, but experiencing it ourselves is beyond compare.

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