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The unforgettable one — 2018 Men’s and Women’s Strade Bianche
Through a rain-soaked windscreen we try to watch the race. Our view through the windscreen is facilitated by the wipers that simply can’t work any faster, but it is soon engulfed once more by the floods of water falling from the sky. There’s a moment of panic as the race radio screams out the numbers of riders–not in the break, but asking for their support cars. Then fuzz again. Radio silence. The numbers are repeated. The break is at 49 seconds. Rider 95 needs assistance. The battle to survive the atrocious conditions of the 2018 Strade Bianche rages on, fought not only by the riders at the front of the race, but also within the team cars and their hard-pushed mechanics on the back seat. Brakes squeal, horns are blown and the race radio crackles on, all observed as part of the spectacle by the hardy spectators who cower under their umbrellas. But the race waits for no-one.
The forecast certainly lived up to its threats as the snow from earlier in the week gave way to rain storms, turning the iconic white roads of Tuscany into murky, puddle-scattered tracks. Our friends at Cylance Pro Cycling have kindly given us a place in their team car, which is not having an easy ride today. We jolt to a stop at the side of the road for another wheel change. This is turning into a less-than-ideal day for riders who don’t like the cold, or passengers who get car sick.
Meanwhile we’re also waiting at the BMC Racing Team bus, whose riders are sagely keeping warm inside. The 2018 Strade Bianche is one of the few occasions during the year where we get the ability (or the luxury) to follow both the men’s and women’s World Tour races. As the crowds huddle under their umbrellas around Siena’s fort, they mutely observe the mechanics and soigneurs preparing for the ride ahead. The riders are still sat on the team bus, snuggly out of the elements until the last minute, but the buzz around this mobile locker room somehow both pre-empts and echoes the stress that these tough conditions will present.
We’ve always had a soft spot for the Strade Bianche. Falling one week after the traditional opening weekend with the Belgium Classics of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Brussels Kuurne, it is a young race when compared to its peers. Yet this trip south to the heartlands of Italy and its stunning white roads has now been firmly embraced in the minds of both the riders and fans alike.
The women set off at 9.15, while the men’s race goes at 10.30. The benefits to staging the women’s event on the same day are evident in the crowds that have already ventured out of their homes and on the roadside. Manel, Cylance’s DS, agrees: “This is great; this is exactly what the riders want too. When they get to Siena they won’t believe how many spectators are out.”
The first mechanical happens about 30 km into the race for Cylance — compared to other teams, we’ve been fortunate so far. It’s Omer Shapiro, the Israeli National Champion, one of the team’s key riders. The bike is changed rapidly, but it isn’t a great moment to lose the group. The gravel section is far from over and there’s chaos at the back of the peloton. Manel is forced to drive on, leaving the lone rider to battle on alone.
As the kilometres tick by the race and weather really start to bite. Rather than following the race and thinking about attacking, those in the team cars are forced to react to the needs of the riders, coming to abrupt halts for mechanical issues, changes of clothing and crashes. The combination of the cold and the wet gravel roads give an added dimension to the race, as three women attack off the front of the peloton. Their race numbers are familiar; they’re dangerous riders, strong ones who could form a break that stays this time. Manel tells Spanish National Champion Sheyla Gutierrez to keep calm and stay up there. This really is a wake-up from the slumbers of winter training for all the riders, and arguably one of the toughest starts to the Women’s WorldTour.
The men’s race is now an hour or so into the 186 km race. Sat at the top of the first climb and the second section of Strade Bianche, it’s a shock to see the impact that the conditions have already had on the riders. In conditions like these, the usual tactic is for riders to set out at a high pace as a way to keep warm and get the job done. There are still lumps of ice on the side of the road, tainted a light brown by the saturated Strade Bianche, and the faces of the riders reflect the chill in the air. It’s hard to recognize the riders of BMC Racing Team as they’re clad in either the soon-to-be-released Liberty thermal rain jersey or the prototype Alley Cat. The ones in the lollyRed sturmPrinz are easy to spot, and testifies to just how extreme they’d perceived the conditions to be. This is going to be certainly be a race that will stick in the memories of many for a long time.
30km to the finish in the women’s race and Cylance is down to two riders. Their planned six-strong team had already been reduced to five due to illness of one rider earlier in the week. But the conditions had taken their toll on two more riders: Lauren Stevens was suffering with her knees after a crash in the opening race of the season in Australia, while the cold led Shelya to suffer with her chest. Only the hardiest Italians battle on, Giorgia Bronzini in her sturmPrinz and Rossella Ratto are dead-set on finishing–not only to prove to themselves that their winter has been a productive one, but not wanting to start with a moral sapping Did Not Finish on their yearly score card.
The race around us is decimated and it is hard to know what is really going on. Andrea, Cylance’s team mechanic, keeps track of the information being feed to us through the race radio, but his list of numbers is somewhat alien to the non-savvy. Each break is recorded, race numbers listed and time gaps given meticulously. Then crudely scrubbed out when they’re brought back into the fold. This time van der Breggen has got away, with Niewiadoma and Longhi Borgini in hot pursuit.
Passing the city limit sign of Siena we know there are just a handful of hard kilometres remaining. They circle the historic town, known as the Venice-on-land by some, before scaling the cobbled Santa Caterina climb to the iconic Piazza del Campo, where they make a quick turnaround, guided by their soigneur at the finish before heading to the showers and well-earned recovery. A hard day in the office.
As cyclists we all know that the hardest conditions that we can ride in are the combination of wet and cold, because the water on your body means you rapidly lose heat . Add racing to this equation–where your body is working at its most intense level–and you have a challenge to find the optimal apparel combination. That’s why we’re are working with both BMC Racing Team and Cylance Pro Cycling to develop and test new products, fabrics and technologies that will ultimately trickle down into inline products. So even though the faces at the finish of the men’s race are etched with the pain and effort experienced by the riders, rest assured that this particular suffering was done in comfort.