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The Red Line: Strade Bianche 2021

The Red Line: Strade Bianche 2021
The Road Book presents “The Red Line”: An alternative to a simple race report, bringing you regular impressions and musings to complement the racing calendar.

That Strade Bianche is universally loved goes without saying. The setting, the country, the sheer identity of the race gives it a status which it takes other races a century to achieve.

And yet, it is a hugely successful cycling trompe l’oeil; imparting a deep sense of tradition and heritage where there is in fact almost none. Unless, that is, you already consider the year 2007 as belonging to a bygone era of honour and ancient nobility. Because that’s when Strade Bianche began as a professional race. It’s a twenty-first century contrivance.

It’s almost impossible to find fault with this old-young race. Siena is an incomparable city to host both the start and the finish. The vicious slopes of the Via Santa Catarina, burrowing like an architectural rift valley toward to top of the hill on which Siena perches is as satisfying a conclusion to the procession as any other finish in world racing, both in an aesthetic and a sporting sense.

The only question marks which remain about Strade Bianche concern the equality of prize money, the semantic and somewhat meaningless debate about whether or not it should be considered a Monument and, finally, its place in the calendar. Should it remain where it is, a glorious opening fanfare to Tirreno Adriatico and La Primavera? Or is there something to be said for moving it to August as the pandemic insisted in 2020, so that Tuscany can do what Tuscany does best and crackle with standing heat, cypress trees and cicadas?

Let’s put such considerations aside for now. Focus on what we have just witnessed.

The final blow was delivered by Chantal Van den Broek-Blaak at 500 metres, as you knew it would be. The only real question was; which Dutch rider would deal it? Elisa Longo-Borghini’s sudden full body slump was all you needed to see to understand that a brave Italian rear guard action had drawn up short and that once again the Dutch had arrived in number and stolen the treasure of Siena. Six of the top ten finishers were from the Netherlands.

I’ve been in Siena twice before, to see the last Dutch rider win, Annemiek van Vleuten, and the one before her; Annemiek van Vleuten. She punched a fist in the air to celebrate victory in 2019 and did the same to last summer.

In August I had visited the famous Duccio altarpiece in the museum by the duomo the following day. Dating from 1311, it features no fewer than 60 scenes surrounding the central Virgin and Child. It was a modern day marvel when it was carried aloft from Duccio’s Siena atelier to its resting place in the cathedral. It still astounds to this day.

But who remembers Duccio (aka Longo Borghini)? A century later Jan van Eyck (take your pick from Vos, van Vleuten, van der Breggen etc) took the inspiration offered by Duccio and his Tuscan fellow travellers and created a school of Dutch mastery which has endured in the public memory with far greater resonance.

Am I fleshing this report out with an unnecessarily extended art metaphor? Quite possibly I am.

But this is perhaps a symptom of the fact that the women’s race coverage was once again live and appreciated, but really very short; barely 20k. There was no time to let the race build or explain itself. Instead, we cut straight to the fireworks, which is a greedy and ultimately unsatisfactory way of watching a race unfold. And it only offers up a partial account.

Nevertheless, it is a defining feature of this era of Dutch greatness, to see they way they hunt in packs and deliver the blows counter punches, even when riding on opposing teams. It seems scarcely conceivable that today’s winner Van den Broek-Blaak and World Champion Anna van der Breggen will be retiring from racing before the year is out (next year in the case of the former). Perhaps if there were appropriate rewards in the sport for such great riders, they’d be tempted to stay on. On the other hand, going out on top of the world is a rare and beautiful achievement.

And so to the men. The Magnificent Seven, when they were prized apart from the rest were a glory to behold: Van Aert, MVDP, Begbie*, Gogl, Bernal, Pidcock and Pog. We are accustomed to seeing groups of the great break free in the cobbled classics: but Strade Bianche opens the door slightly ajar to others. Hence, in previous editions, Bardet. Hence, Bernal. What a start to the year he’s having.

After Van Aert’s slowly building form left him on the back foot and relegated once again to the role of valiant chaser which he’s been accustomed to playing in his first couple of attempts to win this race, a race-winning trio went clear: Bernal, Begbie* and the unanswerable MVDP.

But the attack was inevitable, predictable and Dutch. And this time it was made flesh in the red, white and blue of the nation’s colours. In ten seconds (less, even?) he’d won the the race, shooting around the corner to the right onto the Via Roma and out of sight. But it happened where it always happens: The Via Santa Catarina should be renamed Heilige Catharinenweg. After all, both the Netherlands and Tuscany were once part of the Holy Roman Empire. Here endeth the lesson.

*Julian Alaphilippe. World Bicycling Champion.

Ned Boulting

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