With the Montepaschi Strade Bianche, held last weekend over the spring hills of Tuscany, Italian organizer RCS has managed to pull off an almost unthinkable feat – they’ve managed to create an instant classic. In a sport that places a premium on history and longevity – a sport where, after 40+ years, the Amstel Gold Race still struggles to be taken as seriously as its older siblings – the Montepaschi is inching its way towards premier status after only four short years of professional existence.
No, victory in the Montepaschi won’t soon be held in the same esteem as a win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix. That part will still take time – a lot of time, if it ever happens at all. But a victory earned over the Montepaschi’s gravel white roads is fast becoming a desirable entry in classics riders’ palmares. That desirability comes from the inherent value of winning a tough, interesting race, but it also comes from the high profile that a tough, interesting race garners in the press. And the Montepaschi has garnered media attention in spades. To illustrate, we’ll note that despite its stature in the eyes of fans, the race is rated a 1.1 on the UCI scale. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but consider that this season Italy will also host 26 other UCI 1.1 races:
G.P. Costa degli Etruschi (2/6)
Trofeo Laigueglia (2/20)
Clasica Sarda Olbia-Pantogia (2/28)
Giro del Friuli (3/3)
Giro dell’Appennino (4/25)
G.P. Industria & Artigianato (5/1)
Giro della Toscana (5/2)
Memorial Marco Pantani (6/5)
G.P. Nobili Rubinetterie, Coppa Papa’ Carlo (6/19)
G.P. Nobili Rubinetterie, Coppa Citta di Stresa (6/20)
Trofeo Matteotti (8/1)
G.P. Industria & Commercio Artigianato Carnaghese (8/5)
G.P. Camaiore (8/7)
Coppa Agostoni (8/18)
G.P. Banca di Legnano – Coppa Bernocchi (8/19)
Trofeo Melinda (8/21)
Giro del Veneto (8/28)
Coppa Placci (9/4)
Giro della Romagna (9/5)
Giro del Lazio (9/11)
Giro di Sicilia (9/12)
Memorial Cimurri (9/18)
G.P. Industria & Commercio di Prato (9/19)
Memorial Viviana Manservisi (9/25)
Coppa Sabatini (10/7)
G.P. Beghelli (10/10)
Now, you’ve probably heard of a few or even most of those. You might even know the past winners of a couple of them, particularly those that precede the Giro d' Italia or those that the Italian national team uses as tune-ups for the World Championships. But how many of those races have garnered previews, team statements, tech features, and day-of coverage complete with photo galleries? Not many, and for English speakers at least, coverage is usually limited to a bit of AFP-esque text highlighting the need-to-know details and little else. And at home in cycling-rich Italy, domestic 1.1 races sometimes warrant only six or so column inches in the mighty Gazetta dello Sport. And a lot of those races are old enough to be your father.
So what accounts for the love-at-first-sight appeal of the Montepaschi, and why have you seen so much more about it than, say, the 64-year-old Trofeo Matteoti? In crafting their recipe for an instant classic – altering the usual classics ingredients a bit to adjust for the absence of leavening time – the Montepaschi organizers did a lot of things right. Obviously, there are the gravel roads, Tuscany’s ubiquitous “strade bianche” that make up 60 kilometers of the 190 kilometer route and form the backbone of the race’s identity. They certainly give the race an immediate leg up on some more conventional competition, but while including crappy roads might seem like an autostrada to instant credibility, if treated ham-handedly they could have just be seen as a gimmicky, overindulgent effort to manufacture enough uniqueness to get people talking. But the Montepaschi’s organizers handled their signature element with care. They didn’t overdo the number of gravel roads, and didn’t throw in anything eye-poppingly dangerous. (And if you’ve been to Tuscany, you know there are options available for that.) As a result, they ended up with a tough but credible race, not a circus act.
By using the strade bianche, RCS also embraced a course feature that’s native to the region the race traverses. They didn’t make the mistake of hunting down misfit scraps of cobbles to mimic Roubaix or venture out to some coastal capi to cash in on Milan-San Remo’s intellectual property. Like the rest of the Chianti region it passes through, the race recognizes the value of terroir and embraced the local flavors that the hills and roads of the region have to offer. Those flavors add an air of authenticity and timelessness to the race despite its youth, and having the finish in Siena's iconic Piazza del Campo, site of the Palio horse race, doesn't exactly hurt, either.
RCS also had enough confidence in their concept to let it stand on its own merit. Granted, I haven’t reviewed all the literature, but I’ve never seen them promote it as “Italy’s Paris-Roubaix” or “just as tough as Roubaix.” When you’re promoting a new race with bits of questionable roadway divided into sectors, it can be tough to avoid those words parting your lips, but RCS is experienced enough to know that those sorts of phrases just immediately admit (and advertise) inferiority and lack of confidence in your race. Of course, as the organizer of the Giro d’ Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, and the Giro d’ Lombardia among others, RCS probably isn’t lacking for confidence in their ability to put on a good race. But you have to believe that there might be just a bit of a chip on their shoulder when they know their events will be compared to ASO properties like Roubaix, Fleche Wallone, and Liege. Fortunately, they feel good enough about their efforts at the Montepaschi to avoid making overambitious comparisons. It's OK to reference Roubaix or Flanders for your rough-road ride with friends, but for a professional race with serious ambitions, it's a no-no (Hel van het Mergelland, I'm looking at you).
Finally, RCS scored the perfect calendar spot for the Montepaschi, slotting it in a week after classics riders really get their heads in the game at Het Niewsblad and Kuurne and a week before they tune up for Milan-San Remo by riding Tirreno-Adriatico. The Montepaschi does face some competition from the simultaneous Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen in Belgium – which could siphon off some of the considerable home classics talent from that country – but at this time of the year, many riders will still be eyeing opportunities to head south. The Vuelta a Murcia also overlaps, but that’s far more relevant to the stage race crew. So, like Het Nieuwsblad, while the Montepaschi might not be a primary season target for many riders, organizers will still get a motivated group of relevant riders on rising form to attend. Perhaps most importantly from a calendar perspective, RCS didn’t overreach by trying to insert itself in the heart of classics season – like between San Remo and the rescheduled Gent-Wevelgem, or just after Liege. Though it might look like a more prestigious spot to the naked eye, trying to gatecrash a late March or April time slot would likely backfire as top riders pick and choose their targets.
Besides all that, I suppose the fact that RCS also owns La Gazetta dello Sport doesn't do the race's publicity efforts any harm, either. Call it an unfair advantage if you will, but some pretty good races have been founded to sell newspapers.
- Pointing out above that a large number of Italian UCI 1.1 races are relatively anonymous wasn’t a slight. In fact, I highly recommend them – and their counterparts in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Look, if you’re going to plan a whole vacation around watching bike races, yes, by all means go for the gusto and hit the Gent-Ronde-Roubaix week, the Ardennes week, or the Giro d' Italia. But if you just happen to be banging around Europe on other business, check out the UCI calendar and see what’s going on where you are. Compared with the top races, the UCI 1.1 races are like seeing a great-but-lesser-known band at a small venue instead of a superstar at an arena. The music is still great, you can get a lot closer to the stage, and you’re far more likely to meet the guitarist having a drink at the bar.
- In writing about the Montepaschi race, how many times has “Strade Bianchi” been typed, only to be corrected to “Strade Bianche”? Or not corrected, as the case may be.
- Word just came down that first and second place at the U23 Cyclocross Worlds just rang the doping bell at that event. Two brothers, both from Poland. This news manages to go both ways on the stereotype meter, and both ways manage to be bad. On one hand, the news chips away at the somewhat baseless “cyclocross is cleaner” feeling as well as the timeworn “the new generation will be cleaner” mantra, but it also does a hell of a job reinforcing the “Eastern Europeans are all huge dopers” stereotype. Ah well.
- This is old news, but Gert Steegmans (RadioShack) got blown over in the Paris-Nice prologue and broke a collarbone. Blown over. Now, I know the weather over there hasn’t been peachy lately, and that time trial bikes are a bear in the crosswinds, but at 6 feet 2 inches and 185 pounds, Steegmans isn’t exactly a waif by bike racing standards. So if Steegmans was blown over, I’d expect Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) to be somewhere in Oz, surrounded by Munchkins and oiling up a tin man right now. Ewww, that sounded bad. Anyway, more bad luck for Steegmans, which is a shame. I was looking forward to seeing how he’d do riding in a leadership role at the classics instead of playing second fiddle.