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Giro d’Italia 2021: Strade Bianche stage set to add spectacular twist to GC battle

SIENA ITALY MARCH 06 Egan Arley Bernal Gomez of Colombia and Team INEOS Grenadiers Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Jumbo Visma during the Eroica 15th Strade Bianche 2021 Mens Elite a 184km race from Siena to Siena Piazza del Campo Gravel Strokes Fans Public StradeBianche on March 06 2021 in Siena Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The Giro d’Italia returns to the heart of Tuscany on May 19 for stage 11, and back to  the dirt roads that inspired the Eroica rides and the Strade Bianche race, with a spectacular hilly finale on the so-called sterrati around Montalcino that could create significant changes in the overall classification.

The 2010 Giro d’Italia included a similar stage to Montalcino, when heavy rain turned the dirt roads to mud and created an epic day of racing won by Australia’s Cadel Evans.

Race organisers RCS Sport and some fans are perhaps hoping for a similar legendary day in the rain, while the riders and teams will be hoping for dry, dusty conditions to limit the risk of crashes and mechanical problems that could be a blow to their overall hopes.

Whatever the weather, the stage will insert the spectacular racing of Strade Bianche  into the middle of a Grand Tour, as well as showcasing why the area offers stunning rides, food and wine for any level of cyclist. It will surely add yet another deep twist to this year’s Corsa Rosa narrative.

Not surprisingly, most overall contenders have been keen to study the stage or will do so next week before travelling to the start in Turin. Knowing what they face may be scary for the likes of Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) but could be vital in limiting any time losses.

“It’s a classic hilly Tuscan stage but the 35km of dirt roads changes everything,” Davide Cassani, Italian national coach, said at the official presentation of the stage this spring.

“The dirt roads make it unique, very different to a normal stage or even a mountain stage. But it will be decisive and so that will make it even more fascinating to race and to watch.

“It comes after the first rest day and all the overall contenders will have to be at their best or risk losing significant time. They’ll need great bike skills and climbing strength too. They’ll need to be smart in the way they race and they’ll need a strong team and some good luck in case of punctures, mechanicals and crashes. If it rains they’ll need all of that 10 times over!”

Cadel Evans' legendary 2010 stage victory in the rain

A muddy trip on the strade bianche at the 2010 Giro d'Italia

A muddy trip on the strade bianche at the 2010 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The 2010 stage of the Giro d’Italia on the rain-soaked sterrati has become legendary, close in the great days of the race to the Gavia stage in 1987 or Charly Gaul’s epic ride in the snow on Monte Bondone back in 1956.

The UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol and the need to protect riders’ health means those stages would not go ahead these days. However the pain and suffering of the 2010 Giro d’Italia stage in the rain has eased in the peloton and dirt roads have become commonplace in modern Grand Tours.

That has allowed RCS Sport to tap into the inspiration and beauty of the popular Eroica rides – on both historical and modern gravel bikes – with the entertaining racing of Strade Bianche.

In 2010 Evans used his mountain bike skills, Aussie grit and superb form to win the stage after the chaos in the peloton.

The Cyclingnews report that day described the stage as a ‘mud fight’, with Evans beating Damiano Cunego, Alexander Vinokourov and Marco Pinotti in the uphill finish in the centre of the hilltop village.

A young Vincenzo Nibali was in the maglia rosa after his Liquigas-Doimo team won the stage 4 team time trial to Cuneo. However, the Sicilian slid out on a wet road with 30 kilometres to go, just before the race exploded on the decisive dirt roads, losing two minutes despite a valiant chase. Ivan Basso would finish in the same time, but went on to make a miraculous comeback in the mountains to win a second Giro d’Italia, two years after his ban for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto blood doping scandal.

Nibali won the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and 2016, with a Vuelta a España victory in 2010 and his Tour de France win in 2014.

The heavy spring rain in 2010 made conditions treacherous. The usually fine, white dust of the strade bianche turned into cold brown goo that covered riders’ faces and clothing, and made their flimsy rim brakes virtually useless. It will be interesting to see if disc brakes and tubeless tyres give some riders a mechanical advantage this time, with the teams’ bike technology and their mechanics playing a vital role.

"It was a spectacular stage,” said Evans at the time, perhaps the only one to find any enjoyment from the suffering in the terrible conditions. “It suited me because I raced mountain bikes for seven years. That was a huge help for me."

“The last 45km were worse than Paris-Roubaix,” said Vinokourov, who didn't embrace the dirt roads in Grand Tours despite taking the pink jersey. "I don’t think there's a place for dirt roads like this in a stage race like the Giro. In a one-day race yes, but not in a stage race."

The four dirt road sectors of the 2021 stage

Strade Bianche 2020 14th Edition Siena Siena 184 km 01082020 Scenery Lucignano dAsso photo Luca BettiniBettiniPhoto2020

A dry day on Strade Bianche (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

This year’s dirt road stage is significantly shorter than the 2010 stage, covering a reasonable 163km from Perugia via the Crete Senese rolling hills, with a loop south of Montalcino. However, it includes double the distance on the dirt roads with even more climbing.

The 163km stage is designated the ‘wine stage’ of the 2021 Giro d’Italia. It will celebrate the dark red Brunello di Montalcino wine that is matured in oak barrels for five years. The stage is equally strong, with 2,500 metres of climbing along the road from Perugia and 35 kilometres of the last 70 kilometres on dirt roads.

Like the cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix and the hellingen of Flanders, the strade bianche are farm roads that have escaped the asphalt and desires of car drivers.

They cut through the vineyards, olive groves and forests of Tuscany, often on a near direct route up and down the hills from one hamlet or farmhouse to the next. Like those used for Strade Bianche, a little further north near Siena, the Montalcino sterrati can be smooth and compact but also include random potholes and series of hard washing board ripples formed by rain, passing tractors and local people’s Fiat Panda cars. The best line is often down the car tracks but just a slight distraction on the descents can lead to a slip out and some nasty strade bianche road rash.

The 35 kilometres of dirt roads in this year’s stage to Montalcino are spread across four sectors.

The first sector begins in Torrenieri with 69 kilometres to go, but the fight for position at the front will begin much sooner. It is 9.1 kilometres long and climbs gradually before descending in the second half. It will be a taster of what is to come later and spark the first selection in the peloton. Anyone not riding for the GC or unable to further help team leaders will surely ease up here.

The second sector with 52 kilometres to go is 13.5 kilometres long and the hardest. It includes the long climbs of Castiglion del Bosco and then the Passo del Lume Spento on the dirt, where power climbing ability in the saddle to ensure traction will make a difference. The hardest part of the Castiglion del Bosco climb lasts for 3.5 kilometres with an average gradient of 8.5 per cent and some dirt hairpins well into double figures. The key selection will come here, with those losing contact scattered to the wind and facing huge time losses.

The final two sectors are shorter at 7.6 kilometres and 5 kilometres, but also include climbs, before the Passo del Lume Spento is tackled via an asphalt road. Then there is a late descent and kick up in the historic centre of Montalcino.

Whoever emerges at the front after the dirt sectors will have a chance to gain even more time on their rivals if they have teammates with them on the final road to Passo del Lume Spento and then attack for the stage victory in the narrow stone-paved streets of Montalcino.

The clock will measure the full impact of the sterrati and no doubt shake up the overall classification before the Giro heads north and to the high mountains.