On the morning of Saturday, March 5, 2016, women’s professional cycling took a great leap forward with the first-ever Women’s WorldTour race at Strade Bianche. The nearly 140-rider peloton rolled out of the ancient town of Siena and into the green, rolling hills of Tuscany. There, they met the difficult roads that criss-cross those beautiful hills, both paved and unpaved. Three-and-a-half hours later, reigning World Champion, Lizzie Armitstead, won her fourth straight race (GP Plouay, Worlds, Omloop, Strade Bianche) to become the first leader of the Women’s WorldTour.
The Women’s WorldTour has been years in the making. In a bold move to elevate women’s pro cycling, the old World Cup schedule of ten one-day races has been expanded to a robust 35 race days. These events comprise both one-day events and stage races that mirrors the format of the men’s WorldTour. Promoting women’s cycling and these events is a primary goal of the Women’s WorldTour. The first race of the newborn Women’s WorldTour represents a promising start, indeed, and heralds the dawn of a new era for women’s racing and for the sport as a whole.
The riders faced a beautiful and undulating test filled with ribbons of white gravel and a finish that demanded patience.
First, there was the morning. The ride to the start. The quiet moments before the carnage, before the pain, before tires slipped on loose gravel, before legs gave out, before the most beautiful race of the year. There was a quiet trip to the start for the Cervelo-Bigla women. Lotta Lepistö chatted quietly on her phone. Gaby Pilote Fortin researched the route, then slept, while Carmen Small chatted to Johnny in the front seat.
As with any race with important sections and can’t miss moments, the masking tape, markers, and route books came out. Notes were made, and then expertly fixed to top tubes.
The Californian strongwoman, Carmen Small, walks up laughing, “Why do we have chairs for children? Who bought these?” In what must have been one of those, “This was all we could find” moments, legs were embro’d very close to the pavement in amusing fashion.
So many things to do before the start. Radios pinned to base layers. Headphone cables routed and wrapped. Arm warmers placed just-so at the top of the bicep, vests donned, numerous espressos and cappuccini downed. Signatures scribbled, until there was nothing left to do but stand on the start line for a few cold minutes. And then amusement fell by the wayside and the intense, serious work of the day began.
The 2016 Strade Bianche started within the walls of the ancient Fortezza Medicea in the Piazza della Libertà.
After a whopping 11 kilometers of pavement, riders hit the first segmento of dirt. Spread over seven segmenti, the women faced 22 kilometers of dirt out of their total of 121 kilometers for the day.
Heading into the first segmento, the field was stacked-up as wide as the road would allow, with most of the favorites clustered at the front – exactly where all of their team directors said to be, exactly where they’ve been told to be since the first time they raced a bike, the place where everyone wants to be. But the laws of physics allow for only so many possibilities before people fall down.
The first section of dirt, il Vriditta, is nothing to raise an eyebrow over – just a perfectly straight dirt road that’s closer to a paved road than some paved roads. It still did the job of getting everyone tense and nervous, and many watts were pushed on the front.
Riders got lucky with the lack of precipitation on Saturday. They weren’t lucky with the howling winds from the south, but the expected rain never materialized. The few drops that did fall, served the greater good by dampening the dirt just that little bit. And still, the dust was a menace for anyone not in the first part of the peloton. For the riders trapped in the caravan, frantically trying to regain contact with the safety of the peloton, theirs was a difficult task – dust, dust, and more dust.
The 5.5 kilometer long section of dirt, Murlo, is only slightly harder than the first section of dirt, but a long, long way off from what awaited the riders in the not so distant future.
The first two sections of dirt were nothing compared to the crowning jewel that lay in the middle of the race. Measuring almost ten kilometers long, San Martino in Grania demands absolutely everything of the rider: climbing, descending and the bike handling skills of (insert your favored bike driver extraordinaire).
Nearing the end of the lengthy San Martino section, it was young Rabo-Liv standout, Kasia Niewieadoma, who applied the necessary force to shred an already fraying field to pieces.
At the end of the arduous 9.5 kilometers of the San Martino in Grania section, there are four switchbacks, which climb steeply up to the main road, which connects Taverne d’Arbia to Asciano. The race was on full red alert in this moment, and it’s one of those times when racers don’t see anything but their stems and the meter or so of earth directly in front of their front wheel.
Every once in a while, though, there’s a moment of clarity in these difficult times in a race. Wiggle-High5’s Elisa Longo-Borghini had one of those: “The best moment of the day for me was on the longest gravel section. I shouldn’t admit this, but I turned while we were climbing up one of the last switchbacks to look at the landscape. I probably lost a bit of focus in that moment, but what I saw was amazing. Tuscany is such a nice place!”
The San Martino section is difficult, sure, but very little in all of cycling can measure up to the final hour of racing at the Strade Bianche. Relentless is an over-used term in cycling, but there’s no better word to describe the final twenty or so kilometers beginning in Monteaperti and finishing in the dazzling Piazza il Campo. It’s a never-ending series of double digit percentage ups, downs, dirt, pavement, tiny and endlessly curving roads, and not one second of recovery.
Segment seven is only 800 meters long, but the gradients are well into the double digits. When the dirt ends, the road keeps climbing, before plummeting down the other side on one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the region.
It was on Segment seven that European U23 champion, Kasia Niewieadoma (Rabo-Liv), accelerated once again. Only the World Champion, Lizzie Armitstead, and Swedish Champion, Emma Johansson, were able to follow. The move stalled over the top, and the tiny front group came back together on the short, gorgeous descent.
It was the next hill, with the long row of cypress trees spiking the horizon high to the left, where the decisive move went – and it looked exactly as it did only moments before: Niewieadoma attacking, Armitstead following, and Johansson just making it across. That was it. There were still some of the hardest climbs of the day remaining, but the trio stuck together all the way into the final kilometer.
It didn’t take long once the road tilted up in the direction of Siena’s ancient center for the trio to fall to pieces. Niewieadoma accelerated first, distancing Johansson, but not Armitstead. Armitstead duly countered her younger rival’s effort in the final meters of the Santa Caterina climb, putting a couple of important bike lengths into her before making that crucial tight right turn with a gap. She put her head down for the final thirty or so seconds through the narrow, twisting, dark streets of Siena, before entering the bright light of the Piazza del Campo and raising an arm in triumph as she crossed the line.
For her efforts, Carmen Small took home a bounty of crowns.
Amid the bustle of the post-finish line for the newly minted winner, there was still that moment of quiet – a moment to look back and watch riders cross the line, waiting for teammates to share the joy with.
And then Megan Guarnier rolled in, just over a minute after Armitstead. Armitstead’s face lit up as Guarnier approached, and then gave last year’s winner of the inaugural Strade Bianche a huge hug.
After that, the riders rolled in slowly. The drama was over, and there was only one goal: get to the finish and be done with the day. 2014 World Champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, turned in a solid 11th place in her first race of the season. There will undoubtedly be much more from her in this crucial Olympic year.
A pause, for a moment, to absorb the effort of the day.
And then there was Gaby Pilote Fortin. She had a hard day – she crashed hard, then nursed her wounds all the way to the finish. She limped by, pushing her bike, looking for the team’s soigneur, Johnny, ready to be done with the day.
The soigneur’s job never ends. As riders roll off to the team buses, shed their dirty clothes, shower, and emerge as normal (albeit tired) people, the soigneur’s job continues. They start their day before the racers, they continue working during the race, and they don’t stop anywhere near the time the race is over. It’s fairly close to an 18-hour-per-day job, and it’s a job that deserves a tip of the hat and a pat on the back, because they do this job for the love of the sport.
But then again, is there anyone in cycling that isn’t in it for the love of it?
As the fans disperse at the end of the women’s race, the steep climb into the center of Siena grows quiet - for the next couple hours.