It was love at first sight for Megan Guarnier and Strade Bianche.
Watching the 2014 race, where Michael Kwiatkowski outgunned Peter Sagan, at home with her husband Billy, she was transfixed. “I said ‘That is the coolest race ever. I want to do that,’” Guarnier recalls.
Lo and behold, the women’s edition was introduced and she was racing in Tuscany twelve months later. The versatile Boels-Dolmans star went to the maiden event without pre-riding the route; the most she had to go on was a YouTube video of the men’s version.
Going into the unknown, she emerged with victory. “It just came down to race tactics and having a strong team. I countered one of Lizzie [Deignan]’s attacks, that’s what got me away solo. At that point, with 20 kilometres to go, I knew that I was all in.
“Lizzie was behind me with five other riders who were attacking her a lot, trying to bridge up to me. It was a hard ride trying to neutralise them all.”
After the finish, several of Guarnier’s suitably impressed team-mates asked her where she learned such grace on the gravel roads. Casting her mind back, she realised it was a case of made in Vermont, perfected in Tuscany.
“When I was studying [neuroscience] at Middlebury College, there was a bunch of gravel mountain climbs and roads I always used to go up and down. I thought it was normal at that point. I guess you could say it’s like riding a bike because I hadn’t forgotten how to do it in 2015.”
Streetwise at Strade
Strade Bianche is a race that can tactically shift as quickly and easily as those hundreds of fragments of white gravel under its competitors’ wheels.
“The key to winning it is getting through those first gravel sections unscathed then starting to show your cards in the second half of the race,” Guarnier says. “You have to be strong and at the front there because it really splits apart.
“I think it’s one of the hardest races because it’s long, you have punchy climbs on gravel – more than 20 kilometres of it – and the years we’ve done it, the wind has been a big factor.”
In recent years, the final sectors, inside the race’s final 25 kilometres, at Pieve a Bozzone and Le Tolfe have been decisive. They are short, but include portions at 15%.
There have been subtle changes to the route for each of the three editions, which make it difficult for contenders to second-guess. The women’s 2017 Strade Bianche covers 127 kilometres, with 26.5 of those on gravel, meaning it is longer and has more sectors of sterrato than ever before.
“I think that also makes Strade Bianche new and exciting because you can’t say ‘this is where to attack’ or ‘this is where the winning move can go’. I’m definitely looking forward to it,” she says.
A cruel finish
This modern classic is topped off by the short, race-shaping climb of Via Santa Caterina (above). Rearing at double-digit gradients in the final kilometre through the medieval city walls, it only levels off with 300 metres to go.
Last year, Lizzie Deignan attacked fellow breakaways Katarzyna Niewiadoma and Emma Johansson there to win and keep it in the Boels-Dolmans team.
“That climb is epic,” Guarnier says. “In 2015, I knew it was such a bruiser that if you had nothing left in your legs, you would lose a minute there easily. I was pedalling squares at that point and just trying to get up it.
“Then I was very focused on technical corners into the piazza because I was so tired and so close.”
After crossing the finish line in the magnificent, medieval Piazza del Campo, there was another novelty for a bicycle race: the rendition of the winner’s national anthem. “I was excited. I was singing in my head; nobody wants to hear me sing out loud,” Guarnier jokes.
Italy has proved to be a happy hunting ground for the American, who won the Giro d’Italia last year on the way to taking the inaugural women’s WorldTour.
“I love racing there,” Guarnier says. “The terrain always seems to be really challenging, the people are passionate, we always have a good race meal and the coffee is amazing. I think that’s all the recipes for enjoying a race.”
Due to its charm and difficulty, Strade Bianche has gone down as the American’s favourite.
“The whole day was pretty incredible because that was my first big European win. “For it to be so early in 2015 in that race, on that course and in Italy: I’ll always look back on that day with fond memories.”