Cycling in Brittany

The Tour de France is well and truly underway. We have seen a typically nervous first few days in the peloton with a number of crashes, but hopefully things will be calmer from now on and we can sit back and enjoy the racing.

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Today sees a particularly fascinating stage from Brest to the Mur-de-Bretagne. Brittany is a fantastic place to ride and features some absolutely Classic Roads. The Mur-de-Bretagne is a sharp climb which will be tackled twice and should see some exciting racing from rides used to tackling the Ardennes Classics - keep an eye out for Alejandro Valverde - 5 times winner of La Fleche Wallonne and 4 times winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege who will be looking to stamp some authority across a leadership battle within the Movistar Team.

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Other Classic Roads of the area are covered by the Tro-Bro Leon. This is sometimes referred to as Le Petit Paris-Roubaix and tackles gravel roads rather the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. This has been run since 1984 and has a sportive the day before. It really should be on the list of everyone's Classic Roads to conquer.

The other Classic Road in the area is the Paris-Brest-Paris. This is one of the oldest races in the world, having first being run in 1891. Nowadays it is just for amateurs, and a strict qualification system is in place to ensure that everyone who attempts this 1200 km race is of a suitable standard.

Even better - the race has it's own cake! The Paris-Brest can be found in most French patisseries - it is a cream filled pastry, in the shape of bicycle wheel, and was created by the originator of the race in 1910. The cake is so well known that many French people do not realise that the Paris-Brest is associated with the bike race!

What could be better to reward yourself after a long ride than a delicious cycling-themed cake? :)

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Strade Bianche results

Wow! What a race that was! The Strade Bianche - the newest "classic" on the scene delivered a stunning race in tough conditions in beautiful Tuscany. Romain Bardet showed some panache and one day racing class, Wout Van Aert showed that he can turn his triple cyclocross world championship pedigree to the road, and the race was won by the young tough Belgian Tiesj Benoot - crossing the finish line at the Piazza del Campo in the heart of Siena bedecked in mud. Again, the decisive attack came on the final sector of white gravel road, the Strada delle Tolfe (where I used to live!). The race was beautiful and really showed the incredible countryside and the passion of the Italian tifosi for all things cycling. Truly classic roads to ride upon.
Now all eyes turn to France for the first stage race of the year in the Northern Hemisphere - la cours au soleil (the race to the sun) - the Paris-Nice.

Strade Bianche

Tomorrow, the 3rd March 2018 sees another cracking race, full of intrigue and charm, raced over some really classic roads in Tuscany, Italy. The Strade Bianche! (http://www.strade-bianche.it/en/)

This race is really unlike anything else on the calendar. Set in the heartland of Tuscany, amongst the vines famous for producing Chianti, the race really highlights the beauty of the area. There are no big mountains, but the course is relentless, tarmac interspersed by gravel roads, never flat, always ascending or descending sharply. Starting and finishing in Siena, the famous Piazza del Campo - the central square of Siena and home to the famous Palio horse race - a truly stunning finale (http://tuscany.italy-trip.org/siena-piazza-del-campo.html). Cast your mind back to the start of the James Bond film Quantum of Solace for some visuals (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOcNWH6ctbk). The finale run in includes  a very steep cobbled climb up through the city walls along via Santa Caterina - a very nasty shock, especially with 184 km hard racing in the legs.

The White Roads

The strade bianche will be well restored, but in my experience, under rain they start to collapse and large ruts appear, typically on corners of very fast descents, and so this edition could be very good for the three times cyclocross World Champion Wout van Aert who is racing this weekend (https://www.woutvanaert.be/).

Adverse Weather

Tomorrow the weather could be brutal, and whatever happens it will be an intriguing race. This week has seen snow and ice, and tomorrow is predicted for rain, making racing on the narrow roads tricky. Those lining up include Van Avarmaet, Sagan, Kwiatkowski and all have strong chances in this race.

Always an amazing spectacle, this could see the most iconic images of these classic roads, since Cadel Evans won on the muddy strade bianche in 2010, wiping the mud from his world champions stripes as he approached the line.

A Short History

The race has a short history. This will be just the 12th occurrence. When this is compared to other races such as Paris Roubaix (115 editions) it may be a surprise that this race is held in such high esteem by fans and readers alike. It really demonstrates what a special region this is to ride in.

The race started for local preservation in the 1990s. This is called L'Eroica - the heroic. Alarmed that the strade bianche (white gravel roads) were planned to be turned to asphalt, residents started a bike race to respect and protect these hallowed lanes. The race they designed starts in Gaiole-in-Chianti (one of the 5 villages that invented the appellation Chianti in the 1700s - only wine produced in these 5 villages, according to the strict rules can be called Chianti) and takes in the heartland of Tuscany, weaving through the Brunello region of Montalcino, the VIn Nobile of Montepulciano, the famous butcher DArio Cecchino in Polzano, cutting through Siena and finsihing again in Gaiole. The race is held on the first weekend in October, with a fascinating vintage bike fayre, and is oversubscribed. Recently, they have opened up other weekends and other regional events such as the Eroica Brittanica are part of the group. And the biggest fun factor, is that all riders must compete on bikes from pre-1987 and wear vintage style clothing. As well as serious race machines from the 80s such as Bianchi, Legnano, Pinarello, Benotto, expect to see 100 year old boneshakers, wooden rims, penny farthings. The sportive has 4 categories of differnt lengths - the shortest being 46 km and the full distance being 209 km with around 18 sector of strade bianche and more than 3000 m of elevation change. The sections of strade bianche have various difficulties - my favourite is the Strada delle Tolfe outside Siena - but I'm based as I used to live on that road during my time in Italy!

Feeding stops are classic Tuscany - no sports drinks and powerbars here - they are full of sausage meat, crusty bread with olives, honey, fruit, and of course, endless wine!

This event really is a must ride. The parcours is permanently marked, and can be tackled any time of year, but of course you get the full flavour only when riding in a pack of 5000 enthusiasts, on vintage steel, fueled only by dried meats and litres of Chianti.

 

Add this one to your must do events!

Alternatives

For a closer to home alternative, check out the Tro Bro Leon in Brittany (https://www.trobroleon.com/) - more epic gravel roads in a unique setting, and of course, the 2018 Tour de France will be tackling some of that parcours.

 

Enjoy those classic roads!