(Finally) Postcard from Siena and Strade Bianche

We drove along the Autostrade dei Fiori enjoying the sunshine and glorious sea views until we turned off at Genoa and headed for Tuscany and Siena. It’s a six-hour drive from home and we stopped just the once to refuel the car and my beloved. We made good time and only had a small but heavy rain shower en route and not much wind. The Smart doesn’t like wind, a bit like me on the bike, unless it’s a tailwind.

We’d much enjoyed watching the racing in Strade Bianche last year and it’s now a fixture on our sporting calendar. I particular like that there’s a women’s and men’s race – both providing a cracking spectacle. We dropped the car and luggage at the hotel, on the edge of the old town and close by the race start, and walked to pick up our accreditations before reacquainting ourselves with the town. Specifically, I was looking for a restaurant for dinner. Once I’d found a couple of likely candidates I treated my beloved to a coffee and crostata (delicious Italian jam tart). While I had fruit tea with a local biscuit,  a cavaillucci, made without eggs or fat, studded with fennel seeds, walnuts and citrus peel. The town was buzzing in anticipation of tomorrow’s race, the local population significantly swelled by the thousands of amateur riders taking part in Sunday’s Gran Fondo. We even spotted a few of the pros drinking coffee after a leisurely reconnaissance.

My choice of restaurant was spot on. A family-run affair for several generations with the almost obligatory white linen tablecloths and napkins. We were the first couple to be seated but the restaurant subsequently filled up rapidly. We were greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a small serving of soup, one of the house specialities. I love a good home-made soup, just what you need to keep the cold and damp at bay. I ordered a vegetable soup to start and could happily have eaten the whole tureen but then I’d have had no room for my lobster spaghetti. Sated we happily strolled around the old town taking in the sites, marveling at the splendid architecture and trying to burn-off the calories consumed at dinner.

The forecast for Saturday was rain and riders in both races left warmly dressed with their rain jackets in their jackets or gilets. They knew the conditions were going to be difficult for them. It was going to be epic! While my beloved took photos, I popped to the buses to drop of some of my race-winning brownies for two lucky teams to enjoy post-race and chatted with a few acquaintances.

After the men’s race had departed, I headed to the food shops to stock up on some Italian goodies. Laden down with artisan cold meats, cheeses, tomatoes, artichokes, olive oil, pici (local pasta, a sort of thicker and rougher spaghetti) cavaillucci (see above), and ricciarelli (soft almond biscuits) we staggered back to the hotel and left it in the chilly car.

By now it was time for an early lunch in a small bar overlooking the main Piazza, more soup, this time ribollita, before heading to the finish line to cheer on the ladies. Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) won with an audacious attack to cross the finish line arms aloft. The girls all looked exhausted and were covered from head to foot in wet mud. They looked more like they’d taken part in a cyclo-cross rather than road race. Sadly, my photographer had left his camera in the hotel. Honestly, I sometimes wonder why I take him to races!

We then retired to a bar near the final climb to watch the television coverage of the men’s race before taking our positions to see the finish.The light was such it was hard to see the riders as they emerged from the gloom on that final climb. It was evident that Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski had victory in the bag from the sizeable time gap between himself and his pursuers, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens.

The riders streamed up the hill in ones and twos to raucous applause and cries of encouragement, they were grimed with dirt though not quite as much as on that famous 2010 Giro d’Italia stage. They all looked chilled to the bone and in need of some hot chocolate and my brownies. It’s the first time my race-winning brownies have occupied the top two spots on the podium even before being consumed. Obviously, they’re powerful incentives.

Both races had provided spectacle and, despite the conditions, it was clear from the riders’ comments, it’s a race they enjoy. In the post race press conference, you could sense Kwiatkowski’s pleasure at once more ascending to the top step of the podium. The Sky boys assured me they’d saved him a large brownie, surely a fitting reward for his efforts.

All this race watching is pretty exhausting and our minds soon turned to dinner. We opted for lighter fare – tagliolini with truffles and a mixed salad  – in one of our favourite restaurants before heading back to the hotel for an early night. We woke the next day to heavy skies and much more rain.

We watched the brave 5,000 amateurs stream out of Siena on the heels of some notable former pros including Fabian Cancellara, Ivan Basso and Paolo Bettini. Rather them than us, many were already cold and wet through from waiting in line for the depart. It was going to be a very long day in the saddle.

As we drove home, the sky brightened and the sun shone, particularly once we were back on the coast. It’s lovely to travel but sometimes even nicer to return home.

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