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Dirty Classics: Road racing’s other off-road epics

The white gravel roads of Tuscany take centre stage this weekend at the so-called ‘sixth monument’, Strade Bianche. But what other pre-gravel rough and ready races have captured the roadie imagination over the decades?

The beautiful, rolling Tuscan countryside. The cinematic dust conjured by the peloton as it barrels along those iconic gravel roads. The dual appeal of new-age off-road adventure riding and unabashed nostalgia. The breath-taking finish in Siena. The always-scintillating racing. It’s fair to say that Strade Bianche has it all.

First raced in 2007 as the pro spinoff of L’Eroica Granfondo (with the inaugural women’s race coming in 2015), the rough Tuscan diamond is barely a toddler in cycling terms.

2020 Strade Bianche (Cor Vos)

Dust and more dust at the 2020 edition (Cor Vos)

But its meteoric rise to the top of the sport – augmented by an envious list of winners which includes Fabian Cancellara (three times), Philippe Gilbert, Lizzie Deignan, Anna van der Breggen, Julian Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert, Annemiek van Vleuten (twice), Mathieu van der Poel, and Tadej Pogačar – has firmly cemented its place in the hearts of cycling fans everywhere, as well as prompting the now-annual, and increasingly tedious, debate over whether it should be classified as cycling’s ‘sixth monument’.

If, as a large and loud section of Cycling Twitter will forcefully tell you, Strade Bianche deserves its place in the (arbitrary) pantheon of cycling’s top one-day races, that means that one-third of the sport’s monuments derive their unique character from a nostalgic sense of off-road adventure.

Annemiek Van Vleuten wins Strade Bianche (LaPresse - D'Alberto - Ferrari

Annemiek Van Vleuten wins the 2020 Strade Bianche (LaPresse - D'Alberto - Ferrari)

Strade Bianche, in many senses, acts as an Italian version of Paris-Roubaix – its older and bolder French cousin – in harkening back to a bygone era of terrible merciless roads, epic rides, and inner tubes wrapped around torsos (the Tour of Flanders, for all its cobbly brilliance, lacks that otherworldly character).

But, despite their place at the top of the sport, Strade Bianche and the Hell of the North aren’t the only dirty rides to have infiltrated road racing in the pre-gravel era. Here are five rough and ready rides and races that have been around for quite a while now, and which spark the imagination every bit as much as their more illustrious counterparts.

Tro Bro Leon, France

In recent years the Breton race Tro Bro Leon has gained a lot of love from riders, fans, and the media. This year will mark the 39th edition of the 203km race, as the peloton rumbles off into the rolling countryside of Brittany in early May.

Along its bumpy way, the race will take in some 27 sectors of rough riding, which vary from farm tracks to gravel roads. Often described as an alternative to Paris-Roubaix, this race has a tough repute and an aura of grass roots-based authenticity at its core.

It’s arguably almost as tough as its older cousin too, and perhaps even more fun to tune in to as a viewer because the field is far more varied in ability, which tends to make the racing less predictable and the tactics less dialled in than the major classics.

Over the years there have been some high-profile winners of this race, and in 2021 it was no other than Conor Swift who cut the mustard and scored what is perhaps his biggest pro victory to date, clearly demonstrating his potential in the toughest races.

There has also been a supporting sportive version on the day before the main show for a while now, and this year there will be a 131km cyclo event taking in 16 sectors of rough, while a 79km gravel version snares 26 sectors and a 27km vintage ride grapples with seven of them.

GP Herning (ChristinaWatches)

GP Herning, Denmark

Cycling in Denmark has been riding an all-time high ever since the Tour de France started there in 2022, and local hero Jonas Vingegaard took the yellow jersey home with him three weeks later.

It would be fair to say that the nation has turned out its fair share of great bike racers over the years too (if we ignore certain elements of the mid-1990s), and is famous for its urban cycling infrastructure.

However, you don’t tend to hear too much about its great races. Perhaps its biggest single day classic is the GP Herning, which was first held back in 1992.

Most of the “great Danes” have won this race at some time during their career, with foreigners hardly getting to snare a gaze from the top step of the podium. That said, the first non-Dane to upset the home riders was Scotland’s Brian Smith, who won the race back in 1994 while riding for Motorola, and that was despite being considered a climber at the time.

This is a fast and tough fought race which covers 111-miles this time around (on May 13th), and that distance included some 16 gravel road sectors along the rolling route. The field is usually made up of national teams, regional pro teams, and the odd high-profile squad or WorldTour rider too.

Hell of the North Cotswolds (Andy Ward)

Hell of the North Cotswolds, UK

“HONC if you want a rough ride,” as the bumper sticker didn’t say. No story about Paris-Roubaix tribute acts would be complete without paying homage to our very own Hell of the North Cotswolds, a true home brewed and authentic classic in its own right, and justly praised and feared in equal amounts by those who have ridden it.

Starting out as a “road bike” event and as a Cotswolds version of the Paris-Roubaix Cyclo back in 1984, this quintessential British classic borders on the terrain-insane in places, which is why many of the riders these days turn out on mountain bikes.

Originally held annually on “Paris-Roubaix day” during April and ridden in the hilly and muddy Cotswolds region of southwest England, the main route covers 100km, whilst there are also 50km and 75km versions also on offer. This is a non-competitive event, and in recent years the ride has taken place during early September, by which time the going is usually firmer and more pleasurable.

The event takes place on the 3rd September this year.

CiCLE Classic 2011.jpg

CiCLE Classic, UK

Pork pies and pave are to be found in abundance around Melton Mowbray in the East Midlands each April, as that’s when the annual CiCLE classic takes place. The event was created back in 2005 by Colin Clews, and over the years it’s earned a healthy repute with riders and teams from all over Europe and is duly considered as a true classic British race.

The 17th edition of the race will take place on 23rd April, and the route will cover a snip under 120 miles or so as it loops around the rolling Rutland countryside. The terrain includes some pretty serious agricultural trails along the way, the sort of stuff that makes your teeth chatter when dry and has you holding on for dear life when wet.

There is also a multi-distance option sportive event on the day before the men’s race, as well as separate junior and women’s races which are held in June.

Boulder Roubaix, USA

The mile high city of Boulder in Colorado is the USA’s undisputed cycling capital, and has a thriving race and ride scene to go with it. Situated on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies means that it’s a place of pilgrimage for climbers – although it’s also become famous for the amazing network of gravel roads, which weave their way through some of the highest mountains in the country.

However, it’s not all about climbing here, and for as far as you can ride in any direction but west it’s more or less flat, and these wide-open cowboy-like landscapes also come adorned with gravel roads. It’s these flatter dirt roads to the north of town that play host to this annual tribute race-cum-ride – the Boulder Roubaix.

Around 1,000 riders show up for the event, which is around 57 percent gravel and is based on a 30km circuit (100km distance for the main event), which happens on the same weekend as its old school inspiration in northern France. 

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oceandweller | 1 year ago

Another unmissable local event, FlanRou Ribinoù - 100 or so km around the Somerset Levels doesn't sound like much but it isn't quite the picnic you'd imagine. There're *brutal* hills - google Glastonbury Tor to get an idea of what they look like - & a roughly 60:40 combination of narrow lanes & off-road. The off-road is mostly farm tracks (surfaced, in many cases, with builders rubble rather than gravel), with a few miles of out-&-out muddy, rooty singletrack thru woods to test the bike handling skills.

My era of long hard days in the saddle is far behind me (no pun intended) but I absolutely loved the 2 occasions I rode it. Simply brilliant day out - if I could still get round 100km in anything less than geological time my name would be the first on the entry list for this year's event (in June, FYI).

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