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Italy: Strade Bianche, the classic dream

From issue 85 • Words/images by Jered Gruber

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I’m going to get straight to the point here: Strade Bianche is my favorite race of the season. Full stop. Period. The Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris–Roubaix and Tro Bro Leon are close behind, followed by the Omloop and E3—but Strade Bianche owns my heart. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine how much stress I put on myself when it comes to this race. If it’s my favorite race, I should make great images to show just how much I love it, right? And in that, something so beautiful, something I love so much, can so easily become a day of doubt and negativity.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the stress of a bike race. Most days, it’s my default response. It’s some absurd genuflection to professionalism: If I’m stressed, that means I’m taking it seriously and this is work, so I’m supposed to be serious. That’s such a gross thing to admit to myself, let alone admit to you in this story, but I’m on an honest day. And the worst thing about that is: I don’t make better pictures when I’m a thunderstorm waiting to happen. I do terribly “meh” work in those moments. I work best when I’m light and happy and flowing with the breeze of wherever my eyes take me.

My wife and partner Ashley understands this—and at this point I think she knows me better than I know myself. Certainly, she’s a more objective assessor of me than me; and as we drive to the start of Strade Bianche in Siena she sees me frowning and gloomy. She brings me back with the clanking, unbelievable promise of: “It’s going to be a great day!”

We’ve started doing this more and more. It started out as a joke at that big race in France in July, because most every day there can be the worst if you let the unhappy engulf you. In the thick of things, when we were at our most tired and most stressed, we took to uttering those simple, comedic words and somehow, instead of being a joke, they became prescient. Turns out, if you think it, it can be true. I don’t know what that’s called in psychology, an affirmation perhaps, but it seems like magic to me. I just know that I can tell myself what would seem to be an outright lie and it somehow—magically even—makes me happy.

So Ash says those fateful words and it snaps me out of my brooding. I look around and the morning hits me. The mist of a cool night interrupted by the beginning of the day spreads out across vineyards streaming across the hills to the east. I look out across the ridges and the distant peaks, notice the shadows the buildings cast on the greening grass, the cypresses and their corresponding long, solemn shadows, the light reflecting off of the lines that are only visible now because, soon, grapes will cover them.

Yeah, it’s going to be a great day and, yeah, I pretty much can’t believe this is my job today. I find myself giddy at what’s to come. In some masochistic way, I’m excited for the stress, the nerves, the work. I’m happy to be here. I realize at some point after complaining myself into oblivion that this is the job I want to do, I’m supposed to do.

Ash isn’t done with me yet though. She knows me better than to give me just one little poke at keeping my head clear. As we take the escalators up into Siena, into the old town, into the crazy, she commands me to take 10 deep breaths. I hate it when she tells me to take deep breaths. I pretty much hate it when she tells me to do anything, because I’m a contrary 9-year-old at heart. I’m perfectly content being nervous and antsy. Leave me alone. She presses. I acquiesce with a grunt.

I begin to take my breaths like a little kid being told to take out the trash. With much angst and irritation. I try to clear my thoughts, but the directive from my brain to clear my thoughts only leads me to more thoughts from the obstinate side of my brain, which then leads me to scold myself for more thoughts; but then I hear the background grumble of the hilarious groan of the escalator, as it gasps upward, promising failure at any moment. As soon as my ears direct themselves to the escalator, my thoughts vanish. There’s nothing. Just that sound. When I come to, I’ve just had my second dose of calm.

Apparently, that’s all it takes. I’m at a foundational level of peace the rest of the day. It really was a great day. Turns out, Ashley was right. Don’t tell her I said that. If I’m lucky, she won’t read this and she’ll be none the wiser.

That said, I can be peaceful and still dislike the start of Strade Bianche. It’s mad. People everywhere. Recreational bike riders gouging out giant swathes in the middle of the milling fans all taking selfies with assorted others, while harried mechanics and soigneurs ready the bikes, nutrition and supplies for the day, while team cars and buses attempt to part the sea, while riders try to make their way to sign-in. It’s the worst. In my peaceful cloud, I write it off for the day. I turn to my friend and moto driver, Michael, and decide that it’s time to go.

It’s already warm. I’m only wearing a shell on the moto. I’m not even wearing gloves. There are people everywhere along the side of the road, and I can’t help laughing at just how opposite today is over last year. Last year, 50K into the race, I shivered on the brink of hypothermia (which I wish was an exaggeration), wondering what in the hell I was doing here. This year, rain is replaced with sun; dark, dark gloom replaced with the blue of a sky that hasn’t seen rain in weeks; mud replaced with dust; deep, ravenous cold that looked for every corner of my body replaced with glowing warmth, sweat even.

People—I wouldn’t necessarily call them fans, and I don’t mean that in a derisive way—seem to appear from everywhere: a window on the third floor of an old brick building opens and a face peeks out; street-level doors open and an elderly couple walk out and assume their patient waiting stance; two friends hop a small fence and take a knee next to the road; two guys do the stereotypical Italian version of a calm conversation, complete with waving arms and nonstop movement; and a group of friends plays cards at a café—they’ve probably been doing this for half a dozen decades at this point and it just so happens that a bike race will pass by today, a nice little sideshow to the main conflict of who’s going to take the coinage this morning.

Person after person, from new-to-the-world infants to people nearing a century of time on this planet, standing there, watching, as we roll by. I take pictures of them, because this is one of my favorite things to do at a bike race. The normal world turns its attention to bike racing for 15 minutes, then carries on its normal way. But while they’re looking in, I’m in this “river” looking out at the sights along the banks, at the humanity spread out across the length of the day, from the spring where it begins to the mouth of the river, where it flows into the ocean of the past, from the race that’s over to the race that starts again in 364 days.

We stop near the beginning of the first sector of dirt. Vidritta. This white road is perfectly flat with trees along one side, wide-open fields along the other and the low mountains off in the distance. It’s dusty. The race approaches. Cyclo-tourists continue on their merry way as the lead red Inizio Gara car passes, announcing the arrival of the bike race and the fact that, yes, they really should get off the road right this second. They continue along on the dirt, unperturbed, as moto after moto passes yelling at them to get off the road. At the last possible moment, the riders pull over.

And did I mention the dust? I exist in a cloud.

Behind the two tourists, there’s only a wall of white and, first, an orange rider appears out of the whitewash. It’s a CCC team rider. Quickly, more appear, still more, then they are upon me, then they clack and clatter and whir past. It’s an eerie experience to have riders appear from seemingly nowhere, then to watch them disappear into the white nowhere just as quickly as they arrived. I’m taken aback by the sensation, and I don’t really think I got all that many good shots in this first spot; I find myself gawking at the scene more than I’m actually shooting it.

The noise of a WorldTour peloton at full speed is a sound to experience. I don’t generally think of bikes as noisy contraptions, but when you put 200 of them together and power them with a bunch of super-humans, they do, in fact, make a lot of noise. And just as the sound becomes my normal, they’re gone, and the cars pass, and with them the honks, and then there’s the ambulance, and it’s time to run across the field that once looked small enough to run across, but now seems impossibly forever. I make my way across the freshly plowed furrows, cursing my bad idea, and then we’re on our way. Only 10 more spots to go.

I almost lose my camera while working on directions through the property of a five-star hotel. I’m wrapped up in where our next turn is. Michael hits a bump, and my camera shoots off of my shoulder—and lands on the storage box at the back. Time stops as I enjoy a moment of happy disbelief. My camera didn’t just die. What a great moment! I shoot with much appreciation at the next spot.

The white roads pass one after the other. We chase in varying states of emergency. I do my best to cram as much as possible into the two little black boxes on my shoulders as I can. Periodically, we run into friends and they ask how the day is going. I shrug. I really don’t have any idea. I know that I’m feeling good, that our plan is working well and that I’ve shot in some solid spots—my guess is that things are going well, but I haven’t stopped to check. That’s for later. I make sure my settings are solid, and then I get to work shoving all the things into the little black boxes. Over and over again. Tonight is for sifting.

I love this race. I love this area.

Chianti is one of the first places we got a chance to make a home. Back in 2012, we got an invitation to come spend some time with inGamba Tours in their birthplace of Lecchi in Chianti. Us being us, that first time turned into a second and a third, then longer stays and, soon, Lecchi became a home of ours too. We’ve moved a bit farther afield to Fonterutoli over the past couple of years, but there’s no question: Chianti is our place, and Strade Bianche is in our backyard.

I love the privilege of shooting on home roads. It’s such a rare but altogether intoxicating feeling to know what’s around each corner, to not have the virus of geographic uncertainty clawing at my confidence all day long. Sure, there’s always a base-line level of uncertainty and self-doubt, but it’s an elixir for my happiness to really know a place.

We stop at the top of Sector 7, San Martino in Grania. It’s a difficult 9.5-kilometer section of dirt generally pointing in the uphill direction, culminating with a series of switchbacks to connect to the main road, which will take the racers toward Asciano for a few minutes, before they’re thrust back on to dirt and the terrible eighth sector of strade bianche: Monte Sante Marie. The view from the top of Sector 7 is a huge one. The road twists and turns its way across the lesser ridge before climbing the more dominant, highest ridge.

Moments like this in an especially hectic bike race always surprise me. There’s so much crazy, but when that lead group approaches there’s this appearance that all is calm and peaceful. It’s so orderly and smooth. They float along as a giant colorful mass—noiseless, with no sign of effort. Then they arrive, and with their arrival, comes the noise, the effort, the movements, the breathing. The mass breaks up into its rightful individual components. And right behind the leaders? It’s mayhem—riders dropped, riders chasing, mechanicals, cars everywhere, cars honking, a team car about to mechanical out of the race wheezing along, motos, dust. It’s wild. But in that moment right before the leaders pass, there’s a pause in the insanity; just for a second, they float. It’s beautiful.

We wait and wait until we can go, then we make a new, special turn on to a barely passable farm track. A track that is only doable because it hasn’t rained here in a month. We pitch up and down, nearly jump a few deep divots in the path and then, only a few moments later, we’re on to the next sector, Sector 8, the hardest of the day, the one that Ash has so affectionately changed the name of from Monte Sante Marie to Monster Marie. It has stuck.

The race comes apart at the seams on this sector. Always. The favorites come to the fore, the also-rans assume their place in the background, somewhere in the cloud of dust behind the protagonists, and the race is finally, fully on. The first 150 kilometers of the race is run at a difficult, sometimes extremely difficult rate, but at some point along Monster Marie, the real starting gun goes off, and there’s no real let up between here and the finish line in Siena. There’s not a flat piece of road, not a straight piece of road, not an easy three breaths. The downhills, generally considered moments of repose, always come on the heels of some untoward pitch of nasty; so even the downhills are gasping, groping affairs often capped off with surprise turns and slick surfaces.

After Monster Marie, we have one more spot before the finish in Siena. Two hills, Sector 9, Montaperti, followed by a steep, paved road. In total, it’s about two and a half minutes of climbing, combined, for the two hills, but more often than not the next critical stage of the race occurs here. This is where the winning break goes, usually on the paved climb. This year, the winning break with Jakob Fuglsang, Wout Van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe goes on the dirt climb of Montaperti, and solidifies itself up the paved hill—and they’re gone. We’ll see them again in about 20 minutes—at the finish.

At the end of the day, after so many white roads, so much dust, enough wind to wreak havoc, some crashes, significant amounts of suffering and all kinds of up and down, the race turns its eyes to Siena again. And before the end in the magnificent Piazza del Campo, there’s the Via Santa Caterina. This wall of an almost-alleyway, paired with the concluding narrow twists through the city, before emerging into the bright afternoon sunlight of the piazza with a sea of fans, all make for my favorite finish to my favorite race.

Fuglsang, in full flight, leads Alaphilippe up the climb and past my nose around the narrow right-hand turn into the old city. Van Aert follows gamely a couple seconds later, in his saddle, wrestling with his fatigue, the paving stones and gravity. He crests the climb on his bike though—unlike last year’s unforgettable cramping incident that saw him almost land on top of me, as his legs closed up shop and refused to rotate even half a circle more.

Some uncertain period of time flashes by and Tiesj Benoot rages by with Zdenek Stybar on his wheel. The leaders sprint up this section—there’s no other way to describe it. It’s startling how fast they manage to go from far away to right in front of my face.

It changes though. They gradually slow. By the end, when the gruppetto arrives, the riders are not dancing on their pedals anymore—they’re standing on them, using their weight to push each pedal down, one at a time, the day’s efforts well and truly registered in every part of their bodies. There’s just this one last stubborn obstacle, and then it’s done.

Except it isn’t. Not quite. They cross the finish line; they get their recovery drinks (because most will be racing the next day just outside of Florence) and their soigneurs point them toward the buses, the buses that lie just outside the city walls, the buses that lie beyond the huge collection of humanity that waits for them to pass in the Piazza del Campo.

So, much as the day began, weary riders wade their way through expectant fans up yet another steep climb, trying to get to the bus, trying to make this day end. They’re tired. I’m tired. I’m fully #rekt. I go to the bar at the edge of the piazza, walk upstairs and share a beer with our Belgian friends from Dadizele. Ash was with Yoeri all day. She has a story to tell. Yoeri has a story to tell. Michael has a story to tell. I’m just tired. I find myself staring out across the piazza; my tired mind registers that the Piazza del Campo is still beautiful. One beer empties, then another, then a third. I’m happy to stay a while. It feels so civilized, so normal, to just sit here and drink some beers with my friends.

Ash rustles me up after that third beer though; she also knows when things are heading toward “out of hand.” There’s still so much to do tonight, tomorrow. We amble out of the city. It’s a beautiful walk. The cool of the evening has set in, the shade is slowly becoming the dark and we get the chance to enjoy the city at a quiet time of day. She tells me about her day. I don’t have that much to say but I always enjoy hearing about all the details she remembers. I love these moments after a big race ends: the sunset, the time between the light of the day’s shooting and the night’s edit. It’s the best time of day. At the best race of the year.

From issue 85. Buy it here.