(Text: Patrick Holzapfel)
The fancy signs of wineries – tellingly written in perfect English – on the side of the eponymous white roads across the Crete Senesi, a beautiful landscape in Tuscany transformed by humans over centuries, must have looked as if they were put up in defiance of the dust covered bodies and bicycles racing past them in what has become the most attractive one-day race in professional cycling next to Paris-Roubaix. No wine in the world, not even the famous Chianti produced alongside the route, could ease the pain of the riders participating in Strade Bianche. However, their reward is a narration embedded as thickly in myth as the modern world can possibly accept. The word hero grows as close to these roads as the rows of cypress trees – the race was even founded as a L’Eroica. The reporters there refer to the natural elements as if they were some Homeric mischief brought to the mortals by gods; they speak and write of eternity as if that’s all we aim for when pedaling towards our own exhaustion; their sounds of awe are accompanied by the frenzied excitement of the people standing on the side of the road like lost markers of forgotten civilizations. Those visitors from the real world – some of them looking surprised as if the race passed their gardens without warning – wear jackets and sunglasses to protect themselves from the dust whirling through the air (we know the metaphoric of dust), and even a frightened horse has to watch in panic as the caravan thunders past its once-so-quiet refugio at the foot of a rolling clay hill.
Cycling’s hunger for legend and archaic experiences is almost ridiculous, but it is also the most romantic justification for the absurd task of trying to ride your bike faster than everybody else. In the case of Strade Bianche, make no mistake about it, this hunger is a calculation. As opposed to other great races, this one comes with next to no history. It was only in 2007 that the race became a fixture in the international calendar of professional cyclists, and though there have been some remarkable editions in those fifteen years, it’s hard to compare them to the century old stories of steel bikes other races come along with. The race is built on nostalgia for a certain type of racing which is very hard to find in modern cycling; racing without being able to calculate. It leads uphill and downhill over kilometers of gravel roads (which make up more than a third of the total route), small streets and finishes after a narrow and steep climb up Via Santa Caterina on Piazza del Campo in picturesque Siena.
In this sense the Strade Bianche might be one of the few events in public sports in which we can see a successful attempt at historical preservation. While the interests of money and power subvert most attempts in other occasions (for example in football or the Tour de France), the rather naive and passionate desire for legend gives Strade Bianche an air of history in the making. It helps when the riders are reminiscent of what was once referred to as heroes, like in the edition of 2022.
It’s true that observing cycling races on television comes with a lot of patience, which is a euphemism for boredom. This is not the case with Strade Bianche. The first image of the men’s race we could see this year was a somersault on the moon. In a horrible crash caused by gusting winds, almost half of the riders fell down on the grey-blue, lunar-like soil. One of the them was World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, a favourite who loves the cameras and didn’t disappoint them with a spectacular salto off his bike. Later, he would pay the price for his crash as he strained to catch up to the other favourites through heavy headwind. He couldn’t keep up with the best rider on that day but then, nobody could.
Right behind Alaphilippe, a certain Tadej Pogačar fell less spectacularly but – undoubtedly – with a smile on his lips. This smile is hard to explain. There is a lot that is hard to explain. In cycling, we’ve learned that whenever something is hard to explain, it’s probably a cause for doubt. Pogačar is a 23 year old, two time winner of the Tour de France. He also won the Il Lombardia and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2021. Actually, it seems as if he wins whenever he wants to on whatever terrain. The only rider comparable to him in the history of cycling is Eddy Merckx, the cannibal, who is referred to as the greatest of all time. Pogačar, who looks like an enthusiastic schoolboy, is a force of nature, and the perfect winner for this race. He didn’t only win it, he attacked around 50 (!) kilometres before the finish line and managed to go all the way without any help, leaving the bunch of world-class chasers no chance. Such an effort is what journalists refer to as epic.
In the past couple of years five riders and three teams have taken control in the world of cycling and released it from the cold, data-driven, robot-like bureaucracy dominating the sport for a decade with champions like Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins or Geraint Thomas. These riders are Pogačar, Wout Van Aert, Mathieu Van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Primož Roglič. All of them risk losing in order to win. They ride not only for records but for glory. Four of those five have now won the Strade Bianche in the last four years. That’s no coincidence. In them glows the very same desire and nostalgia as in the race itself. Their style is more daring, wilder, more erratic than anything we’ve seen in this sport in the last thirty years (with honourable exceptions like Marco Pantani or Alberto Contador). Embedded in tradition as they are (Van der Poel is even the grandchild of the great Raymond Poulidor) we basically already know – because such is the history of this sport – that they will fall at some point. However, they will fall in style just as Alaphilippe demonstrated, and to witness their fall and possible resurrection might just be another cause for beautiful legends carrying eternity across time.
Further remark: There is another type of a long fallen hero resurrected. His name is Alejandro Valverde. He will turn 42 years in April. It’s his last season. One should write a book about his career. He finished second. It’s not an overstatement that he is the real hero of this race. Like Pogačar he seemed to smile throughout the whole race. It’s sort of his trademark.
Smiling in pain. I find it hard to imagine that despite the pressure and the fierce competition involved these smiles do not display a love for the sport.
1 Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates 4:47:49
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:37
3 Kasper Asgreen (Den) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team 0:00:46
4 Attila Valter (Hun) Groupama-FDJ 0:01:07
5 Pello Bilbao Lopez De Armentia (Spa) Bahrain Victorious 0:01:09
6 Jhonatan Narvaez Prado (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers
7 Quinn Simmons (USA) Trek-Segafredo 0:01:21
8 Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal 0:01:25
9 Simone Petilli (Ita) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux 0:01:35
10 Sergio Higuita Garcia (Col) Bora-Hansgrohe 0:01:53
Last hero to arrive in Siena:
87 Marijn van den Berg (Ned) EF Education-EasyPost 0:18:31