Somersault on the Moon – Notes on Strade Bianche 2022

(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

COPPI & PASTE: Memories of Cycling

COPPI & PASTE aims at giving voice to the narrative threads connecting the world of (professional) cycling. We will report on races, think about riders, visit the most famous roads, ride on our bikes and dream about it all in words and images.

Landscapes Becoming Liquid

by Victor Morozov

One day I hopped on my steel bike – green, rusty, and as heavy as you like – and I realized I was able to keep my balance. The scene is blurry, yet poignant. There’s my uncle, keeping the pace behind me. There’s that one way “garage street” with rough tarmac, the kind you used to see everywhere in post-communist Romania. And then there’s that feeling, one that never gets old; the sheer amazement of the landscape becoming liquid, going crazy. Once, just once, I could hold the secret of it, amazed at the principle of ideas becoming things, in the short lapse between assisted movement – my uncle grabbing the saddle – and the stability I established by my own force of will.

There’s probably more to the first solo bike ride – which is only just a couple of meters long– than a mere cliché. This monotone discourse about the personal freedom a bicycle is supposed to miraculously enable proves to be, at the same time, an exaggeration and an understatement. Things are more complicated than that; we can find a secret written in invisible ink throughout the history of each bicycle. A couple of months ago I was convinced by some evidence to get a tube of silicone spray for my road bike. There was the strange need to make this object – slender, light, robust – even more beautiful. The shameless pride was almost physical. One year before, after I bought the bike in a bourgeois village near Paris from an aging man who unloaded it from his cranky Peugeot and told me with a sigh: “I’m done with le vélo”, I would watch it furtively, as if in fear of discovering myself an impostor, filling a corner of my empty, sad student dorm. “My first road bike”, I thought, and to my mind came all these sepia pictures of rectangular bicycle frames from a working-class France, all of them long gone by now. I was finally joining the imaginary peloton at a time when the bike, as a social activity, was once again gaining terrain (it’s unbelievable how the pandemic prompted people to start commuting by bike in Paris), while simultaneously losing its soul. But that is another matter.

In the Romanian town where I spent most of my life, bikes would come into your life before cars: unhandy, ugly bikes that the boys could take for a Friday evening ride by the Danube. It was fun. We all had them: some had on “full” wheels for show, while others styled some strange, completely senseless drops for the handlebars. Then the boys would grow up, discover love, and forget about the bike. By the time most of them were of age to drive a car, no one would think anymore of the so adequately named “First Bike” (the most common Romanian bike manufacturer of the time) and the memories it brought. I myself followed the designated path up to a point. Once or twice, around 14, I took part in the so-called “Saturday ride” that the local cycling club would organize weekly. I still remember the feeling of belonging with the cool guys, as we would form a long chain and slowly cross the city center. The ride always finished with a short but steep climb which, for me, acted as a wake-up call: I was the last one to reach the top, panting, while the others would give me a dismissive look. Nowadays I follow some of their accounts on my Strava app, and sometimes we even get together for a ride in the countryside. Some are now firefighters and engineers – back then their cheeks were red with acne, and they were already fighting gravity.

Luckily, I had no interest in getting a driver’s license. It somehow made it easier for me to get back into cycling. During high school, I clearly found it smarter to impress my sweetheart by reciting a poem than by climbing a hill “en danseuse”. I’d think twice now about that now, though. There was this very firm idea, instilled by our teachers and by the entire society, to be honest, that some habits were appropriate, while others were not. I could feel it, without reading Bourdieu, that literature was acceptable and sport wasn’t, at least for a young man destined for a career in the cultural field. (By a similar logic, I chose to study cinema, a sort of ideal mauvais objet which, during those years, still gave off a sulfurous smell to some of my teachers.) Getting back in the saddle, in the aftermath of a painful breakup, also meant completing the loop. Like cinema, although in greater measure, sports are still looked down on by a whole range of intellectuals. I skip their fallacious reasons, for I don’t want to give any credit to their ignorance: it goes without saying, for instance, that the meanings a football coach extracts from a match in front of him can achieve unsuspected levels of complexity. On the other hand, sports fans only seldom have the opportunity to develop a reflection about their passion. This is why, nowadays more than ever, paying close attention to what a sport such as cycling does to us – in terms of image, gesture, passion – feels necessary.

Back in 2013, I read a book about a journalist who had a longtime interest in cycling, and was then assembling his dream bike. The frame was from Raleigh, the saddle was from Brooks… I don’t know how I would feel about this dandy position of his now, but I remember the lasting influence that this book had on me. Two years later, I would watch cycling races on Eurosport, just for the pleasure of the immersion into a bike-filled flow of images. Life for me, at the end of junior high, was as plotless as a transition stage from a grand tour. There was a form of absolute beauty inscribed into the frame, with its synthetic explosion of colors and the eerie equipment that covered as much as it revealed, which suddenly didn’t require any context at all. Indeed, I lacked all information necessary to establish a minimal context, like what the names of the competing teams were, how this strategy game worked, what race was on, what the sport’s history was (I was no child of the doping controversies), or even what a technical guideline for the complex progression of a course par étapes was. Some names I recollect vaguely, like Valverde, who was already “old”, or Bardet, who had very bold moves, and also rode for a French team, so he stood away from big money…

I now hold televised cycling to be the challenge of truth for any proclaimed image analyst. In terms of boredom, it doesn’t get any better than a five hour plain stage, when an indistinct mass of wheels glide through the arid valleys of Oman or Andalusia, going on forever. While we can easily understand the point of televised football or tennis, one cannot help but wonder at the massive audience success of this endearing, if somehow perplexing, enterprise of recording, under every possible angle, kilometer after kilometer. Yet the epic quality of a grand tour was by no means destined for television, nor was it enhanced by its live broadcast. Having started as a promotion event for a printed journal, the Tour de France would be nowhere near the mythological exploit it has become had it not been for the writers and journalists who saw heroes and epics where previously there had only been reportage. Could some of this enthusiasm be revived in our age, when all the images have been seen and all the heroes have fallen from grace, compromised by substances with angry names? Regardless of the outcome, I think it’s worth a try.

© Victor Morozov

The Yellow of Pirates

by Patrick Holzapfel

It took a long time until I was able to understand how the seemingly weightless movements of the cyclists I observed on television were basically of the same nature as the painful fidgeting I undertook while struggling on my own bike to get to school. My imagination followed its very own cadence, and suddenly I found myself imitating the gestures and movements I saw on television: lifting myself above the saddle to accelerate until my legs exploded, stretching while descending, merging onto the other side of the road right before sprinting against a surprised sheep grassing in the field next to where I imagined the Flamme Rouge to be. As my father runs a bicycle shop, he was able to get me a few items that helped to spark my imagination further: sunglasses, drinking bottles, helmets, shoes for my clip-less pedals (I learned to fall and get up again), power gels, rain-jackets, speedos and most importantly, the bike itself. It was shaped like my Pulmo dexter, pitch black with a fire red saddle. Everything about it smelled like oil and blood and nobody was allowed to touch it.

Imagination was also key to my initiation into the world of professional cycling, a world that had been blown away by a storm of horrible betrayal and moralistic witch-hunts as soon as I discovered it. It’s all worthy of Greek myths, really, but I don’t know who lives up on Olympus anymore.

I remember strained hours in front of a tiny tube television my grandfather put on top of a shelf in a cubbyhole in his cottage. It was 1997. The colours were hardly distinguishable on the screen far above me, but I was barely able to make out a yellow shirt in the midst of a moving serpent weaving through the most famous streets of Paris. I have never seen so many impressions of yellow dots in my eyes as I did that night after spending so long trying to find the one on that screen. They told me, “If he doesn’t fall, he will win.” I was sure he would fall. Even as a child, I’ve always been certain of coming tragedies, and years later he really would fall. He would fall so often until I couldn’t care anymore. But in 1997 I cared and he didn’t fall. He crossed the finish line at the Champs-Élysées and there he was, in yellow.

The next thing I remember is rain. Heavy rain and again I had to imagine things. Due to the heavy rain there were no televised images from the road and those competing on it. Instead I heard worried voices declaring: “Er hat einen Hungerast” (he hit a wall). He didn’t eat enough and it was cold and it rained and he felt like shit and another man, much more inspiring, took the stage. He was bold and everybody called him a pirate and he took the yellow shirt I was still looking for with feverish eyes (both of us had feverish eyes). He really seemed to be from another world. As he moved up mountain roads through corridors of cheering people, I observed something I understood very well as a child: the relief of climbing, which is the same as the relief of growing-up. When ingredients, opponents, strategic thoughts, parents and the world are overcome in a painful scream for recognition, I really felt joy for the pirate in yellow climbing with the fury of someone who is bound to lose everything but inspires everybody. There it was, Mount Olympus, even if only for a second, I saw it. The pirate had conquered it.

It was all beautiful beyond comprehension. I didn’t understand anything about cycling but slowly I learned a whole new vocabulary and more importantly, I learned about its myths and heroes, and something took flight in me which hasn’t ceased to inspire my imagination up to this day.