strade bianche

the last 24 kilometers.

Author’s note: there are spoilers ahead for the men’s race. Enter at your own risk.

It’s an elite group, a frightening one — well, frightening to anyone other than him. When he is in his element, he is not afraid of anything.

They’ve got distance now, daylight, and they’re running with it, among them two cyclocross world champions, two Tour de France winners, and the current road world champion, the rainbow bands on his shoulders starting to become tinged with a layer of fine dust.

The man looks back, sees a familiar yellow-and-black jersey and its attendant familiar face, perhaps one of the most familiar to him. He resists a smile — this is all very fun, after all.

Classic, Wout. Still there, big gaping mouth hanging open, as usual. Classic, just classic.

Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. Every time they race together, the story becomes about them, regardless if both make it to the finish line at the same time, one on one in a match sprint. Mathieu and Wout, a consummate pair, really — each perfectly composed in skill and body, physically and psychologically, to chase the other to the underworld and back, be it in the stage races, the muddy fields of Flanders, or on monumental cobbled climbs.

Their rivalry is a literary one, a story of two souls entangled irrevocably from childhood until right now on the meandering roads outside of Siena and onward until the very end — of this race, of their careers. The saga of these two men is long and rich, far too lengthy and complex to regale here in this little essay. All you have to know is that Strade Bianche’s moment of decision is about to unfold and, as such, the pair are about to enter combat once more, carving yet another tick in the prison wall of their eternal, reciprocal conflict. The poor bastards.

Mathieu and Wout have company — stellar company, in fact. Both Tadej Pogačar, the surprise winner of last year’s Tour de France, and Egan Bernal, the winner of the Tour de France before that seem to be holding on. Julian Alaphilippe, the 2020 Road World Champion, a man of panache and punchiness (whose antics never fail to amuse and enthrall) has a little chat with Tom Pidcock, a known presence in the cyclocross peloton our two arch-rivals dominate. Sometimes, in those circuited rides in the dirt, Tom ekes out a spot on the podium — he even beat Mathieu once last season. But only once. The odd man out is Michael Gogl from Qhubeka-Assos, who’s had several top ten finishes in his career, and yet no wins — never, not once. Compared to the company he’s keeping, Gogl appears to be in a little bit over his head. He is the underdog here and yet, he persists.

They’re approaching sector nine of the eponymous white gravel roads of Strade Bianche, roads that kick pale dirt in the air and expose the weaknesses of rubber and carbon fiber and the constitutions of strong men. Sector nine of eleven is a steep, sharp incline, the perfect place to kick off one’s eternal rival — or, if failing that — at least getting an idea of what kind of form he’s in.

Our protagonist grimaces and grips his handlebars, his cadence high, his eyes darting amongst his colleagues, marking them, considering them, each so different from one another, something unique to Strade Bianche, an egalitarian race that can favor any type of rider.

Van Aert is at the front as the roads wind through fields, vineyards and rollocking hills peppered by cypresses, a fine landscape of muted greens and golds. It’s an almost-cliche post-Impressionist painting come to life, maybe one of the better-known Van Goghs, the ones with the dark, flamelike foliage and swirling skies that tourists crowd to get a selfie in front of in Amsterdam and New York. Everything simultaneously sprawls and yet is compact and well-composed, the trees in polite proximity to one another, orchards sweetly tucked away in their little plots of land, a spartan stucco-clad house keeping modest watch as the breakaway swings around yet another corner.

With a traumatic jolt, onto the gravel they go, the scenery now obscured by a cloud of fine dust. Alaphilippe’s had enough waiting — he comes up around the side, rollicking up the hill, Tadej Pogačar in his wheel, van der Poel keen to follow with Bernal and Gogl. None of the men look back — they have to commit if they want to put some distance between one another, and ah, they do! Lo and behold, here’s daylight!

When Mathieu gathers himself and takes another look over his shoulder, Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock are no longer there. This is a major development and everyone in that front group save for Bernal, Pidcock’s Ineos Grenadiers teammate, wants to make sure this nascent distance is made permanent. If van Aert (this race’s winner last year) and Pidcock (the young man trying to usurp him) get back on, Strade Bianche will be a lot harder to win. Hence, the leading group try, at the very least, to exhaust the struggling pair. Wheels rumble back onto tarmac, but the change in road surface offers no reprieve, not at this pace. The distance grows, and with it, an aura of giddy excitement at the head of the race. Everyone behind our front group and their chasers is far too behind now to matter.

“This looks over for Wout van Aert,” the GCN commentators say, and to be fair, it does. It’s a 15 second gap. He’s got a lot of work to do to stay in contention. However, Mathieu van der Poel knows Wout van Aert, knows that if there’s one thing Wout van Aert doesn’t do, it’s give up. Ever. This is infuriating to Mathieu, for whom Wout’s bull-headed tenacity is a constant form of pressure to push on further. However, without that pressure, who knows how things would turn out? It’s a necessary part of their whole schtick, their whole song and dance — a part that, to their chagrin, makes both men better athletes in the long run.

Van Aert and Pidcock, now passed by the motorbikes, are left in a situation very familiar to both of them from cyclocross: they’re chasing after Mathieu fucking van der Poel. 12 seconds, 8 seconds, fifteen meters, the distanced pair begin to claw their way back, dragged along by pure spite and adrenaline in the span of four kilometers. It’s a lot of effort to ask of them, but they give all of themselves just to have one more go at it. They’re betting their reserves of energy against those of the house. We all know the cardinal rule of gambling — there’s no need to repeat it here.

19.2 kilometers to go. A flash of Jumbo Visma yellow in the corner of his eye. Classic Wout, Mathieu thinks once again, classic Wout. Barely separated now, the break and its pursuers head onto sector ten, the penultimate stretch of gravel, 2.4 kilometers long, its gradient in the double digits. This section of the race is awful, miserable even. Watching them lumber around corners, filth filming in the folds of their faces, one is aware that bike racing is labor pure and simple, that dragging tires through this crushed gritty rock after hours of peloton brinkmanship is laborious, utterly laborious. Drudgery at the tempo of a dirge. The end of this hellish ordeal is approaching, but not soon enough because dear god, the dust, the infernal dust is invading their mouths and their noses and poor Wout van Aert’s unprotected eyes. It surrounds, consumes the cyclists, discolors their kits, collects in the nooks and crannies of their bicycles. Clouds of it scatter into the air, obscuring the wonderful scenery now wasted on all of them. As is the case in many bike races, the loveliness of the landscape exists only for us, the zoomed-out, gleeful voyeurs of this absurd pageantry.

18.4 kilometers to go and the unhappy family is reunited — at least briefly. Even though they’re back together, the lead group still profits off of exhausting Pidcock and van Aert, even if they couldn’t dispose of them. A vineyard parts for the septet and in it, they watch one another. Bouncing along the poorly-maintained backcountry roads, they take bottles and gels, pass through the walls concealing a touch of small-town hillside urbanism. Weaving in and out of the slipstreams of one another, the group make their way to the final, decisive gravel section.

So much is on the line here for each of our players: for Wout, a second win, back-to-back (with the benefit of beating Mathieu); for Mathieu, being the first Dutch winner of this race (with the added benefit of beating Wout); for Gogl, winning his first ever bike race in his World Tour career; for Bernal, showing that he’s back on form after his struggle with scoliosis; for Pidcock, beating his two grown up rivals all while being the youngest winner in the race’s history; for Pogačar, an inaugural victory in a one-day race; and, finally, for Alaphilippe, a repeat of his 2019 performance, plus a win in the world championship’s rainbow bands, which is always nice.

13.2 kilometers to go and it’s downhill for them onto Le Tolfe, fast and filthy and chaotic, sandwiched by wall-like embankments, no room to maneuver, no time to think. It’s all instinct now — a test of their well-tuned racecraft and strategy, a game of clever and impulsive execution. A dip, and then uphill again, sharp, too — 18 percent is the gradient. The scraggly branches of soon-to-be-budding trees frame the road as the septet steel themselves, prepare for the worst, anticipating only the most craven actions from their companions.

The moment of separation transpires at 12.2 kilometers to go. Tadej Pogačar’s the first one to lose the wheel, by means of sheer lack of momentum. In other words, he’s cooked. Mathieu van der Poel throws himself forward in a burst of energy, taking with him Julian Alaphilippe and, after a few kilometers of catch-up, Egan Bernal. The others scramble to hold on, but they can’t, they just can’t, they’ve given too much of themselves too soon or too late, and the only thing left to them is burying their legs into the turning of their pedals, their lungs burning and choked with dust.

The stragglers do not know this yet, but it is over for them. Their podium dreams are a lost cause.

It’s a three man race now, and it’s anyone’s, really. Alaphilippe is a grade-A puncheur and there is one last wall of a climb left to get in a fight on, right before the run-in at Siena. Mathieu van der Poel, fresh off of his cyclocross season and a stage win in the UAE Tour (an event his team prematurely abandoned due to a coronavirus scare) is already in tremendous form. Egan Bernal, having come second in Trofeo Laigueglia only a few days prior, has also showed that, despite his injuries, he can hang on with the best of them. (However, being more of a pure climber, he is perhaps the least suited to win against a pair of punchy riders known for their power to, well, punch.)

Architecture, warm-colored and sunbaked, emerges from behind hedges, but it’s a blur to the trio, all of it, because this racing is flat-out and full-gas, and the only thing worth looking at to them is the road ahead. The end is upon them, the race’s denouement whittling down as the modernist estates of mid-century come into view, five-storied and unremarkable, the homes of the many anonymous citizens scattered across Siena’s fringes, existing at the boundary of that which is considered to be lovely to look at. In their drab windows, on their dull balconies, the people cheer.

Seven kilometers to go, and we see Wout van Aert at the head of the chasing group, mouth agape, out of the saddle. He won’t give up, he’ll never get up, but alas, he’s no longer important to this race other than as a constant presence in the mind of his rival. For the three in front, it’s going to come down to the final climb winding up to the Piazzo del Campo. Everything they do now is in the service of this and, as such, they ride as fast as they can, but not so fast as to waste precious energy. Sweet, dense Italian streets enclose them, the stuff of postcards, of paintings in the Louvre and Olive Garden alike: warm, charming houses, aged and well-loved with brightly painted shutters, tucked behind hedges. They exist only as an uninspiring blur of green and brown to our race leaders.

3.5 kilometers left. He goes early, sprints out in anticipation of the climb. That’s it, one assumes — he’s going to wear himself down trying to get ahead only to be caught later, a squandered opportunity. But Mathieu van der Poel isn’t attacking out of desperation. He doesn’t do it in fear of the climb, but in spite of it. The attack isn’t to go for the win, but rather to drain the legs of his pursuers, one last jolt to the system before the moment of judgement. He’s catlike, Mathieu — both in his polite, aloof disposition and in the way he toys with his prey like this, regardless of whether he has the legs to back it up afterwards. As he rides, one can tell he’s genuinely having a bit of good fun and, above all, that he’s hell-bent on winning. This drivenness of his can only be described as libidinal. The chasers, not yet ready to relent, catch up to him, burning through kilojoules to do so, just like he wants them to.

The last kilometer, the flamme rouge. They reach the foot of the climb. It’s impenetrable, looming in front of them like a wall, impossibly, painfully steep, framed by ancient berms and delightful stucco houses, very different architectural moods on either side of the road. The trio mark each other, round a corner, all assuming that they’ll have more time to play mind games — for seven hundred meters is just on the cusp of being too far out from the finish for one to try and still succeed.

In the shadowed, narrow streets, the way it unfolds is beautiful.

He’s on the right of Alaphilippe, Bernal just behind. He gathers himself, takes big swallows of air through his nose, exchanges them through his thin, parted lips. One can feel the sheer mechanical torque, the push and pull of the pedals on which he stands, the ardor of it, bike rocking from side to side as he paces himself, gets in his rhythm. Five hundred meters to go, it looks as though van der Poel’s just about to lose momentum, but then, suddenly and all at once, a literal explosion.

The speed, the raw power of the final attack is inconceivable. It happens in a split second, a bullet being fired from a rather elegant gun, though no analogy really does justice to what a feat of visceral, crushing strength van der Poel’s final launch represents. Draped in a mix of darkness and golden-hour light, we are witnessing a man who is simultaneously a beast, a weapon, and an artist, and against him, the others are helpless, left stunned.

When he approaches the finish, it takes him a few tugs to zip up his jersey, but he does, and Alpecin-Fenix’s Mathieu van der Poel, with an expression of pure, unhindered joy, pumps his fist in the air as he crosses the line, utterly and decisively victorious. Julian Alaphilippe follows in second, Egan Bernal in third. In fourth, a haggard and defeated Wout van Aert, attended to by the other stragglers. It takes a while for the rest of the peloton to trickle in.

Sometimes a race is ultimately won by strategy, sometimes it is won by luck. Sometimes, as is the case here, it’s a combination of both those things, yes, but in the end, it is won by feats of raw strength and pure power.

Strade Bianche was anybody’s race — until it wasn’t.

Mathieu was strong enough to attack with 23 kilometers to go, wearing down his rivals, pushing the limits of the strongmen surrounding him. This was a test, the results of which he felt satisfied with. He knew he could do it again later and cause even more delicious, merciless carnage.

Mathieu was strong enough to split the septet at the final sector of gravel, from which he knew, based on what had happened earlier and the sheer lack of distance left ahead of them, that once initially distanced, many of his colleagues would not be able to come back.

Mathieu was strong enough to attack in the final five kilometers, doing so just to get another strategic look at his competition, launching to see how long it would take for the others to rejoin him. (It took them longer than he expected.)

Finally, Mathieu van der Poel was strong enough to execute one of the most startling final blows in recent memory, doing so with such speed and exhilarating might that not only did Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal succumb to the resulting whiplash, but so, too, did we. Whether half-stranded on the climb in Siena or insulated from the outside world atop our sofas, it makes no difference — what we witnessed was a shock. It was a murder. It was a ballet.

In the end, all we could do was widen our eyes and look on.

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