I took a hire car to the Strade Bianche once. It specifically said in the contract no driving on the gravel roads. When we returned it, it was more white dust than automobile and everything was shaken and loose. This time the weather promised different.
The Friday before the 2018 race we drive the Monte Santa Maria sector – the key one, with its stiff rolls and bounces – and there is still snow on the ground and mud rivers and slush piles and the wheels skid and judder and spin on the 15% ups.
“It’s getting better and better, the weather,” says Philippe, who is driving, and this is Belgian optimism because it is 5.5ºC and the rain is hammering down, conspiring with the mud to obscure the corkscrewing off-camber curves hurtling towards the windscreen. We stop to take photos and pee, and we test the ground with our heels, as before a horse race, checking the going. Soft. Definitely soft. And getting softer.
The women’s race begins in the rain, all embrocation, the sound of wet brakes and arguing policemen, and the heavens barely spare them for four-and-a-bit hours.
The men start in rain and finish in the dry, though the rain clouds scud over the hills all day, strafing the broken lines of riders as if to take out the unwary. We chase and leapfrog the peloton in the car, dodging potholes a sinistra, a destra, through a blasted landscape of mist and disconsolate umbrellas. Lone trees on ridges poke through the clouds and rows of cypresses stand sentinel over the infamous strade.
Then the cars and riders come, shake-rattle-and-rolling through the gloom. It gets harder, the corrugated roads flow.
In the feed zone many riders drop out. Eyes wide white, staring out of brown wash, white teeth grimaces. Grit in the eyes, hair, ears, noses; the sound of a hundred men blowing their noses, expelling grit. Riders are helping other riders remove gloves because they are too cold to move their hands. I help a soigneur put bicycles on the roof of a car. We set off for Siena, heater on full, and pass many other racers who have abandoned but have not had such luck, and so are pedaling slowly to the buses.
Back in town I head to the top of the Via Santa Caterina. The streets of the citadel are tight, the Santa Caterina is so tight and steep and wet, and there is something ancient and gladiatorial about this scene and our anticipation.
The Belgian woman next to me has a flag on the railing and the Sporza TV app on her phone, and we watch and we wait. We are team Benoot-Van Aert – I do not dare say I live in France and am rooting for Bardet – but then Benoot goes and that settles it. Minutes later, he rounds the corner, muddied head held high, limbs hanging loosely off him like a marionette.
He takes the corner at a snail’s pace, no need to risk it now, and emerges into the Piazza on our screen. Then Bardet, and Van Aert, and the rest, and it is terrible, almost heartbreaking, because they are surrounded by sound and fury and so terribly alone in victory or defeat, and you want to watch everyone finish here because it has been so hard and cold, and because at the bitter end they seem so vulnerable and cold and human.
As the 20th, 30th, 40th rider finishes, the sun comes out for the first time in days, hitting the very tops of the buildings above the Santa Caterina, and it starts to rain again but very gently, this time. A cleansing rain perhaps.
There is a history of the world to be told in mud. The chocolate brown clag of Flanders, stiff as icing, parlayed by burghers into art and gold; the rise and fall of the Dukes of Provence and Savoy; and the exquisite olive oil and wine that grew from it and raised citadels and castles on the rumpled, folded hills of Tuscany.
In mud we find the riches of the world. And heroes rise out of it, like Tiesj Benoot, Wout van Aert and Romain Bardet.