No matter how many races we shoot, there’s always a nervousness at the start, an uncertainty about where to set up shop, what shot to take. It’s even worse when it’s the first race of the year. It’s even worse again when it’s a race as epic as Strade Bianche.

After being nearly blown over by the ferocious winds on the open ridge, I walked back and forth, up and down, freaking out. It was silly and completely unnecessary, but I had a moment of complete confidence meltdown.

But then the lead car arrived, and I stopped. I settled in my spot, and suddenly, it was so simple. The break burst over the hill in full flight — absolutely hurtling down the hard-packed, smooth white road in the cross-tailwind.

The field followed soon after, but hurtling they were not. The piano was out, and they were enjoying a nice practice session before pulling out their swords, knives, and other sharp instruments for the finale. I took my shots, ran back to the car, and we were off to the next location.

The Strade Bianche is not like the Giro. From afar, it seems like a pretty big race, but on the ground it’s quiet, it’s relaxed, and the tifosi are few and far between. On the opening section through Radi, I think photographers outnumbered tifosi.

Lucignano d’Asso was our second stop, and the third unsealed sector of the day for the riders. The Strade Bianche utilises eight pieces of white road for a total of just over 50km. If they wanted to, they could make most of the race on dirt. Easily.

Lucignano d’Asso is a gorgeous section of rolling white road at the far southern end of the race route. It’s open to the extreme. When you stand on the treeless roads of this area, it’s impossible not to be struck by the hills. They’re never-ending.

Flat roads don’t exist. It’s as if a spell was cast on a boiling sea, and the vast expanse of water was instantly turned to earth. The hills ripple, rise, fall, sometimes gently, sometimes severely, and if it’s a white road, it seems the roads have a tendency to jut upwards at an alarmingly steep rate.

On Saturday, it was impossible not to be uppercutted by the wind. It was one of the windiest days I’ve ever been outside in. I generally have a habit of downplaying all extreme events, but I had to concede it was notably windy when I saw Latvian National Champion and eventual 5th-place finisher, Aleksejs Saramotins, get blown off the road while sitting in fourth wheel in the break.

It was crazy — I’ve never had a crash happen while I was shooting. There’s this odd disconnect when you look through the viewfinder on your camera — real life is just beyond the lens, but from there, I often get a feeling of a video game. I’m aiming my little box, aiming the box, shooting, aiming, shooting.

With Saramotins’s crash though, it took away that disconnect. I looked around my camera, because I couldn’t believe what had just happened. And there he was, climbing out of the field, jumping on his bike, and everything was so vivid. The camera seems to dull the experience for me — when I look out from behind the camera everything seems so hyper-real.

After watching a rider trying to regain contact with the field and nearly meeting Saramotins’s fate in the same spot, I ran back to the car. Monte Sante Marie awaited.

Aleksejs Saramotins gets blown off his bike while in the breakaway.

Monte Sante Marie was our third stop and the fifth dirt section for the racers. The sector opens up just outside of Asciano and billows north. As any veteran of L’Eroica can attest, it’s tough just to ride that sector, let alone to race it. I think Monte Sante Marie easily takes top billing as the hardest sector of all. It’s also absolutely gorgeous. One main climb along its 10+ kilometers gets a lot of attention, but it’s peppered with short, sharp, teen-percentage punches to the face. It’s brutal.

I set up on that main hill, while Ashley was off a little bit further down the road. The break was still intact, grinding, rocking, pulling, stomping their way up the nearly 20% slopes, with more than five minutes on a field that was beginning to awaken.

When the field arrived, Cannondale was on the front, and not just any Cannondale rider, but Peter Sagan. Sagan’s hard riding translated to dark times further back in the already-much-reduced field.

Early in the day, the dust had been kept at bay by rain from the night before, but by mid-afternoon the vacation was over and the dust was back. Dropped riders in the caravan were left to plow a painful furrow through a man-made cloud.

Up ahead, Ashley’s perch proved a fortuitous one, because it was at right about her spot that Juan Antonio Flecha launched his audacious move. Some called him crazy, but it nearly worked out for him. Sometimes pre-empting the big guns and latching on later is the best way to avoid the explosive action out of the field. On another day, it could have been genius.

Behind, Cancellara was stone-faced, impassive, riding in the wind, while his teammate suffered next to him to keep the pace high and control Flecha’s move at least somewhat.

Interestingly, Ashley captured the lifespan of Flecha’s move, because it was her next spot that would see eventual winner Moser drop the Spaniard on the steep, painful climb of Le Tolfe — the eighth and final segment of white road before the race hit Siena.

Moser had attacked out of the field, bridged to Flecha, and was in the process of dropping the former Het Nieuwsblad winner, en route to finishing the bridge to the break, all four of whom were still holding on, if only just.

Behind, in the field, Iglinsky was hurting on the front, even Cancellara was chewing on his tongue but Sagan still didn’t give away even a grimace. His apparent ease was startling, especially next to Cancellara.

While Cancellara appeared to be suffering, Sagan was doing it easy.

A few kilometers ahead, in Siena, Maurizio and I were speed-walking through the narrow, beautiful streets of Siena, making our way to the Piazza del Campo. Sometimes, it feels like cities have overhyped reputations for their historic beauty, but Siena is one of those that comes through with the goods.

In the late afternoon light, most of the streets of Siena are in the shade, but the Piazza del Campo stays bathed in the golden light of the end of the day for ages, so the moment you turn from the shadows into the sun only heightens the effect of emerging into one of the most impressive city “squares” I’ve ever seen.

Back to the race. I looked around. I looked up, because I always look up when there are lots of people. I saw people sitting on a balcony, and wondered aloud if we could get up there. A spectator said sure, just go in through that cafe. It’s outside seating for the cafe — one, super-narrow bench, just wide enough to sit and enjoy a drink and look down on the Piazza.

On a normal day, it would be a spot worth paying for. When we got up there, I couldn’t believe that I’d be taking pictures from this spot when the race arrived in a few minutes. It was crazy.

Moments later, Moser emerged into the light, victorious — the first Italian winner of the Strade Bianche. Peter Sagan followed a couple of seconds later, and I think that was the shot of the day — Sagan celebrating his team’s 1-2, with Moser in the background, just finishing his salute.

And with that, the day was over. We met Ashley walking back. She was covered in dust, but happy.

Ashley Gruber and her guide, Massimiliano.

Not all races need “thank you”s, but this one demands it. A huge thank you to Massimiliano and Maurizio for being our guides on Saturday. Thank you to Ale for helping us plan out where we would shoot from. Thank you to Joao Correia of inGamba Tours for making this area one of our homes. Without Joao, we never would have come here, we never would have met the amazing people of Lecchi, and it’s likely we wouldn’t have shot this race. Thank you too to Anna and Morgaro and Paolo and everyone in Lecchi for making us really feel like we’re a part of the family.

[rrsumm raceid=945]