Let’s try something new, something a little different. I’m Jered Gruber and my voice generally gets the lead in the words that come out of our life adventure. For this piece though my wife, best friend and pretty much constant companion Ashley and I are going to share the mic and have a little conversation. We’re calling it “A Tale of the Day in Two Voices, in A Minor.”
Jered: The start of the race, like every Milan–San Remo we’ve ever attended, is a noisy, colorful, delightful mess. People are everywhere. There are 73-year-old hobbyists wearing Mercatone Uno kits from 1998, 5-year-old kids on bikes that are almost taller than them wearing kits that are at least six sizes too big, an older gentleman puffing thoughtfully on a cigarette at 9 in the morning, harried mechanics, bemused bike racers, frowning team directors, riders’ wives, daughters, sons, grandfathers and fathers…and pretty much any character you can imagine in between. They all congregate in the middle of everything and make movement from one team bus to another into something akin to trying to cross an eight-lane superhighway at rush hour. It’s a fun chaos though and it’s dotted with familiar, smiling faces.
Ashley: Conversation was easy as we drove in that morning after a perfect breakfast and coffee with Andrew and Nicky Meo of Rocket Espresso. It’s so much easier to keep the good feelings going when you start with good feelings—and an easy early morning with Andrew and Nicky got us off in the right direction. In the car, we talked about holding stress, making photos, breathing, as well as the completely forgettable random things that pop up in normal conversation. A favorite was something that came up on our way out of Tuscany the day before. We drove past some construction and I told Jered about some of the new words I had just learned—including una gru, a crane (like a construction crane)—but I said it in the Rosetta Stone voice. So, this morning I picked up the Rosetta Stone voice on our way into Milan.
Jered didn’t seem to enjoy the drive in too much; there’s always, always the stress of “Are we going to be on time?” and “Do we know where we have to go?” It never changes. It doesn’t matter if we are absolutely on time, because that doubt creeps in quickly. Until we have the lazy, pink string around our neck with the somehow already bent piece of thickish cardboard that says “FOTOGRAFO” and a sticker for our car that feels like some sort of game show lifeline, we aren’t able to fully relax into the actual thing we are there to do: take pictures.
After the race logistics are taken care of, Jered and I pulled each other into the moments we were experiencing: there was a balcony just above where the team buses were parked with gargoyles underneath, as if they were holding the stone balcony up, saving us from certain demise…a little girl with a balloon…eighty million amateur bike riders clomping around, hoping to see Nibali…sunlight…shadows…familiar faces we hadn’t seen in many months. It was a happy swirl of humans and it involved a thousand intricate dances as we all made our ways through the crowd.
Before we knew it, that part of the morning had passed. We were on our way back to the car.
Jered: We rolled out a few minutes early—directly into traffic. This is not the Tour de France. The roads are still wide open until about five minutes before the race arrives, so if you’re 12 minutes in front of the race, you’re driving through Milan on a normal day. That said, it’s a fantastic experience to drive through Milan at 10 a.m. on a beautiful spring Saturday. As far as work irritations go, I guess it’s really not the worst.
We stopped at a small village just outside the city to shoot our first images of the race: It was a nondescript, crumbling town with a few buildings, a canal and a few semi-enthusiastic fans.
Ashley: For the most part, Jered and I don’t see each other on one-day races, save maybe a passing wave from the moto or maybe in a field somewhere. The last four-or-so years, I’ve shot the race with other friends, and Jer has been by himself. This year we decided to shoot together—mainly because our friend Yoeri decided not to make the trek down from Belgium, but also because we felt confident we knew where to make good photos. Also, why not? We swear up and down that this race isn’t worth going crazy over, so why not enjoy the day? Why not take a small step back, take some deep breaths, smile and search for something more than 150 forgettable pictures.
Jered: I’m not generally one prone to singing the praises of the year’s first monument. At 293K and with no substantial obstacles, it’s a race best enjoyed on TV in the comfort of your home, starting around 50K to go. The first five-and-ahalf hours of the race is akin to contemplating the meaning of a brick. That is to say, it’s difficult—not in the way of an impossible problem, but in the way of a 4-year-old on his fourth tantrum in 24 minutes. Difficult. But in that boredom, there is a chance. For us….
When the race really gets going, we have to shoot the race. When it plods along through the freshly greening Italian countryside as a giant, brightly colored amoeba with a neverending vehicular tail, we can play. We don’t have to aim at the riders. Instead, we can aim at whatever the hell strikes our fancy. The day can be as fun, or as dull, as our mood allows—and this year we were in the mood.
Ashley: There is a sort of freedom that comes with accepting that you’re not going to walk away with a postcard type of pretty shot. To me, this is really the best kind of challenge. You have to see something where, at first glance, there really isn’t anything to see. The photos that come from this type of location are never the absolute stunners or the ones that will get the most “likes” on Instagram, but for me there is a much deeper satisfaction in the notion that you made something, as opposed to standing in a pretty place and snapping away. There’s still plenty of work and stress that comes from being in a pretty spot: a nervous pacing with the knowledge that you are, in fact, somewhere nice; so there’s extra pressure not to get in your own way. However, the photos that took some finagling—the ones that require me to think about the intention of the photo, how it happened, a little more of a feel of a place—are the ones that keep me coming back. If the puzzle is too simple, it’s not that much fun.
Jered: Yep, what Ashley said, I wanted to say that, but she got to it first.
Ashley: After that first village, we leapt back on the road and headed for one of our favorite spots: Pontecurone. Ale brought us here on our first-ever San Remo, and we’ve been coming back every year. Pontecurone is a town that always sticks out, because it’s one of the nicer towns that you pass through and, seemingly, the first pretty one after Milan. It’s also one of the only places we had a slice of downtime.
We came through Pontecurone the first time seven or eight years ago with our then colleague, and now friend, Ale. He loves this race, and he took us under his wing that day, wanting to share it with us and it blew our doors off. He took us to a focaccia shop in Pontecurone. Today, we walked into a pasticceria and started chatting with the lady who was working the counter. I was immediately aware of the very obvious warm chocolate smell. Jer told me which ones he wanted and stepped outside, because he knew this was about to turn into a lengthy, hopefully great visit.
When I started speaking to her, she admitted she was nervous about my ordering, because she didn’t speak a word of English. She then asked where we were from, what we were doing, etcetera. I had my cameras and asked her if I could take a few photos as she prepared the pastries—truly one of my favorite traditions. They give you a present!!! The. Best. After the little wrapping ceremony (sometimes it feels like the Mr. Bean scene in “Love, Actually”), she asked if I didn’t want to peek in the back where they make everything from scratch. Of course I did.
There were two girls around my age back there making birthday cakes. They had been listening to my conversation with the lady at the counter. I shot them making cakes for around 10 minutes and left with a lot of smiles and some extra chocolate in my pocket. I can’t wait to go see them again next year.
Then I walked around the town with Jered, discussing what photo opportunities we saw. Around that time, the red flag came past, signaling the approach of the bike race. There is an announcer from Tuscany named Niccolò who does a lot of the one-day races in Italy, and I’ve chatted with him a bunch over the years. As he passed through, I gave him a wave and he gave me his customary “Ciao, Ashley!” on the PA. It always makes me smile. Using that energy, I went toward my next objective: to shoot from a balcony.
I asked the lady who stood up there if I could come up for a photo. At first, she didn’t really respond and kind of waved me off. However, on the street near me was her brother, who saw the exchange and said to follow him inside. He led me through their house, up the stairs and introduced me to his sister on the balcony. It was clear, then, that she wasn’t able to hear me, but that she was happy to have a guest. I hung out with her brother—an older gent, maybe in his mid-70s—chatting about our work, his family and how wonderfully nice Italians are. These kinds of moments are my absolute favorite, so to get three really solid ones back-to-back-to-back gave me such a buzz.
Jered: My time in Pontecurone wasn’t nearly as fun as Ash’s, but I’d say she pretty much maxed out her possibilities. I wandered around, chatted with Ale, Angelo and Francesco, then walked into a café for a quick espresso—and found my picture. I sat down and waited for the race with my espresso, then shot from where I had been hanging out. It was quiet, it was nice, and I too can’t wait to go back next year.
The race passed, we ran back to the car and drove down the highway to the spot Ale showed us all those years ago: the highway overpass. The race whirred by below the noise of the autostrada while fans and photographers took pictures from above.
We jumped back in and went full gas to the Turchino. We parked just past the tunnel at the top of the climb, then settled back into relax mode. We were now 45 minutes ahead of the race and spent most of the time just walking around and chatting—and looking at the beautiful view that we rarely get up there. The sun never seems to shine at this race, so to get a warm, beautiful day? We appreciated it out loud at least 50 times….
Ash shot from the road level, and I shot from above. The race passed. They were going fast.
From the Turchino, the racers were about to clock in. We were too. Our pace quickened anew, the race’s pace quickened. The moments of calm and peace were pretty much done for the day. Our relaxed, slow start was followed by “bonkers”…next stop, the rock on the edge of the earth.
Ashley: Jer has been going to “the rock on the edge of the earth” for the last couple of years, but it has since grown quite popular. His first San Remo, he was the only one there; the next year, a couple more; last year, a small army. And this year was pretty much the same. It’s that way sometimes. It’s one of those “cut off your nose to spite your face” things—that spot has lost its exclusivity, but it’s still a beautiful spot. We had gone back and driven that whole coastal section last fall in hopes of finding something new and amazing; but nothing could beat that spot. So we returned—well, I returned. Jer doesn’t do well in crowds, so he went off and bushwhacked through some illegal area while I got my first chance to enjoy that piece of rock on the edge of the coast. It requires just enough climbing with a ton of exposure and a loooong drop to the water below to ensure that one is, in fact, very awake.
Jered: As Ash said, I tried out a new spot that had lots of “No Trespassing” signs around it. Normally, that’s not a big deal, but there were police right next to it, so I didn’t want to ruin it by giving my spot away too soon. It’s always a delicate balance when breaking small rules (which this definitely was) at races. If you give up your position too soon, the police will call you down and make you leave, but if you wait until the race is right there, all eyes are on the road, so if you move fast, you can get away with pretty much anything. So, I hid in some bushes, ran to the next stand of bushes, then darted behind a large rock and waited until after the dying breakaway had passed to make the final mad dash for the spot that Ash and I had previewed back in November. It’s not earth shattering, but it was different—a bridge with the Mediterranean everywhere around it. I like the spot. I like that it involves a little espionage as well.
Unfortunately, we had to park ages away from our respective spots (which meant that Ash rode a bike to her spot and I just ran), so we got caught too far behind the traffic, and we barely made it to the town of Andora. Somehow, we made some solid decisions on the way in and came out in a perfect spot, just in time for the race. The peloton was in full bloodlust mode. The riders were spread across the entire road, and not because they were going slow, but because everyone was doing everything they could to be at the front.
After Andora, it’s end-game time. I dropped Ash off at the base of the Poggio only to find out that this year—for the first time since I’ve covered San Remo—I was allowed to drive up the Poggio.
Ashley: Jered called me only a few minutes after dropping me off at a side road that leads up to the Poggio. I could only imagine something happened, as he’d never call me at such a crux moment in the race just to chat. “Hello? Everything okay?” “Yes! I’m driving up the Poggio now, I’ll come get you and drive you the rest of the way!”
Sweet, sweaty relief. Even though I’d already aggressively hiked up a little less than a mile, I had a little ways to go before I officially got to “my” turn at the top of the Poggio. I was delighted at my unexpected little date in the car; plus, it made me feel all official to hop out of a car, rather than walk up looking like any old normal fan—except for the camera gear, that is. Presence is a big deal in important spots. If you can get out of an accredited car, it looks like you’re supposed to be there, like you belong there. If you just walk up, you look like you could be any photo hobbyist to a police officer. It’s the little things that make these moments that tiny bit easier. If a policeman accepts me as someone working on the race, they don’t hassle me for the most part, and sometimes they’re even helpful to keep the rowdy fans at bay—and so it was on this beautiful late afternoon.
Jered: Just a few kilometers down the road, I parked past the finish line and walked up for the always-entertaining conclusion to Milan–San Remo. I don’t mean the race in this case either. I mean, it feels like anything and everything is possible behind the finish line at San Remo. A random guy walked past the third row of photographers and started celebrating in the middle of the Via Roma when Nibali won last year. Pretty much the same thing happened this year when a moto driver pulled his bike off to the side, then walked directly into the middle of the street to watch the finish as Julian Alaphilippe took the day. He just stood there. Middle of the road. It was insane. To get any kind of picture involved walking around the guy who had posted up in the middle of the street, a few quick shots, then a retreat so as not to get in the way of the riders. It all happened in 10 seconds. Shot lined up, shot ruined, move, shoot, retreat. Ten seconds. No more. Normal day on the finish line at San Remo.
And then it was done. The race was over, but there was still so much to enjoy. I don’t think there’s a race with prettier evening light than San Remo’s—when the sun is shining. It’s pre-daylight savings, and it always finishes a little after 5, and the post-race period extends well past 6, so there’s this light that just gets better and better the whole time. It’s a nice present after a long day, and it’s pretty fun—because the real stress is over. This is all just a bonus.
Ashley: On top of the Poggio, I’m always kind of stranded. I don’t have a car, so I have a yearly tradition. While Jer roams around in the pretty light down below, I walk to join him in the center of San Remo. There’s a little trail that shortcuts down the Poggio, then there’s a path back to the finish line. It’s probably a couple of miles total, and I like it. It’s a pleasant, peaceful walk…and a nice way to finish what was for sure my favorite SanRemo. I get to relax into myself a little more, and start to notice the same details I always pick out—a house made of river stone, greenhouses, a giant horse statue that looks like it’s made out of plastic in someone’s driveway, and all the amazing succulents that grow in this maritime climate (they are out-of-this-world big!)–and I try to pick out new ones.
I meet Jer by the buses, we head to the car, then it’s time for the drive; we head north to Belgium each year right after the finish of San Remo. We used to drive all the way through and would arrive around sunrise in Flanders. This year, we stopped in Dijon around 2 in the morning. We’re getting wiser with our advancing years. Jer worked in the car the whole time, while I drove. I cracked at around 12:30 a.m., then Jer put away his computer and took over to get us to the hotel. We had a good sleep, then finished the drive in the morning.
I know that loving one’s work is not a guarantee or a right, but it is something we chase after. I think we can both say that we loved that Saturday in March. I only hope we can continue on in this way the rest of the spring, the summer and beyond. It’s fun having fun. When we’re happy and having fun, we work hard; and when we work hard and we’re happy, good things happen.
For most people, Milan–San Remo is probably just a quick scan of a race report and the results sheet. For some others, it’s live coverage for the last hour or so, followed by leaving the computer or TV behind and going on with their lives. For us, it’s a multiday adventure that starts in Tuscany and finishes in Belgium with a monument sandwiched in between. It’s the race I always swear we won’t do next year, but it’s the race we always end up coming back to. Milan–San Remo isn’t the easiest race to love, but there’s plenty to love about it—with just a little bit of effort and a good partner to share it with!
This story originally appeared in issue 86.