ROVERETO, Italy (VN) — Bicycle racing has a sound — or more accurately, a cacophony of sounds. We know them well: rabid tifosi, fervent announcers, the grit and grind of gears slamming into place, and wind rushing past ears. Rain splashing, helicopters circling overhead.
I took a ride in a Bora-Hansgrohe team car for stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia and discovered an entirely new cycling sound, one I hadn’t heard before: silence, interspersed only with the calm voices of the DS sitting shotgun. It was not a contemplative sound; it was wracked with tension, with the knowledge that word economy could mean the difference between finishing first and finishing fifth. Instructions, brief. Encouragement, stunted but firm. Then quiet. Mostly just quiet. Silence was as much a component of the time trial as the derailleurs or the aerodynamic helmet.
Of course, there were screaming fans. Of course, there was the sound of the wind rushing past the car. But these largely disappeared behind closed windows, deep within the mobile nucleus. Quiet, then the beep of the radio. “You have a left turn coming up. Stay right in the road.” Quiet, then the beep of the radio. “A small rise. Stay in the extensions.” Quiet, then the beep of the radio. “You are doing well. Keep your cadence high.”
It was Davide Formolo out on course, his elegantly curved back swaying and twisting, snakelike in its stealthy, subtle motions. Deceptively large thighs pumping startlingly lean calves, pushing precision-tuned components and carbon fibers beneath. It’s easy to romanticize Italy, so why not say the obvious: His ride rose and fell like an aria, stunning and fraught with tension delivered and controlled with iron nerves built from years of competing against other masters. If boxing matches were this quiet, it might strike us as a dance of brutes rather than a mere collision of fists.
When I shift in my seat and lean slightly out the window to snap a photo, it elicits a sideways glance from the driver. I have disrupted the silence. Perhaps I cost the rider a valuable quarter of a second. Probably not, but deep in the nucleus, you don’t take those chances. It would not take an earthquake to lose everything in a time trial. I am careful to be quieter for the rest of the ride.
Slowing in corners allows me to catch bits and pieces of shouted conversations. Most of them are some iteration on, “Formolo! Forza Formolo!” This is his country. He was born only a few kilometers from here, in Italy’s mountainous north. These are his fans. Some of the conversations are conducted with slight surprise: Was that Formolo? He was going so fast! It was the Bora colors, but was that him? It’s hard to tell when those colors blur past at almost 60kph. But just in case it is him, the fans go wild when Formolo passes Sergio Henao just before a small rise and then disappears on the other side.
Despite the voice in his ear, Formolo rides alone. It is his own silence. Another tool he uses for propulsion. To the fans on the side of the road and to the men watching from the car behind, the speeds feel astounding. Every corner brings out a mothering instinct: Slow down or you’ll fall! But he does not. This aria, crafted well before the moment the notes hit us, has not yet run its course and none of its rises and falls are accidental.
The team car peels off a couple hundred meters before the finish line, so we do not see Formolo finish. We are left to listen on the radio to hear his time. It’s a good time, not great. Impossibly, despite his elegance and speed, and the immensity of the silence, his effort is only good enough for 22nd place today. Perhaps the others have honed a more perfect quiet in the hills of northern Italy. It doesn’t matter; Formolo has finished his song and now he can breathe.
At the team van he spins out his legs, chats with tifosi. He smiles and laughs. These noises come easily to Formolo, and his magnetism invites more jokes, more laughing. It’s just a bike race, and tomorrow there will be another one. But for 43 silent minutes, we heard a new sound. It was the sound of power.