On a 5-month break after 10 years of athletics, Stefania Baldi was about to abandon sports entirely, but hopped on her brother’s road bike, rode 15km and fell in love. She began racing Gran Fondos and stepped into pro cycling with Manuel Fanini’s team in Tuscany. For a couple years she even had her own women’s pro team named after Alfonsina Strada, the only woman who, back in 1924, completed the Giro d’Italia. Her first official fixed gear race was Red Hook Crit Milan in October 2012. A dedicated women’s field would appear only in 2014. Stefania is a veteran, one of the last women still in the peloton who used to race with the men in Red Hook Crit. 2017 might be her last RHC season, but it’s far from being her last year involved in fixed gear racing.
Text: Michele Colucci / vimeo: michele colucci / instagram: mikelone77
You’re one of the few in the peloton who used to race Red Hook Crit against men when a women’s field still did not exist. How was it and how do you feel about it today?
I was recently talking with Giovanni Bocchi – a pioneer of this discipline – about my first fixed gear race in Modena, Italy, back in 2011. Seems ages ago. I well remember the adrenaline rush my first RHC gave me. It was the 2012 edition raced in Via Tortona during the Bicycle Film Festival. Thinking about it months afterwards would still give me goosebumps…as did the sacrifices to make it through qualifying in New York in 2013 with 100 spots available. Racing with men was fun in the beginning, but soon the sensation of missing one’s own dimension kicked in. During 2013 I was travelling Europe to find women I could compete with.
Since then everything’s changed, today women have their own space. And what’s more important, particularly in competitions like Red Hook Crit, they are officially recognized. But the journey to awareness is far from being over. The attention of the press, of the spectators, even of the women athletes themselves still needs to grow. Compared to the men’s field it sometimes feels like not having raced at all. I like to think I have played a useful part in this evolution and I am certainly going to continue working in this direction. Women in this discipline are not children of a lesser God.
What struck you about criterium racing? Who or what made you want to try?
One night I saw my first fixed gear race, in an industrial complex of the Milan hinterland. I immediately fell in love. I didn’t think about the fact it was breakless, that you had to race with men, at night…above all, I didn’t even ask myself what a fixed gear bike was. I had just gone there to see a friend of mine race (Giorgio Vianini – former Team Cinelli Chrome) and BOOM. I was hooked. In no time I was racing my first Red Hook Crit. The icing on the cake is that I love to compete and now I can finally test myself with other women. In amateur racing it’s hard to compete only with women. In fixed gear racing I can do it now, I can actually race really incredible women athletes. I am really proud of what has been done in this field and I know there’s still lots to do.
The first time you hopped on a fixed gear bike. Can you tell us what you thought?
One week ahead of Red Hook Crit Milan in 2012 I tried a friend’s fixed bike. I rode through Milan. When I got off, I knew I had found my dimension. Fixed Gear for me has become the purest expression of cycling. I jump on the bike and feel at home. One gear, one chain, no worries. If I were to go work as a messenger again (I did it for a year in Milan) I would use a fixed gear, it’s an excellent means of transportation with a simple mechanics. I can’t fully express how I feel about it…but it’s like being outside the whole afternoon during winter. You get back home feeling cold and opening the front door you feel welcomed by that cozy space that warms you inside out. That’s the feeling I get when I ride a fixed gear bike.
We’ve seen you riding for Desgena for quite a few years now. It looks as if you’re loyal to this team. Is it so or you would see yourself racing for someone else, should you have the opportunity?
I am a very independent person and athlete, so I used to race on my own in the beginning. I was then “adopted” by an Amsterdam based Team FAST racing 3 RHC’s for them. On May 30th 2014, the day of my birthday, I went to Turin with my friend Janine Jackson who already raced for Desgena and she introduced me to founder & director Stefano Tarticchio. Since then I’ve been part of a family, Desgena is my team. I instantly found a welcoming and free environment, fun, authentic and with very few limitations. I haven’t received other offers afterwards, I guess because it’s quite clear what my colors are: yellow and black. I definitely relate to soccer player Francesco Totti on this, he’s been playing for AS Roma all his life and I could’t race another bike or another kit. I’ve also been sharing this adventure with my friends and teammates for years now: Roberta, Elena, Ilenia and this year’s newcomer Giulia. I really could not imagine another scenario. I simply can’t, and I’m not the kind of person who lacks imagination…
What’s the most important stage of the Red Hook Crit for you? And are there other major crits in your season?
THE stage is Milan. I love racing in Bovisa. It’s a track that’s really designed in an urban context, it’s what makes it so special and it reminds me of my beginnings. It’s also in October and nights in that period of the year taste different, I like them. I love everything about these races: the competition as well as the background. The track also fits my abilities best: fast and powerful. Last but not least I’m racing home, with all of those spectators yelling you’re driven to pedaling harder and laying it all on the line.
Other unmissable appointments for me are NMC in Dijon (FR), Gijon (Asturias – ES) and the London Rapha Nocturne. This year I also raced the 42km Rad Race in Berlin for the first time and it immediately became one of my favourite. I also loved racing in Italy, the races I loved the most were the URBE crits that allowed to see unexpected scenarios in Rome, full of history and value. Such a pity the race won’t happen this year.
What training tips would you give to women approaching this discipline?
That’s a tricky question. I can tell you what I’ve been missing: lots of agility and that driving ability that turns your bike into an extension of your own body.I believe that having good foundations in mtb or cyclocross can help. Teammates and opponents seem to have a more integrated relation with their bike, I still fight with it sometimes. Racing in the velodrome indeed would have helped me handle spaces when riding in group. I got into cycling late, I was 33 when I first started and 37 when I got into fixed gears. There’s things I can train as much as I want without achieving them, I need to compensate with what I’ve got. Brains are so important, the ability to read the course and the race. The ability to understand your opponent. But this is true for any sport. One thing nobody tells you enough is that you need to have fun. When you jump on your bike your heart needs to shake, because only when you feel so involved you can push above your limits.
What are your goals in 2017?
This is, well, my last year. I am saying it here so it’s on paper and I can’t take it back. Leaving the competitions will be very hard for me. I have fun and love this discipline. Finding another sport that can replace fixed gears will be difficult, and I’ve tried many. But it’s time to change and leave it to the young guns. So this year I’ll try to race all the races I can in preparation of the Red Hook Crit stages. I’ve chosen to attempt only the races I love, the ones I told you about above: Dijon, London Nocturne and the new edition in Copenhagen, NMC in Dijon and RadRace.
Next year I think I’ll race a couple crits, RadRace in Berlin and maybe Milan RHC. But that’s it, I’ll change, I’ll do something else. One thing is sure: I am not leaving this world. In 2018 I’d like to step on the organizational side. I strongly believe in the growth of this discipline and feel it could enter the Olympics in the future. And I want to be there, from beginning to end.
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