When Shimano Gravel Alliance rider Claudia Gerosa started riding gravel, she discovered more than just her local area. In this article, the former soccer and baseball player traces her gravel lineage from cruise ships to baseball fields, river paths and mountain passes.
In a world where we are bombarded with the next giant, mega, epic, ultra gravel ride across countries or continents, it’s sometimes hard to admit that our first ride – the one that opened the door to gravel and got us hooked – might have been somewhat less impressive.
Claudia Gerosa is the first to admit that her earliest 10 km didn’t amount to much. Replicating her former dog walking routes by bike, the 45-year-old Italian member of the Shimano Gravel Alliance didn’t stray far from home, living just outside of Milan in the industrial heartland that flows east of the iconic city to include Bergamo. Unlike other places in Italy, this is not home to white roads, rolling hills, or even iconic mountain passes. Instead, it’s an area in constant movement where people commute, cars are king, and factories are found.
‘Each adventure starts 4 km from home as soon as I get on the riverside. If it wasn’t for gravel I wouldn’t have known that these amazing places even existed so close to my home,’ says Claudia with a smile before darting down another track that splurts her onto a narrow, hard-to-spot path along the River Adda. The lively rider has always been somewhat of a path finder, whether it’s as an early adopter to Twitter, or more aptly, as an early adopter to gravel. Claudia has never been one to stick to conformity, and you know what, it is exactly that which makes her and gravel such a good pair.
Claudia is a Lombardy native, who still lives in her family village just south of Bergamo and east of Milan. ‘This is an area of warehouses, cars, humidity, and industry,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘Sure, we have a decent view of the mountains, but they’re not exactly on our doorstep. This means that it takes a bit of creativity to find amazing places to ride, but that’s where gravel comes in,’ she continues.
Italy is known for many things – food, sport, art and fashion can be called out as part of the hit list – but it is also somewhere that sticks to tradition, both when it comes to the role of women in society and the unspoken rules about cycling. So when Claudia recounts stories with her ever expressive Italian mannerisms – picture body language that’s as passionate as the verbal one – about how much she stuck out while working as the only female on building sites and being able to lift weights comparable to her colleagues, you can guess the rest of the story.
But our interest isn’t about emancipation in the workplace, it’s in gravel, so back when Claudia was singing the praises of gravel in 2015, not long after she’d taken up cycling and at a time when very few Italian cyclists had any idea about the discipline, you’ll get a much more rounded picture of this cyclist.
On this brisk winter morning, Claudia is in her element, flexing tour-guide-like knowledge of the area around Bergamo, eagerly recounting the history linked to the Città Alta, where she grabs a quick cappuccino, through to stories of closed denim factories and iron bridges from the 1930s. ‘Gravel has given me a totally new perspective on my home country. We Italians don’t appreciate what we have here, but being able to ride all surfaces has turned every ride into its own unique adventure,’ Claudia continues, ringing her bike bell to let the walkers on the river path know she’s approaching. ‘This path runs from Brianza to Lecco, completely free from traffic. There’s 50 km in one direction that I’d call a central part of my go-to route. I don’t know anywhere else where you can get away from everything so easily.’
Tucked in the valley, the route follows the flow of the river, passing derelict power stations, bubbling pools and thundering waterfalls. Surrounded by this beauty, it would be easy to question why anyone would endure road cycling in this area. Claudia agrees. In fact, while she was a committed road rider, she quickly got hooked on gravel – partially thanks to a road with the Rapha Cycling Club right here on this very bike path.
‘I’ve always been someone who takes inspiration from outside of Italy, outside of the norm. Growing up I played soccer and softball to a high level, being part of teams that won regional and national titles, and that – combined with the opportunities that I got to work around the world with my family’s company – soon made me realise that you have to look further afield than what is directly around you in order to experience new things.’
Laying running tracks and soccer pitches is arguably a niche profession, but it's through her dad's work that Claudia’s passion for travel and sports were unlocked. These remained separate entities – just two hobbies she pursued in her free time – until she was thrown into the world of cycling and the two things collided. ‘In 2014 I was going through such a bad Achilles tendon injury, so I wasn’t able to train for soccer or softball without pain. I’d turn up for the games and get through it, but that was it. My physio recommended taking up a low impact sport, such as swimming or cycling, and that was that. It’s no overstatement to say getting that first bike changed my life,’ Claudia continues, breaking into a broad smile.
‘I started out like most people, I guess, just riding around my house. When I'd exhausted the local area, I wanted to ride further so I got a road bike. I quickly realised that while it's basically the same as driving – you go from A to B – it's a whole other experience to go by bike. Then when I joined the Rapha Cycle Club, it all got even better.’ By this point, Claudia is even more excited, recalling the friendships that she's made and cemented on two wheels.
It was through Rapha that Claudia took part in a mixed-surface event, a route created in homage to Flanders on the outskirts of Milan. On the day in question, she struggled her way along gravel tracks and up steep cobbled climbs on her road bike. Hiking up in road shoes wasn’t ideal. Conscious that there must be a better way, Claudia’s attention was grabbed by the concept of gravel on social media, and this was the second cycling turning point in her life.
‘I see so much out there that really inspires me. As soon as I spot something interesting, I want to know where I can ride it,’ she gushes, flicking through the photo-heavy Al Vento magazine of route suggestions in front of her. In a sense, Claudia is the purest representation of gravel: Someone bitten by the ability that gravel gives a rider to explore locations, whether close to home or further afield. ‘I’m a firm believer that gravel has changed my life. From that first ride to today. Not only am I now 30 kilos lighter and still don’t have the physique of an athlete – hell, I’ve never had that, but I still try every sport out there – but I’ve used my passion and experience to help other women wanting to get into gravel.’
While Claudia mainly rides alone, she jumped at the chance to be a guide at the No Gods No Masters women’s-led, women’s-only gravel camp: ‘For most of my group, it was the first time that they’d ridden off-road on any sort of gravel, so seeing their progression over the three progressively harder days was phenomenal to witness. The main challenge for me was keeping a group of varying speeds together and knowing that you can advise someone to brake on the approach into the corner but you can’t control how hard they pull their brake!’
Claudia pauses, commenting that – as women – they’d regularly get complimented for riding. ‘Really, there’s nothing monumental about it – or at least there shouldn’t be, not now. We should all ride as long or as short as we like.’
Because irrespective of how far you ride, Claudia sees every single gravel ride as a standalone adventure. ‘There’s a growing sense that you need to do 900 km in a sleep-deprived way or go and taste blood while racing, but fortunately there’s still the original side to it too, in which no one cares how many km you’ve done. As long as you’re freeing your mind, go ride. See it as your release from the world.’
Words & photos: Phil Gale (@1_in_the_gutter)