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The Road to Rome with Daniel Oss

From issue 76 • Words by James Startt with images from Alice Russolo

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Italy’s Daniel Oss is many things. He’s an inspired musician and one of the world’s most-respected bike racers. But while he spends most of the season riding shotgun for Peter Sagan on the Bora-Hansgrohe team, Oss sometimes likes to get away from racing. So in his break between this year’s spring classics and the Tour of California he went on a cycling adventure all his own—a bike tour down the Italian peninsula from Milan to Rome. It was a chance for Oss, 31, to reconnect with the inherent beauty of riding a bike. He chatted with us before he set off on what he called his #JUSTRIDE adventure, and kept in touch through his weeklong pilgrimage to the south.

When we asked him why he was going on this old-fashioned bicycle tour, he replied, “Well, I [first] did this two years ago after the Giro d’Italia. I was kind of sick of racing and specific training. I still wanted to ride, but just in a more relaxed way. I just wanted to ride, so I took off with no plan really. I decided to do it again this year, to have fun with friends, enjoy dinners, enjoy the whole experience of cycling. But this year I am a bit more organized and I’m sharing the experience more. I’m starting at the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan because I love the track and then will be doing this eight-day trip all the way down to the Colosseum in Rome. I’ll do between 150 and 200 kilometers a day. It’s going to be a lot of fun!”

Oss said his ride would allow him “to connect up with old friends and meet people along the way. I hope to be able to connect my story with other athletes from other sports or just people from other walks of life. There will be a friend of mine that builds guitar amps and some others. It will be a good way to have some company and get back to the basic love of cycling.”

After riding a few laps around the hallowed Vigorelli boards on a track bike, Oss spent his first full day riding to Sestri Levante on the Tyrrhenian coast south of Genoa. “Wow! That was a pretty great day,” he reported. “The sun was out and I managed to do nearly 200 kilometers with my friend, the two-time Italian para-cycling champion Andrea Pusateri.”

When we’d asked Oss whether he’d done any bike touring before he got into racing, he said, “No. I came from skiing and speed skating and so when I got into cycling it was from the competition side of the sport. So the whole bike touring thing, I just sort of evolved into it. I just started asking myself, why do we cycle? My whole life has been about performance, but the whole idea of just going out for a ride is great and really appeals to me. I don’t have to wake up at a certain hour and be out on my bike. I’m still riding, but if I want to finish my ride with the sunset one day, I can do that. And when I am ready to stop, I can just do that, find a hotel and have a relaxing evening. In some ways it is a little strange not having any structure to my cycling. But why not?!

Oss continued this unstructured approach to his trip on Day 2, on a hilly route along the Cinqueterre coast into northwest Tuscany. “Cycling is a form of freedom and today’s ride was a chance to be in constant contact with the sea and mountains,” he said. “After Pisa [and visiting its leaning tower], I mixed it up, choosing some back roads besides the touristic ones. It was a blast! I even had the chance to hook up with Mario Cipollini. And I got to ride with my friend Marco Brunetti, Italy’s best guitar amp builder…we ended up drinking red wine and enjoying some local specialties.”

No doubt there was talk of music and guitars. Oss, who said his favorite bassist is Flea with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has been rumored that if he weren’t a professional cyclist he might have become a bass player. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I play bass, but I’m not so good, I like to play when I can. I bought a Fender Jazz Bass and play along with some of my favorite songs. I can play for hours. I was looking for a small travel bass that I can bring with me on the road, but I haven’t found one yet.”

We pointed out that the bassist in a band is often like the road captain on stage, keeping the band in a sort of flow state during a concert, which is not unlike what Oss does in a bike race. “Yeah,” he agreed, “there are a lot of connections between a musician’s life and our lives as pro cyclists. We both spend a lot of time on the road and in tour buses. And the best guys climb up on stage on the podium. And then, the bass player, you can definitely compare him to my role. Peter [Sagan] is definitely the front man in our band, and somebody else may be the drummer, but I am very much like a bass player on the team, helping make the moves. I have to help keep the rhythm all the way until the end.

“In a band situation, everyone relies on what the bass player does. And in a team situation people rely on what I do. When I take a long pull, for example, it is to help others and push them further. If somebody wins it is partly because you did a good job. It is like in a band situation when someone makes a good solo, because you helped by holding the rhythm down. There are a lot of good bass players out there but a bassist is often chosen in a band because of the feeling they have with the front man in the group.”

With two long days of riding behind him, Oss said he wasn’t feeling so good the next morning: “I think the summertime heat was really hitting me hard.” But after lunch at Radda in Chianti—where a Giro d’Italia time trial started in 2016—Oss said he felt better for the rest of the day. “It might have been thanks to all the Chinotto, a local soft drink, that gave me some energy back. We spent the whole day riding through Tuscany, a region that means lots to me because it’s where everything started for me.”

Indeed, Oss spent the first four years of his career with the Liquigas team until moving in 2013 to BMC, where he spent five years before Sagan brought him over to Bora-Hansgrohe last year. Oss was a vital part of the squad’s recent classics campaign in which Sagan won both Ghent–Wevelgem and Paris–Roubaix. “Yeah, it has been a lot of fun to be part of this team,” Oss said. “You can see it growing. It’s exciting. It’s only the second year that the team is ProTour, but it is really growing and everybody is excited to be a part of it and grow with it. Peter brings so much energy to the team. We rode together on Liquigas. I was there in 2009 and he started in 2010, and we spent four years together so I’m really happy to be able to work with him again. He just brings such a sense of purpose to the team.”

Oss has also linked up at Bora with Markus Burghardt, his former BMC teammate, and they are now the backbone of Bora’s classics squad, working together for Sagan. “That really helps,” Oss said. “You instantly know what to do when you’ve ridden with guys for a while, which is really helpful because, well, in a bike race, you don’t always have the time to explain things. Intuition and instinct are important.”

The Italian rider had a chance to meet up with another former teammate on Day 4 of his Milan-to-Rome ride: “Daniel Bennati gave me a tour of some of the nicest places—he was one of the first leaders I met when I started as a professional. It was super catching up with him. At the end of the day, we even crossed onto some of the roads from the Strade Bianche. It was pretty crazy, because the last time I was there I just remember being covered in mud and totally exhausted. Man was that tough!”

There was still some riding in Tuscany to come, including more kilometers on the infamous white roads. “With my gravel bike and the sunshine it was a totally different experience,” he said. “I could finally enjoy these stunning views.” The day ended in the hilltop town of Montalcino, where Cadel Evans won a memorable, muddy stage of the Giro in 2011. “I just love the great passion that people have for their region here, the respect they have for their products is very strong. Oh, and I can attest to the amazing Brunello di Montalcino wine I tasted at Ciacci Piccolomini”—a nearby estate.

Day 6 was spent with his friend Massimo Ciociola, founder of the online lyrics platform Musixmatch, who’s also a total bike nut. They headed to Monte Argentario, an island connected to the Tyrrhenian coast by causeways, at the southern tip of Tuscany. “The landscapes were changing at every corner and pedal stroke,” Oss said. “Physically I was tired, as the kilometers are adding up, but the open horizon gave me new energy. The colors became increasingly intense and the scents changed drastically as I arrived by the seaside.”

He headed inland the next day, passing Bolsena Lake to the small town of Civita di Bagnorégio. “I am really feeling the fatigue now,” Oss reported. “The sheer state of exhaustion is really setting in. Maybe I didn’t eat enough or maybe I’m just feeling the kilometers—but cycling is like that! On one side you can be tired and barely pedal and on the other side you just want to continue the ride, one more stroke, one more stroke….”

There was also one more day, due south to Italy’s capital, Rome, and the finish at the Colosseum. “Well, that’s all she wrote! My #JUSTRIDE is over! Man, my mind is still swirling with memories and emotions,” he said. “It’s like at the end of a grand tour or a classic race. For a couple of days you need your time to let it all sink in. For sure, there is a certain emptiness after such a fantastic experience is over. But I’m already thinking about my next races and my next trips! Tour of California here I come!”