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It’s a scene I am quite familiar with. There are mechanics everywhere. They duck and dive between each other with a purpose – some holding wheels, others with ungodly expensive carbon parts. It’s hard to believe this team is going to be ready to race in an hour, everything is in pieces. But the calm purpose, the carefully orchestrated chaos, shows me they’ve done this before. The only cogs out of place are me and my camera. As usual, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the way everywhere I go, but these guys are pros and used to the media. Then something happens I am definitely not used to. They hit the ignition. The sound of the V8 bursts in my ears at the exact same moment the thump hits my chest. It’s a combination of emotion and adrenalin that brings a tear to your eye while making you want to get into a bar fight. This is no bike race.
The Grand-AM Rolex Sports Car series is making its annual swing into Northern California and the greatest Italian name in racing invited us to tag along. It’s not Pinarello, it’s not Campagnolo, it’s Ferrari. They were leading the series, and would eventually win it, with their heartbreakingly sexy Ferrari 458 Italia. We came to get a feel for the event, immerse ourselves in this brand of Italian racing passion, but most importantly, we wanted to talk with the drivers. The men behind the wheel of these Ferraris have more than raw speed and nerves of steel in common; they are all passionate cyclists.
The fact that these drivers spend their lives at 180mph, yet feel so much passion for the humble bicycle is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s well known now that any decent racecar driver is an endurance athlete of the highest caliber. But there are ways other than the bike to get fit, ways that won’t get you in trouble with your sponsors or breach clauses in big money contracts.
The Rolex Series is an endurance series with races lasting as long as 24hours meaning two drivers sharing duties in a single car. Jeff Westphal came to driving late. After impressing at a go-cart track he completed racing school, set the F2000 records for wins in a season and raced Indy Lights before finding himself in the sports car world zipping up a Ferrari red race suit. Jeff Segal is the 2012 defending Rolex champ and grew up around sports cars. He was racing GT cars before he could legally drive. Alessandro Balzan, an Italian Touring Car veteran, calls his time with Ferrari’s Rolex squad his ‘American vacation’ and it’s been a successful one. He helped pilot the #63 Ferrari to the 2013 Rolex GT Championship. Alex Tagliani, or simply Tag, is a French-Canadian with Italian heritage and a born racecar driver. Since his first go-cart at the age of ten he has not slowed down claiming multiple Indy Car wins and even an Indy 500 pole. These four men came to cycling looking for fitness, but what they found was a real passion for the sport.
Jeff Segal was looking for a way to simulate the intensity of driving, without the slog that running or swimming would be. “To do a stint in the car of two or three hours is taxing especially when it’s hot out, especially if the track has a lot of physical corners, so you are looking for a workout where you can simulate that intensity level for two or three hours. Cycling gives you the right balance of cardio at that long duration but it also gives you a nice bit of speed as well. If you need that wind in your face, you get that with cycling and I love that.”
The French Canadian with the Italian name lights up when the subject turns to bikes and training. Tagliani is clearly a man that wears his passion for cycling on his sleeve. “It’s known now that racing, you have to be fit, right? It’s a very intense sport, you need to be small, you need to have a lot of endurance. Cycling, when I moved to Vegas was good. Training at altitude is good. I was always up at 5,000feet above sea level. More red blood cells, more cardio!”
The man who just won the Championship, Alessandro Balzan, may not be able to ride as much as he’d like, but for him the bike is a valuable tool for his race craft. “This year I am traveling a lot from Italy to the US so I don’t have a lot of time for the bike. To be good, you have to be every day there. Most every race we do some laps with the bike. It’s good to make reconnaissance of the lap, to look at the corners to discover the track. All the tracks are new for me this year so it’s a very nice thing to be able to do.”
When their day job is driving a Ferrari on the limit what is it about cycling, beyond the fitness, that attracts these men? Surprisingly, the thrill of speed on a bike, even when tempered by the realities of their jobs, still exists for these racecar drivers. Jeff Westphal’s training takes him into the hilly coastal ranges of Northern California. “Self preservation is definitely important because of the nature of car racing you don’t want to miss any events, but at the same time, where I’m riding a lot in Northern California there are a lot of big climbs, to get to the top my motivation is I get to go back down! I have fun with it, but don’t go too crazy.”
Tagliani, with his usual zeal, relates a story from his training loop in Las Vegas. “I don’t know about the other guys, but I’m on the brakes going downhill! Sometimes I really kick myself, because in Vegas there is a place called ‘the wall’. There is a descent where you can reach 40 or 50mph and if you do that by the time you hit the wall you’ll go half way up, but when you are a race car driver, depending on what contract you sign, you better not crash on a bike and miss a race. So I’m on the brakes, and trust me, I hit the wall!”
For Jeff Segal the thrill comes from riding in the group and his own irrepressible competitive nature, “I like riding with other people, you get the adrenaline pumping as soon as there is a race, whether it’s a real race or not. It’s trying to keep that poker face when it gets hard, ‘Yeah, I’m still good.’”
For all the drivers, nothing puts the sparkle in their eye more than talking about the latest gear. Not surprising for a group of very well paid adrenaline junkies with jobs that require almost as much technical ability as pure speed. Westphal is building a custom Parlee, a platform that has allowed him to play with angles and geometry to find just the right feel for his Northern California playground. Segal speaks wistfully of his first bike, a Specialized Allez, even when describing his latest Cervelo. For Balzan, it was a bike given to him by his brother that lead to an S-Works Roubaix. “I have only one bike, but it is enough. I’m not as rich as Alex!”
Alessandro was reacting to Tagliani’s admission that he has seven bikes. “I’m a freak of technology, I have seven bikes at home, some are from sponsors, some I bought, every set of wheels you can imagine. As soon as they came out with the Zipp wheels, with the golf ball technology, I needed to try those. But it’s mental you know? When I was young I couldn’t really buy a car and keep it the same. I was always modifying things. Biking is like a drug you know. It’s addictive. A new shifting system comes out and you know you want it, right? You do a group ride and some guy beats a you and he says, ‘I have ceramic bearings.’ And damn… you’re going online and looking for ceramic bearings! You know what I am saying!? When you have to rent storage for your bikes you are in trouble!”
We wrap up our chat with a question any cyclist can identify with. Riding a Pinarello or Colnago, mounting a bike with a Campagnolo group, just feels special. Italian heritage seems to emanate from the bike itself. Does driving a Ferrari feel the same?
Tagliani grew up idolizing legendary Ferrari driver, Gilles Villeneuve, so the connection is strong. “The feeling of wearing the red color with the Ferrari horse on your chest means a lot. I followed the brand for many years and it created a big passion. Having an Italian background as a family, Ferrari is your team right? It’s very special.”
Segal understands the desire, and relates it directly to his passion for cycling, “To drive a Ferrari is something that I think universally every driver wants to do. There is definitely a tie to cycling. It’s very functional, very fast, very high tech, but it’s art to. Look at the bike Colnago did with Ferrari, it was very high tech, very functional, but it was art.”
Westphal puts it simply and zeros in on exactly why the motor sports field and the cycling peloton have so much in common. “There is so much passion that goes into the brand. It’s like cycling, people don’t just do it, it becomes their lives and what goes into the streetcars and the race cars is similar. There is such a passion for making beautiful cars that are fast and functional, they are similar concepts. For me, it’s a dream come true to drive one.”
Perhaps it’s as simple as that. There are very few things that combine art and technology, speed and aesthetic, like cycling and motor sports. The passions they evoke transcend any mere hobby to become an all-encompassing lifestyle. As disparate as the bicycle and car can seem, it’s these racecar drivers that help us see just how similar they truly are.