born to ride

words: sarah gearhart

photography: nils ericson

Just a few blocks from Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects, Ignazio Moser sits on a bench eating a ham and cheese omelet on a styrofoam plate. His hairless and brawny thighs are dotted with razor burn, partly indicative of why he’s here and not instead sipping wine in the Trentino region in northern Italy, surrounded by mountains, rolling hills, and his family’s vineyards.

He gulps concentrated orange juice between bites of the pancake-flat omelet, fueling for the day’s agenda. Here, at Camila’s Cafe this Saturday morning, April 29 in Brooklyn, is where the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Italian cyclist is choosing to be: a Moser in his own right, not merely a shadow of his legendary father Francesco.

Though Ignazio retired from professional road and track cycling three years ago at age 22, what led him to this southwest corner of Brooklyn was a lust for the adrenaline rush only sport can induce, brought on by pericolo, the Italian word for danger.

In a few hours, he’ll enter a qualifying heat of the Red Hook Criterium, the world’s premier brakeless track-bike race, in his attempt to make it into the marquee event of the evening. This race is an alternative world far removed from his father’s competitive days in the mid-seventies, when Francesco would ride on a 270-kilometer course with long stretches of muddy farm roads and rough cobblestones across northeastern France in the world’s most famous one-day bicycle race, Paris Roubaix—also known as “A Sunday in Hell.”

Ignazio’s version of suffering is racing 99 other men around a 1.13-kilometer circuit on the flat roads of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal within view of the Statue of Liberty. Red Hook’s course, co-designed by race director David Trimble and his architect father, pulls ideas from motorsports, featuring multiple 180-degree turns that Ignazio will wildly navigate at upwards of 40 miles per hour just inches apart from competitors and for an attempted 28 laps on his yellow Cinelli track bike.

“This race is much more exciting. I like to take risks,” Ignazio says of the reputed “World Championships” of fixed-gear racing. “It’s really difficult to win, but it’s so easy to lose even in a few seconds.”

 

This is not the Moser of three years ago, the one who divorced from professional cycling citing irreconcilable differences--mostly lack of passion. Back then, that version of Moser--training up to six hours a day, constantly traveling to races, spending little time with friends--wasn’t what he wanted. “You can’t even have a life,” he says. “I didn’t have the drive. I was maybe becoming top level, but I wasn’t in the right moment, in the right situation. You have to take a choice.”

So he quit, ending once wishful thinking that maybe someday he’d become a high-level champion like his father.

To be a Moser is to be a royal fraction of the most famous cycling family in Italy. Francesco Moser was one of the most gifted and accomplished riders of his generation. He dominated the sport for a decade after turning professional in 1973, winning a world championship, the Giro d’Italia and multiple Paris-Roubaix titles in addition to eclipsing the Hour Record previously held by legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx.

Francesco was by far the most successful of his three brothers--Aldo, Enzo and Diego--all of whom also raced professionally. Aldo competed in a remarkable 16 Giro d’Italia, placing as high as fifth on one occasion, while Enzo twice dressed in the race’s renown ‘Maglia Rosa’, the pink jersey worn by the overall race leader.  

But the Moser legacy was lost on Ignazio as a child, when he’d ride around the Adige valley in the village of Trento, where he grew up. “You’re the son of Moser. You have to win,” he remembers being echoed wherever he went. “Of course I wanted to be as good as my father, maybe not the same as him, but to become a strong rider was my goal,” he says.  

A rider like Belgian champion Tom Boonen, whom Ignazio watched in awe as he stood at the top of the podium after winning Paris Roubaix in 2005. Ignazio was 13, his first time watching the race in person and alongside his father, who is only one of two men to win the demanding race three consecutive times since its inception in 1896. Not until his mid-teens did Ignazio begin to understand the Moser reputation he’d inherited--and the investment and sacrifice that comes with being a high-level professional cyclist.

Though Ignazio showed promise as a teen when, as a member of the Italian National Track Team he won the Junior Italian National Individual Pursuit Championship and a silver medal in the junior road race, he admits that he didn’t share the drive that made his father so successful.

 

“From the outside it’s hard to understand what I feel,” Ignazio says. “Something I think nobody can understand is when you’re born into that, you don’t care. Of course I respect my father. I really love what he did. He was out of range. It doesn’t mean that I have to do what he did. I want to live my life.”

Ignazio saw another future for himself–in business, the other generator for change in transitioning away from professional cycling. He’d attended a specialized winemaking school for six years until age 20. “I knew before I retired from cycling that being in the wine business was my destiny. You breathe wine where I live.” He turned his attention to his family’s tradition of winemaking at home in the Trentino region. For a year, Ignazio would wake up at 6:15 a.m. to tend to 10 vineyards, riding a tractor and cutting vines for several hours. The grueling hands-on work was at the order of his father, who grew up in a poor family, Ignazio says.

“My father has never wanted me to think that everything is too easy,” he says. After his year apprenticeship, he transitioned to sales director of the company. The new role better aligns with his interests–traveling, partying and making money. “I’m pretty in the mood to do that,” he admits, grinning.

Nothing compares to being a star athlete under the lights though. Red Hook fanned a latent fire he thought had been extinguished. Once dubbed “A Brooklyn Bike Race Worthy of James Dean” by the New York Times, the RHC has grown from a small field of mostly local bike messengers to now 300 men and 75 women–among them world-class road racers, track specialists and Olympians.

Ignazio wanted in on the action, and so in April 2015, he tested whether he could become a commanding force in the fixie scene. He attempted his first of the four-part international event–held also in London, Barcelona and Milan. His lackluster performance of being at the front for the first half of the race but unable to maintain the pace, proved he wasn’t quite ready. He quit after getting dropped on lap 13, about halfway through the race.

“I was pretty bad,” he recalls. “I was suffering every corner. When you don’t have technique here, you have to start slowing down much earlier than the others and then you have to accelerate much more than the others. That’s a problem.”

Ignazio wants this year’s race in Brooklyn to have a different outcome–to finish and also place. Though his happy-go-lucky attitude on the afternoon leading into his qualifying heat isn’t reflective of a man with serious ambition. Moreso, here’s a guy that mostly wants to have a good time; he withholds whatever internal competitive edge he’s brought, a stark contrast to his father.

“I’m less competitive,” Ignazio says. “Even when my father is drinking a glass of water, he’s looking at you, and he wants to finish it before you. It’s crazy. Everything he does he’s always trying to find an enemy and beat him. It’s a mechanism that’s in his mind, and he can’t take it out.”

Ignazio smiles and scrolls through his phone as he sits in the warm up area bantering in Italian with his Cinelli Chrome teammates. He’s got no strategy beyond making on-the-fly decisions in the race. “Everybody does it,” Ignazio laughs.

His qualifying heat is relatively unexceptional, finishing in seventh position, enough to springboard him into the final. He describes the experience as simply a warm up, and bids the remainder of the afternoon at his hotel a few blocks talking to his mother on the phone and taking a nap.

The sun had burned from amber into a light shade of honey by the time Ignazio returns to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal around 7:30 p.m. He withdraws inside, away from the thunderous rattling of cowbells and uninterrupted shrieks from more than 12,000 fans lining the perimeter of the course. He’s still just as easygoing as when he sat basking in the sun while eating breakfast earlier that morning.

By 9:25 p.m., Ignazio slips headphones on and feverishly pedals on his bike, which is fixed on rollers in the Parc Fermé, a closed area where he and his competitors can warm up out of sight of the controlled chaos just a few feet away. He stares down, increasing his cadence, perhaps to the rhythm of the techno-house music blaring in his ears.

In a few minutes, he’ll ride into what he considers one of the most exciting moments of the race, huddling with competitors from 35 countries, as far away as South Korea, Australia and Russia, await at the starting line like anxious bulls ready to set loose. “The tension of everybody is really high. It’s something you never feel in road cycling,” he says.

For the first time all day, nerves set in. His lungs close slightly as he positions himself among the top third of 100 men–that includes defending Red Hook series champion Colin Strickland. In profile, Ignazio’s posture nearly resembles a young version of Francesco–head tilted and back straight.

He takes off on the wild animal that is his brakeless track bike, and his burly legs power his 49:14 gear ratio. He immediately attempts to move to the front on the first lap. Ignazio glances at teammate Davide Viganò–the aggressive look in his eyes meter than he’s feeling strong. Ahead, Slovenian Aldo Ilesic, who has finished among the top three since his first Red Hook race in April 2016, easily rips around tight corners. Ignazio decides to make a move. He amps his pedal stroke, sprinting alone for two and a half laps in an effort to close a breakaway. Though he gets within five seconds of the leader, he’s loses steam. In an instant, he drops from the front. By lap 12 of 28, the bid for a podium spot fizzles. He abandons the race.

“I was out of energy,” he says later, insisting he has no regrets. “I really gave everything.” Despite the shortcoming, he’s just glad to be on his bike competing again, establishing a mark under no one’s expectations but his own. This fixed-gear race is the first of several he’ll engage in over the next few months, all the while balancing responsibilities of being the frontman for the Moser wine business. He welcomes the interruption of this alternative racing, adding, “I still have fire.”

Later, he rides to another lively scene: the after party a few blocks away, ending the night prancing on a table at local watering hole Sunny’s Bar.