May 22 is a special day for a certain group of cycling fans. It’s the day those fans celebrate one of road cycling’s most unlikely victories and the cult figure that claimed that victory: the enigmatic Russian Alexander Foliforov.
This year’s “Foliforov Day” was a particularly special one. And that’s thanks to a heartwarming appearance from the man himself.
Before we get to that, though, let’s take a step back to understand why a long-retired small-name rider and his lone career victory are still being celebrated years later.
On May 22, 2016, the riders of the 99th Giro d’Italia were facing down a stage 15 individual time trial with a difference. This was no flat ITT; this was a 10.8 km uphill time trial from Castelrotto to the top of the Alpe di Suisi. Among the favourites that day: overall leader Steven Kruijswijk, Alejandro Valverde, Esteban Chaves, and Vincenzi Nibali. The winner at the end of the day, though: Alexander Foliforov.
Racing for the second-tier Russian squad Gazprom-RusVelo, 24-year-old Foliforov finished his time trial just a fraction of a second ahead of Kruijswijk in second place. That win, against many of the world’s best climbers, came as a massive surprise to all who witnessed it, not least the man himself.
Foliforov raced another two seasons with Gazprom-RusVelo but hung up his wheels at the end of 2018. His Giro stage win would be the only victory on his palmares. But while Foliforov has been out of the sport for years, there are many who haven’t forgotten his unlikely victory in 2016.
In the pelotonmemes community on Reddit, Foliforov has become a cult figure, especially around May 22. Foliforov Day is a time when community members whip up their best Foliforov-themed images and videos, paying tribute to a mostly anonymous rider who won at one of the world’s biggest races, before promptly fading back into anonymity and then leaving the sport.
Steven Kruijswijk is often the butt of Foliforov Day jokes. You might recall that the Dutchman didn’t just lose that stage 15 ITT to Foliforov, he ultimately lost the maglia rosa, too, in a dramatic crash into a snow drift that knocked him down to fourth by Giro’s end.
For last year’s Foliforov Day, YouTuber WTC Bitumineuze Voegvullingsmassa created a hilariously disorientating deepfake video about Foliforov’s win and the discipline of “big mountain speedrunning”, “narrated” by David Attenborough (a video which shows just how far AI has come in just one year).
This year there have been timely Foliforov-themed riffs on the Armstrong/Pinot/Vaughters nonsense:
And someone – Soundcloud user Ian Bops Well – even wrote a song commemorating Foliforov Day:
That song has, in turn, sparked its own flurry of memes.
Which brings us back to the clear highlight of this year’s Foliforov Day. This year, the pelotonmemes community received a special message from Foliforov himself.
“Hello guys, I am Alexander Foliforov and I’m glad to join the celebration of Foliforov Day this year,” he begins. “I thought I celebrated alone, but I’m not alone. I know that you miss me after my retirement, but with me everything’s OK.
“Now I’m in Cyprus, in sunny Limassol. I saw all the pictures, all memes about me, and it’s really very funny. I like it.”
Wandering around what seems to be an apartment complex, Foliforov gives an account of that fateful day back in 2016. He says he was tired that morning, but felt that a top 20 was within his reach – even a top 10 if he was very lucky. He says he surprised everyone by winning the day, including himself, and still has no idea how he managed it. (For what it’s worth – for those following a predictable line of thought – Foliforov never tested positive for any banned substances during his career, and never served any bans). It’s clear from the smile on Foliforov’s face how much the win still means to him, seven years on.
As if a video message from Foliforov himself wasn’t enough, the now-31-year-old has a further treat in store – he has a special guest with him.
“I want to show you one guy – I think you remember him,” Foliforov says, sitting down. Into shot from Foliforov’s right comes none other than Foliforov’s compatriot, Ilnur Zakarin.
Zakarin was seventh the day that Foliforov won on Alpe di Suisi, riding for Team Katusha, but would crash out of the Giro on stage 19, while in fifth overall. He retired in early 2022, with a CV that boasted two Giro stage wins, a Tour de France stage win, and a third overall at the Vuelta a España.
In the video, Zakarin is visibly confused about the whole situation but plays along anyway. “Hi guys, I don’t know what he want but he pushed me all day about this video,” he says.
Foliforov jumps back in to wrap it up; to bring it all back to Foliforov Day. “We will celebrate this day together with a lot of beer …and maybe vodka.”
As you’d expect, Foliforov’s video was a hit. “Incredible,” wrote Reddit user guitarromantic. “Proof that if you meme hard enough, dreams can come true.”
Zakarin’s surprise cameo, too, sparked considerable joy, and even inspired its own flurry of spin-off memes.
Back in the real world, the final week of the 2023 Giro d’Italia is well underway and that’s where the eyes of the cycling world are focused. But as time marches on, and the races of yesteryear fade from memory, it’s nice to know that one of the Giro’s most surprising stage winners still has a place in the hearts of many all these years later.
Best of all, Foliforov himself seems to be in on the joke.