In Slovene there is a phrase, slabo mi je. As literally translated as possible, it means, “badness is upon me” but less literally, it means “I’m nauseous.” In other contexts, it means, “I’m sick to my stomach.” Occasionally, it simply means, “I feel bad.” Remco Evenepoel’s face after yesterday’s time trial, despite winning over Geraint Thomas by a single second, said, quite plainly, slabo mi je. Within hours he was out of the race with COVID-19, a tragic blow that upset pretty much every dynamic previously set in motion, resetting every strategy of every team. We went into this Giro talking about the “superhuman” duo of Evenepoel and a newly re-minted Primož Roglič. Both of them look quite human now.
I would presently describe the general mood of the Giro as a combination of anxiety and strife. Rain and crashes whittled down our peloton’s protagonists until they were barely pulling punches. Neither Roglič nor Evenepoel showed up with the utter dominance expected of them, aside from perhaps Evenepoel in the Stage 1 time trial. Day by day, they and their teams were whittled down by circumstance and exhaustion, enabling the unexpected to emerge. Most significantly, in the GC battle, the stagnant Ineos Grenadiers seem to have figured out a recipe for success in their pairing of Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart, both of whom have assumed heightened importance in a post-Remco race.
To continue on theme, the unexpected vulnerability of the Giro’s once-thought-invincible duo has, aside from changing the trajectory of the race, enabled moving displays of perseverance and endurance also from the periphery. Consider the tragic demise of Simon Clarke and Alessandro de Marchi’s breakaway in the final 200 meters of Stage 6, or the unlikely TV-break finishers from Stage 7, Corratec’s Karel Vacek, Intermarche’s Samuele Petilli, and the eventual stage winner Davide Bais, of Eolo Kometa, who duked it out blow by blow on the snow-flanked slopes of Gran Sasso d’Italia, or Ben Healy’s difficult, pensive 50 kilometer solo ride in Stage 8. Consider, also, in the Stage 9 time trial, the remarkable ability of Primož Roglič to claw himself back from utter defeat or the vintage showing of form by Geraint Thomas. These are not the stories we expected. But each speaks to a vacuum of control and security within the peloton, made worse by illness and the weather, which, if you think about it with a sense of humor, are the same things that plague most of us.
The unpleasant exit of Remco Evenepoel punches holes in a doggedly persistent perspective. Fans often complain about being bored with the so-called superhuman displays of power that have shaped the classics season and also the early stage races. The best, I’ve been told, we can hope for is when the ‘mutants’ compete head to head against each other, though even this rarely achieves the catharsis we desire so desperately. Crashes, punctures, and the general unpredictability of cycling have no tolerance for clean resolution. Regardless, I grow increasingly tired of the depersonalization of athletes, of alleged sightings of an ever-escalating ubermensch (attended to by unsubstantiated but sinister insinuations) and of the faux-objective “alien performance” discourse. The athlete is a living being subjected to internal conflict and personal perspective; the heart rate increases when a man is scared. Slabo mi je – I feel bad, not I am bad. If anything, the first week of this Giro has shown that the burden of maintaining such consistent allegations of total superiority is like trying to thread a very small needle. It sounds exceedingly simple to say, but whom among us has not felt strong and happy one moment only to be devastated the next? Why should Remco Evenepoel be any different? Is this similarity to ourselves not the reason we are so inspired by sport, by loss, by comebacks, by struggle, because each reflects our often dim and beleaguered reality, albeit via a funhouse mirror of spectacular forms? Why try to dismiss it?
The last few years of Primož Roglič are a prime example of extreme volatility to the point where even assigning him a designation of ‘superhuman’ feels silly. After a miserable finale to the 2022 season, Roglič did as we all would like to: he withdrew deep into himself, let go of whatever it was that had immiserated him, healed in some way unknowable to us, and returned visibly changed, easier, at peace with the way things are. Still, he is not in vintage 2019 form. He is getting older, less predictable, less certain, and for many as a result, more forgivable. But vulnerability does not just apply to Roglič, In fact, none of these competitors are, nor ever were, invincible. How often has Evenepoel fallen prey to his own bad tactics, awkward descending, impulsivity? How often has Thomas crashed? Where did Geoghegan Hart disappear to after that 2020 Giro win? There is not a cyclist in the peloton who is not vulnerable in some way, in many ways. Even Pogačar broke his wrist in Liège and lost the 2022 Tour because he forgot to feed and water himself correctly. We are living in times of dominance, it could easily be argued, but this week of racing has reminded us of the fallibility of humankind, of the shortcomings of bodies – in space and motion and no matter how talented – themselves.
What this means for the coming weeks of the Giro, especially that backloaded third week, I am not sure. If the organizers do not get a handle on COVID the whole event could resolve itself in wildly unpredictable ways a la 2020. It is possible that the Ineos “superteam” – that vintage boogeyman of pre-Pogačar discourse – really has returned and the Sky Train of old will be resurrected from the dead for one last heave-ho – whether that’s on the behalf of Thomas or Geoghegan Hart remains to be seen. It is possible that Roglič can recall some of that old magic and mix it with a new psyche. It is possible still that some other contender can yet emerge from the shadows and take a risk that pays off. All of these things are possible, yes, but none of them are inevitable. We should be thankful for that. After all, it’s what so many of us purported to want.