For the past three weeks, the setup has been one of failure. The whole narrative swing of the arc began a long three years ago and promised to keep moving in the direction of that apex.
The scenes were indelible, rendered acutely in the pain of a man’s dreams dying kilometer by kilometer live on television. I can remember exactly where I was on that day, which is also the day I wrote my first ever article about cycling. I had just come home from supporting striking nurses at the University of Illinois with my husband. I didn’t know what had happened yet even though the stage had ended hours before. I wasn’t on Cycling Twitter. I was just a person watching the 2020 Tour de France on television, watching Primož Roglič, his wan face, his askew helmet, clad in the comic absurdity that is the yellow jersey time trial kit, lose a bike race on the slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles.
So much has happened since that day. It’s almost unfathomable when you think about it. Roglič went on to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège and another two Vuelta Españas, and he became an Olympic champion. He lost, then later won Paris-Nice. His pendulum swung in one direction: the highs were high – the Olympic time trial being perhaps the highest – and the lows, God were they low, made even lower by the sense of repetition in the failures, how alike they looked. Crashes. A lot of them. A curse related to the Tour de France, which he has yet to survive to the end since that fateful time trial. A botched Vuelta, a bad-taste press release, a complete reset, prolonged silence. All of these events contributed to a perception of inevitable decline.
And yet, surrounding each startline Roglič takes is an ever-present current of hope. That hope is inextinguishable because sometimes, when it is most necessary, it is fulfilled. I still feel it, even though I’ve tried to bully myself out of it. The thousands of Slovenes who made pilgrimages to Višarje – or Monte Lussari – from as far as Prekmurje, near the Hungarian border, felt that same hope as they lined the roads and cheered on, running and jumping, and hollering, a thunderous chorus of Gremo! Gremo!
To say Roglič is a national hero is an understatement. He is the national hero. His face is plastered on billboards around the country. Every day, I see people walking down the streets of Ljubljana wearing his merch. Not even Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić comes close to the near-universal praise Roglič receives in his home country. He is, to put it bluntly, beloved, cherished. There’s no question as to why.
The ski jumper narrative is part of it – ski jumping is like Slovenia’s NFL – and by the ski jumper narrative I mean not only the remarkable story of an elite athlete who quit one sport to start another, but the ability to fall, to fail abjectly, and then get up again. That’s phenomenally hard to do once. But Roglič has had to do it a number of times, which feels increasingly similar to what we call the long haul of daily life. His disappointments and struggles are ours magnified and grafted onto the world stage. Without these failures and trials, the victories, even if they are as minor, relatively, as the Volta a Catalunya, wouldn’t have the same dazzling effect that they have on us now.
Nothing won by Primož Roglič is won without drama. The Giro d’Italia is no different.
The setup had been there from the beginning: La Planche des Belles Filles 2. A horrific mountain time trial. History would repeat itself. The commentators said so just about every day. The whole week before, Roglič, nursing some soreness from earlier crashes, put on some perplexing performances: he lost a small, yet crucial, chunk of time in the stage 9 time trial, and nearly half a minute in the mountains earlier this week. On some days, he’d be strong, taking it to Thomas, sprinting for seconds. Other times, he’d be dangling on, clearly in some kind of pain.
I genuinely did not know what to expect going into today. I’d heard “Planche 2” rhetoric for about three weeks and had gotten quite tired of it. The parcours were similar but the situations couldn’t have been more different. The pain of La Planche was in how utterly shocking it was. Not a single person saw it coming. Roglič had an enormous time advantage over Pogačar, one that made the time trial feel like a formality, a coronation to finish a race ridden into the ground by Jumbo-Visma day after day.
We were forced to watch every single second of the collapse, the slow disintegration of time and alongside it hope. The Giro situation was the opposite: Roglič entered stage 20 with a distinct advantage, namely a disadvantage: he wasn’t leading the race. The onus to not fail was on Geraint Thomas, which is a very different mental situation for Roglič than the one from La Planche. The pressure to win is not the same as the pressure to not lose.
Regardless, with Roglič’s erratic performances throughout the week, the possibility of an upset on stage 20 seemed thin. He’s been notoriously quiet the whole winter and throughout the race. His team stopped sending interview snippets from him to the press. I haven’t spoken to him since July. In what clips were produced, he had even less to say than usual, even in Slovene. He withdrew deep within himself, into some secret place – perhaps one recently crafted, a kind of cocoon from which he would emerge anew when ready.
He became, it could be said, especially unknowable. Still, the similarity of the Višarje time trial to La Planche Des Belles Filles opened, along with comparisons, the possibility of redemption, even though this was not the same race, even though Pogačar was in Monaco, presumably watching the Giro on television. It didn’t matter. The climb, its proximity to Slovenia, the setup, all of it had come together to create a situation where Roglič could seek absolution in a way deemed more concrete than all those other times he sought it and sometimes succeeded.
When he set off, his face was a taut line, his body an arc. The three colors of the Slovene flag danced around him on either side of the road as strangers shouted his name and cheered for him in a familiar language, the obscurity of which provides a blanket of privacy, a deep and special connection that cannot be penetrated by the outside world. The last text I got from a cycling friend before Roglič rolled off the ramp read, simply, Verjamem. I believe.
The Slovene word for longing is hrepenenje.
The absurd and difficult nature of the stage 20 time trial made the riders disappear. They would show up around the time checks, then go into the mountains where the camera bikes could not follow due to the course: its cruel steepness and dead-end finish. You would see them again only every once in a while. Roglič got ahead early and stayed ahead. He wound his way through the shaded crevice of the mountain, at times flanked by hundreds with flags and loud voices, and sometimes as alone as any man could be.
Rob Hatch spoke confidently as though Thomas had won for most of the time trial, simply because we saw neither him nor Roglič, and had no reason to believe otherwise. Then, more and more, Roglič would emerge in a trellis of worship, pacing away up the hills with monomaniacal focus. The time checks came back, a few more seconds here and there, and hope bubbled in the chests of those who wanted a certain kind of ending, one that makes things alright in the world.
When the disaster struck, I remember screaming, unconsciously, without the ability to stop myself. A primordial, animal reaction to pain. Roglič’s chain came off, and suddenly, it was happening again. Everything became chaos. Notifications pinged off, collective grief poured from the furthest reaches of the internet. The acidic fear hit the stomachs of thousands and made them churn. La Planche des Belles Filles! La Planche des Belles Filles!
But Roglič wasn’t thinking of those slopes, nor of Pogačar, a man he’d by all accounts made peace with. I don’t know what Roglič was thinking of at that critical moment, but it was probably not about the cosmic arc of fate. If anything, it was: Gotta fix my fucking chain, huh?
Then they played the footage of the incident again and I noticed something. Beneath the audible catastrophizing of the commentary team, the scene itself was calm. The chain dropped. Roglič extended the length of his arm and his pointer finger indicated the problem to the man behind on the motorbike, relaxed, as though gesturing to a friend. He got off his bike. He put his chain back on. He kept riding. Quietly. He disappeared again, and it was the disappearance that made it seem as though the race was over.
Had he not disappeared, had we known every single time gap, every single second, had we seen his face, it perhaps would have been different. But the mountain gave Primož Roglič his privacy. It shrouded him. The eyes of the world were not upon him. They had switched to Geraint Thomas, the oldest potential winner of the Giro d’Italia, and a worthy one in his own right – a man just as unlucky as Roglič if not more so. The look on Thomas’ face seemed familiar. Wan. Perspiring. The lead was such that no one really noticed it at first.
When we saw Roglič again, he rode steadily, at a high cadence, with energy. When the numbers came in, they were shocking. The incident with the chain was negligible. He was speeding through Višarje like a man possessed. Hope alighted and then spread like wildfire. And soon hope turned into certainty. Willed on by the sheer collective love of so many people, adrenaline, and skill, he moved forward, and forward, and forward.
What we were witnessing was one of the most remarkable acts of mental strength, of pure physical and psychological resilience ever to be gleaned in sport. Slack-faced, bright-eyed, the man in yellow swept through the grand corners. The final barriers appeared, emblazoned with Slovenian flags. Suddenly, it was all about to end and we would know.
Roglič came through the line more than 40 seconds ahead of João Almeida, the man currently in the hot seat. Primož Roglič slowed. He got off his bike. Only then did the focus drift to the man still on the course. Geraint Thomas didn’t get his due. The whole stage, we were hyperbolizing about the downfall, yet again of Primož Roglič, expected and inevitable, tragic and beautiful in its tragedy. Thomas was not the source of attention until it was too late, even though he had endured to this point in stellar form, vintage, even, until, cruelly, it was over for him. Until he found himself on the wrong side of disappointment.
The moment Primož Roglič won the Giro d’Italia, I burst into tears. I’m not alone. Three years is a long time to wait for forgiveness, to wait for something to close the open circle of expectation, to wait for the satisfaction of hrepenenje, to long for resolution.
To borrow from Slovene storytelling, I’d begun to think of Roglič as cycling’s desetnica, that unlucky child cursed from birth to wander the world forever, never to return home. Rarely in this world do we receive the gift of catharsis, real catharsis, after which nothing can be questioned. Rarely in this world do we feel as though some great weight has been lifted from our collective shoulders.
Sport, at its whole, is one of the only institutions that offer us such things – it is not planned through the machinations of a narrator, but enacted by athletes of their own accord, beyond our control, beyond anyone’s control. As a result, these victories feel as though they happen to us. That’s why they make us shout, make us cry, make us hope for the same kind of triumph in our own lives. This is a profound gift.
Let me say this: There is no more La Planche des Belles Filles. We can all move on. Roglič can expand beyond being this caricature of trauma and instead be remembered for what he really is: the picture of human resilience, a testimony to the sheer prevailing courage of the human spirit. If he is capable of this, he, and by extent we, are capable of anything. Curses are not real, they are created by pattern-seeking minds desperate to make sense of disparate events. Roglič is free now from a great and terrible burden, the burden of a story, even if it’s bestowed upon him by the outside world, by those same pattern-seeking minds.
In his freedom, we too, are free.
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