Crossing the line into Issoire, Pello Bilbao threw his bike forward, reached his fists out in front of himself and then pulled them back into his sides, unleashing a roar. The Spaniard had navigated a tense and scorching stage, won a Tour de France stage, made an audacious move from 11th to 5th on GC. All of that meant a lot, but there was something else on his mind.
Less than a month ago, Bilbao’s teammate Gino Mäder died in a horrific crash, plunging into a ravine at the Tour de Suisse. Bilbao had been there, too, finishing third – up the road – on the stage of the incident. Any elation immediately turned to horror. The Bahrain Victorious team rode the next stage in honour of Mäder, hours after his death had been announced, and then withdrew from the race. The Tour de France is Bilbao’s first race back since.
There are echoes of Mäder all over this race. Safety concerns ignited by the crash have led to the establishment of a new collaborative venture between riders, teams, race organisers and the UCI, unveiled before the Grand Depart in Bilbao. Echoes of Bilbao – rider and city – are everywhere too. The rider is from the Basque Country, born in Gernika, just down the road from the city of Bilbao. Gino Mäder had a dog – a street dog, adopted in November 2021 in the city of Bilbao. He’d named it Pello, after his teammate and friend. A Basque city, a Basque rider; two Bilbaos, two Pellos. Layer upon layer of symbolism. “Ride for Gino” on kits, helmets and team vehicles.
And now, a win in his honour.
Before the Grand Depart, Pello Bilbao was still processing the loss of his friend. “The race comes at a difficult moment for me,” he said then. “When all of this happened, I thought it was not going to be possible to get to the Tour in the best condition possible. At a moment like that, everything loses sense.” But after time at home with family his perspective began to shift. To ride the Tour – to ride it well, and to ride it for Gino – was “the only way to change these difficult feelings, these sad emotions, and turn them into energy to create something special.”
Another way to create something special was to pick up Gino Mäder’s cause. The Swiss rider had made headlines in 2021 for his environmentalism, donating a Euro for each rider he finished in front of at every stage of the 2021 Vuelta a España to reforestation initiatives in Africa. He pursued similar initiatives in 2022, donating to causes dedicated to slowing the melt of glaciers.
After Mäder’s death, Bilbao decided to follow his example, raising funds for the Basque reforestation charity Basoak SOS. Yesterday, Bilbao announced that he would double his donations for a stage win, and include a further donation for the final GC. Thus far he’s raised €1550, a figure that will continue to rise until Paris. “Even if I wasn’t winning, I’d still want to do a little project in his honour,” Bilbao said today. It’s his way to “show how big Gino was – not just in the sport, but also to show he was such a great person, who was always worried about the world. I wanted to give continuation to the job that Gino had done.”
Today was not guaranteed. There are 168 other riders in the race, 168 competing motivations at play. For Bilbao to win he needed to get into a breakaway, avoid attracting the attention of the teams at the fringes of the top 10, and – in the finale – pull back a determined Krists Neilands break and biting attacks from Ben O’Connor and Georg Zimmerman. There are no gifts at a race like this, but Mäder’s death hit the peloton hard, so it’s difficult to imagine Bilbao’s win being begrudged either. “I’m happy that [Bahrain Victorious] are doing well,” Vingegaard said after the stage. “I guess they’re doing it for Gino.”
The emotion around that was thick in the moments post-victory, with Bilbao reflecting generously on his changing perception of risk, as well as the emotional journey since Mäder’s passing, in the post-race press conference.
“It’s been hard, no?” he began, slowly, responding to a question about how the team had healed and whether they’d been offered counselling. “In the end, the best psychological help was to go home, to stay with my family – especially with my daughter, Martina – she gave me all the tranquility,” Bilbao explained. “Kids, you know, they don’t understand all these difficult situations, so it made it easier to forget all the difficult emotions I was feeling … To believe that I had the good legs, that I could do the best for Gino.”
“Especially the first days, and in training, I was scared to go fast in descents,” Bilbao said, entering into a lengthy recounting of how he overcame his fears – and how he’d reconned his stage two attack on the risky descent into San Sebastián, over multiple attempts. A delicate balancing act: risk, versus reward.
“I found the reason why I wanted to control the situation,” Bilbao reflected today, words coming slowly as he processed the response. “I don’t like to take risks for nothing. But in the end we do a sport where sometimes we go near the limits … and in some moments I was scared. But if we think in this way, in the end it’s impossible to do our job. Because every day we are in the road, and cars are passing. In the end, if you are thinking of this, you cannot do it. It’s true that in some moments, I see more reasons to brake – not just for Gino, also for my family. But sometimes in the race, you just don’t need to think.”
On the podium – just after he’d won, just before he’d had to articulate all it meant – the emotion had come out as the thought of his teammate returned.
Standing on the stage, basking in the applause of the crowd, Bilbao pointed upward, then pointed at his heart and – as music boomed from the speakers – tapped his chest a couple of times. His chin wrinkled a little as he struggled to hold back tears. This one was for Gino.
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