Text: Victor Morozov
Cycling was not made for Video on demand. The temptation to skim through the race is too strong, as if denying, through a click, half a century of efforts to take hold of the spectator. Yet perhaps, by diving through the images of races as freely as possible, as I did in the course of the last week, we somehow reach the essence of the cycling event as it was when it all started: loose impressions, bits and pieces. Some glimpses you picked from the newspaper, via majestic thrills that only the purest literature – the one written by storytellers dreaming of epic heroes – can ever produce. Others you glimpsed by the road – the dusty, sloppy road that cut through the fields–, but only if you had it in you, this understanding of the inhuman pain that cycling seemed to stem from. With the arrival of VoD, one no longer depends – as far as cycling matters go – on the unique truth of television (the live broadcast), nor on the unique truth of old-school journalism (the sports column of the morning after). Following years and years of relevance achieved by maintaining an insurmountable gap between those who had access to the race itself, and those who didn’t, is this sport about to lose its media soul, after losing its popular one? Caution is advised. For ultimately, what the erratic mode of VoD watching has to teach us is hardly news: namely, that the fragment, taken out of context, is for show, while the essence of this sport, its unflinching capacity to amaze us, comes from duration. Montage interdit, as a famous film critic wrote.
These days, Slovenian Primož Roglič is a familiar view in yellow (or red), yet he doesn’t seem to be made from the same implacable material as some older (Coppi, Merckx) or younger (Pogačar) champions we’ve seen. Indeed, you never know with Roglič, and this doubt, this permanent possibility of fallacy, is what makes him so likeable. Roglič does not compete often – few ticks on his calendar –, and, of course, he always sets out to win. But he still gives the impression that each race is a stage too long. (Or too short: perhaps one of the finest moments in cycling from last year was the Olympic time trial race in Tokyo, when he maintained his maddening pace well beyond the finish line – he had won gold –, in a trancelike pose.) This last-minute improvisation from Roglič turns him not only into a sympathetic character – somehow similar to you and me –, but also into a finer showman than average. It’s as if, unlike Pogačar, who has already made it clear he has no regards for the notion of suspense, Roglič was there to make sure it all comes down to the last kilometer.
In the past few years, Guillaume Martin from Cofidis became famous not only as the highest ranking Frenchman on the general classification of the Tour de France (9th of the last edition), but also because he seems particularly adroit with words. At the end of the ITT stage in Paris-Nice this year, he found himself on the podium. Not in his cyclist capacity though, since he only took 57th – “a performance within the usual standards of the discipline”, as he said –, but as a writer for his (already!) second book, „La Société du peloton“.
A man of his words
Back to sport and, to our man Roglič. Because unlike Martin, who has been nicknamed “le vélosophe du peloton”, the Slovenian is much less a spender with his ideas. Understandably, not everyone can match Patrick Lefevere, the ultra-charismatic cycling manager. Yet watching this man talk – and keeping in mind that English might be a barrier –, one cannot help but remember those brilliant athletes whose craft, and indeed artistry, were so intense that they bore no possibility of being put into words. After taking the yellow jersey from Wout van Aert during stage 5, Roglič praised teammate Rohan Dennis as “half human, half motor”. Cut to three days later, after he secured the overall lead in Paris-Nice, and there he is again, describing van Aert with the exact same words about a motorized centaur. He should, however, pay closer attention to his metaphors: there have to be better ways to describe such wonderful a team play than this quasi-Freudian slip. The UCI is known for taking things literally.
From Roglič & Co. to BikeExchange-Jayco
All in all, it was a strange race. There lay an emptiness at its core, with the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine and the not-so-distant horizon of death being inscribed directly into its course of events. The roads felt ghostly as only 59 riders got to the finish line, and the Course au soleil turned into a rainy battle towards the closest hot shower. The flu took out many riders. For the AG2R-Citroën Team alone, Ben O’Connor, Clément Champoussin, Stan Dewulf, Oliver Naesen and Damien Touzé had to abandon, turning the remaining crew into a fragile duo. This only reduced the stakes to around a handful of contenders. After two full stage podiums for Jumbo-Visma, finishing in yellow was still no formality for Roglič, as he barely dodged a well-coordinated attack from Simon Yates on the last climb. It all got quite emotional after Wout van Aert, the homme à tout faire, dragged his struggling team leader beyond the Col d’Èze and onto the finish line. As always with van Aert, cycling’s tension between the individual and the collective was once more put to the test.
Bonus from the Tirreno-Adriatico
At the same time, on the sunnier and more populated Italian roads, another battle was being fought, with perplexing results. It concerned the most impressive young riders out there: Remco Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard, and, of course, Tadej Pogačar. They were on the attack. They were cruising past everyone else. And then they missed a turn and found themselves off track. A rare moment of truth, reminiscent of an era of unmarked roads, so unbelievable it happened off-camera. For Evenepoel, the last one from the trio to realize the mistake, it was a fatal blow. He was going so fast all landmarks disappeared into a blur.