on the eve of the giro dell'emilia, pasquale concilio remembers last year's.
I guess we were just under the Flamme Rouge.
I had never seen one before save for on TV, the last chance for hope or the mouth-watering omen for a solitary victory. There was nothing sacred about it all, but the people there were shining rays of hospitality and heart-felt happiness. It was me and Connie, the main person responsible for my passion for cycling. She had spotted this place, one of the few left, so we jumped off the arcade and stationed ourselves just behind the barriers. A nice bystander seemed to welcome us and asked who we were rooting for. We exchanged a quick glance underneath our smiles – wearing our Jumbo-Visma colors on a still-too-hot day of October, there wasn’t much of a choice – but still we replied Roglič, somehow embarrassed by the fact that it was the first time we could claim it openly. A champion, said he, but he was expecting a big performance from Almeida. A great rider, I added, while my mind was completing the sentence: but he doesn’t stand a chance against Primož, some evidence of the competitiveness hidden inside my mind.
I gave a look around to figure out where we were. As it turned out, it was the long straight after the Curva delle Orfanelle, the most iconic turn in the climb of San Luca, the hill hosting the final circuit of the Giro dell’Emilia. The tarmac road that twists through the climb which rises in ferocious gradients is flanked by a portico that forms a pedestrian pathway for the pilgrims heading towards the Sanctuary on the top. Through its unreal pink-orange stones, the portico shifts from one side of the street to the other, the road bending under the colonnade, while the arcade bridges over. Looking down the road, we caught a glimpse of a fan yelling at the INEOS team car, asking for a leading role for Ganna in the following Paris-Roubaix.
We had reached Bologna in the morning, and we didn’t eat much - we picked some cold, bland slices of pizza and an unexciting hot dog, which we decided to save for later. The time was coming, the riders were approaching the climb, the first of five repeats. We were trying to get some live images on our smartphones, but the internet was failing, and we could only rely on the news coming out of the loudspeakers – it was frustrating, but it pleased me thinking that this was the way I could get the “full experience” of live cycling, whatever that meant.
The breakaway riders were going to pass in front of us. The long straight meant we could see them coming from a long distance, and the high gradients meant that we could see them for longer. As they came closer, I was struck by Ide Schelling’s emphatic bodily expressions, and the thorough zeal of riders from Italian professional teams. They were doomed, but they ran through the applause. All that was left for me then was to crave for the bunch.
When it finally came, he was up front, unmistakable yellow/black shoulders and torso, blue shoes, leading an aligned pack where no one seemed to dare to precede the others, spreading evenly across the road. Everyone shouting, Connie and I began too. She is so much better than me at performing according to where she is, and was able to use the international cheering formula: Allez! Allez! I couldn’t, and I just shouted my heart out, in Italian, Vai, Primož! It felt like I could see them all, the looks they were giving each other, the mind games they were trying to play, or the fraternal pact of saving energy as much as possible, delaying attacks until they could be really decisive.
They were all there in that moment, our devotion materializing in the desire to recognize everyone we could: Marc Hirschi’s sound face, Matteo Fabbro’s youthful eyes, Mauri Vansevenant’s lively demeanor. Jumbo Visma’s unquestionable jersey allowed us to easily spot our beloved boys, Sepp Kuss being the only rider in the entire peloton to confirm our expectations about the height and build of a cyclist we assumed from watching them on TV. The first massive, indivisible group of riders had passed; behind them, the peloton had started to scatter, and it was only the beginning.
It was time for team cars to pass; when they did, we were left waiting and wanting. A dreadfully fast descent was awaiting the riders after the finish line on top of the hill; it would lead them at the bottom of the climb again, for a new lap. We wanted to know, our only foothold being the speaker’s voice, which repeatedly announced attacks by the crowd’s favorite, Remco Evenepoel. We and the crowd had, obviously, different views.
So it went every time they passed. I suffered while they were out of sight, and then I shouted the name of everyone I could see, the identification getting easier every time as the peloton kept shredding itself apart. Roglič, Almeida, Evenepoel, Adam Yates and Woods were always at the front, controlling each other and making the rest of the peloton accept that. On the second lap, we asked ourselves in wonder: where is Pogi? There he was, at the back of the peloton, behind his teammates Hirschi and Majka, his cadence revealing too big an effort to be made. On the third lap, while the race was fizzling and spitting excitement, we saw Pogačar doing wheelies on an 18% climb and giving high fives to the crowd (I almost got one too). Then he retired. He would win Il Lombardia a week later. What a guy.
On the last lap, the Evenepoel menace had evaporated. He was still there, but everyone knew he wouldn’t resist another attack. I had to leave them riding behind a corner, a slow-motion in my mind off Roglič’s cadence, one last shout to cheer him. We had to wait for the speaker, because the finish line was out of sight. His name resonated as the winner, and Connie and I hugged like characters in a lazily-written romantic comedy.
Our day was not over though, because we wanted to see him on the podium. We sprinted to the line, but one kilometer uphill is not quickly done on a bike, let alone on foot. We dodged the crowd, panting, running against the stairs that divided us from the top of the climb. A final turn on the left, and we saw the Sanctuary. It was one of those places where I’d usually love to take shelter and savor the shadow, but that day the outside was far more interesting. We overcame the press area and hurried along the steady, slow turn that led to the finish line and then the podium. I don’t know how, but we ended up on the side of the podium, just in time to see him throw a mortadella to the crowd. Michael Woods walked to our right, wearing a much-deserved cap, which felt more of an act of relief rather than a sponsor type of thing. A few moments later, Primož was standing a couple of meters from us, deciding how to make his way through the crowd.
He saw me, I’m sure. We made eye contact for a couple of seconds – he was perhaps puzzled by my whimsical, non-functional curly hair on such a wrongly hot afternoon; I was cursing myself for having lost the t-shirt Connie gave me. It was one with his logo on the chest. I thought I could have relied on that gimmick to have a glimpse of his smile, of his acknowledgement, or even validation, but I didn’t have it. At that moment, I had nothing but my look in his eyes. He moved on, strolling alongside Jonas Vingegaard in the winner’s jersey of the Challenge Emilia Romagna, the two chatting amiably. People started to leave, and the finish line was now seized by the staff and friends of the riders. In one of the jubilant circles that we saw, we spotted Lora Klinc toasting to her partner’s victory. We were carrying around her book about the first Vuelta won by Primož, wondering if she would sign it, but we gave in, deciding not to interrupt others’ joy, and feeling satisfied for what we had already experienced.
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Connie and I took some photos in the beautiful sun, our imagination greeting the incredible people we had just witnessed, and then we started our way down. We couldn’t believe it. We had traveled an entire night on the cheapest possible bus fare, we gave our sleep up just to see the people who had become somehow so crucial for our lives within a year or so, especially Primož – and he won. I really think we shouted more than anyone else there, and I remember every pedal stroke he did on that portion of climb that we were allowed to see. The hug we gave each other when the speaker told his name as the winner, the bottle of beer I tread on while running to the line to get the smallest glimpse of him on the podium. We did it. We were slowly going down, stopping by every so often at the arcade, just to breathe, take a look at the city from above, talk to each other, and smile. The team cars had begun their way down; fewer and fewer people populated the climb. We were finally gifted a moment of pure silence and solitude.
It was then we heard the unpredictable crescendo of a bike chain, rolling rapidly down the hill. We didn’t notice at first – we only saw him on the back. But it was him. Primož Roglič was descending, pulled by gravity only, the same climb he had faced 5 times already that day. No one was with him – no team cars, no directors, no teammates, no other riders – and no one went down after him either. He was the last one, he was waited for by no one, or maybe he didn’t let anyone do it. Some sort of epiphany caught us, as if the meaning of the whole sport resided in that moment, in that descent, in the humble silence that cyclists allow themselves, riding away from glory on the very vehicle that brought them there. A guitarist that keeps strumming an unplugged guitar after a concert.
I’d love to say that I know every scene of that moment by heart, but he really went down so fast, all the colors and reactions are blurred in a feeling of deep awareness and communication. I guess that cycling is so appealing to me because it’s like learning a new language, that is, understanding people that I would have never thought I could understand.
All of a sudden I found that so irresistibly meaningful.