no risks, no glory

vuelta stages 10 and 11

When Primož Roglič attacked on stage ten with fourteen kilometers to go, there was no reason to do so except that he was feeling good, feeling strong. Apparently, per Addy Engels, one of Roglič’s sports directors, Roglič had gone back to the team car earlier in the day to tell them that he planned to have a go at it. For some reason, even though the team were by all means “happy with the situation” they did nothing to stop Roglič from making his move, much to the excoriation of the team’s always-vocal internet critics. With two kilometers left until DSM’s young Michael Storer, alone out front, would cross the line victorious for a second time in this Vuelta, Roglič slid out and met the tarmac. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, he righted his chain and hopped back on, and the rest of us were left to try and assess the damage. At the time, all I could think was, not again, and before me were images of Roglič finishing stage three of the Tour, half-destroyed.

But that disaster did not strike. The Slovenian, though caught, still finished with the colleagues he broke away from, the dangerous men, the ones to worry about. Whether what Primož Roglič did that day was stupid is up to individual opinion, but one cannot deny that what he did was bike racing in its purest form. Yes, the team may have been happy with the situation as it was, with the red jersey and all its responsibilities being ceded to Intermarché’s Odd Christian Eiking, who pulled out two minutes on Roglič from the breakaway, with Roglič finishing where he needed to be, alongside the people who presented the biggest threats. However, Roglič himself was not happy with the situation when he was out on that climb. He wanted something more.

He wanted to race.

Primož Roglič is arguably the strongest rider in this Vuelta. He is arguably one of the strongest riders in the professional men’s peloton. And yet, he does things that drive us spectators crazy — puts on these grand displays that always have the potential to go wrong at any second, and when they do, they are usually catastrophic. When he loses, he does so in the most devastating way imaginable, and when he wins, we win with him, because he loses, is somehow uniquely strong and yet decidedly fallible. Say what you want about Jumbo’s race-controlling tactics last year in the Tour (a seemingly endless topic of discourse) but Roglič himself has never been boring, and if anything, this Vuelta is proof. The Vuelta is his race, in parcours, with its explosive climbs, but also in spirit. Anyone who has been to the Tour knows that it is not a relaxed affair. In contrast, the Vuelta allows room to breathe in places where the Tour suffocates, in its press rooms and mixed zones, its general atmosphere. And Roglič, he needs that room, perhaps to be with himself, to conjure whatever it is he conjures when he turns disasters into miracles.

In his own words, “No risks, no glory,” he said to us.

Somehow, after Stage Ten — when Roglič was in a good mood despite the crash, joking with the press, not too banged up save for some torn bibs and a little scrape on his thigh — I knew that he would win the next day. If the breakaway didn’t survive, Roglič would snap the victory on the final wall at Valdepeñas de Jaén like a venus flytrap liquifying its pray in a chic apartment bathroom.

He would, he did. I was there.

That run-in to the finish was hell. Even walking up it in the 40-degree heat was no picnic. It was the kind of steepness better suited to rock climbers than cyclists. Narrow and winding, its gradient topped out at 23 percent, enough to grind muscle and will into dust. On it, it’s wonderful to watch how Roglič eases into himself, pulls the tarmac under his tires and makes the climb unravel as though it were easy and smooth, while, at the same time, his labor is always clear, is worn in the suffering on his face, worn in the strain on his body, in the tautness of his sinewy legs as they push pedals over against the will of physics.

The climb and the suffering, both were made for Primož, Primož who swallowed up breakaway-man and near-winner Magnus Cort with 250 meters left to go, who pulled Enric Mas in his wheel, had Enric Mas beside him, until Enric Mas couldn’t follow either, ten, five meters to go. As soon as Primož launched, the victory felt inevitable, and yet we watched with bated breath because with Primož Roglič everything could still go wrong, even in the final moments. He was, and remains breakable. He is, and will aways be human.

When he crossed the line, we all exhaled, (well, I exhaled). Roglič didn’t even know that he’d won, didn’t raise his arms in victory, perhaps because he was so exhausted all he could think of doing was finishing, somewhere, anywhere. But when he realized he’d claimed the day, he was smiling, laughing. When I observe him here at this Vuelta, he looks older than he did last year, his crows-feet more defined, gray hair starting to creep into spots where it wasn’t before. One of his eternal questions is how long can he keep doing this? Yesterday, he answered: for now.

Roglič smiled, embraced Mas, his rival, who is having a hell of a Vuelta himself, perhaps finally coming into his own. In that moment, Mas and Roglič shared something private between them, probably a friendly joke, words of good sportsmanship, making peace after their shared suffering. “The thing about such a final,” Gino Mäder said to me after, “is that there’s only good people. The fight…it’s really respectful.”

He paused.

“Everybody knows that the guy next to him is actually a good guy.”

Roglič, after he wins, is always wonderful. He’s really funny, cracking jokes with anyone who’s nearby. Vamos, Primož, his soigneur said to him as he rolled to a stop. “Yeah, vamos a la playa,” he fired back. Let’s go to the beach. Dumping a bidon all over his head, dripping everywhere, Roglič walked over to Egan Bernal who was finishing a drink, watched as Bernal aimed for the wastebasket and when he missed, Roglič teased him, saying, “You don’t play basketball. Good thing you ride a bike, huh?” In the press conference, he used one of his favorite phrases to describe his position two minutes behind Eiking in the fight for the red jersey. “Sweet worries,” he laughed, waving us away.

The air in Jaén was dusty and celebratory. Music played, people drank as they were freed from the constraints of the barriers. Hobbyists tried their hands at the final climb as the race’s infrastructure was slowly packed up. Riders came by, did their interviews. After such an exhausting finale, only Gino stopped for me, to shoot the shit and tell me that the stage was “Really fun.” He was in a good mood, too, despite the struggle of it all. With Roglič winning, something felt accomplished. A palpable sense of completion, of expectations fulfilled, settled over the race, a race that is still remarkably close, exciting, on. It’s still Roglič’s to lose, Mas’s to win, Eiking and Guillaume Martin’s to survive.

The sun made silver the olive trees of Andalusía, peppering the landscapes in perfect, geometric rows, a disorienting, three-dimensional biome that stretched as far as the eye could see. The jumbo-tron was folded away as the rest of the race collected itself to travel to its next destination like the circus it is. Across from me, Roglič, done with his formalities for the day, wiped the sweat from his brow, took off his glasses, waited for his people to come and collect him.

Behind the mask, his eyes smiled.