paris-nice, stage 4

a brief vignette

This is your spoiler warning.


He is breathing.

In through upturned button nose, out through parted lips, he is breathing. Slow, easy, he breathes, the sun bending vineyards into thin, distorted stripes spreading across the polarized lenses of his cycling glasses, he is breathing, he is breathing, that is his job, to breathe and wait patiently. The hill is endless, a not-mountain but suitable enough, and around its twisting, bald hairpin, through the throngs of spectators, he sees them, the two riders, ill-fated and exhausted, their tires practically clawing at the pavement, clinging on for dear life, every pedal-stroke an anguished one.

At this point in the climb, 3.3 kilometers left to go, a weaker man would be dizzy, sick, in agony. But this man just breathes, in through the nose, out through the mouth, upsweep of leg on pedal, cadence andante espressivo, because there is feeling in it, what he does, despite claims to the contrary, claims that he is some kind of machine, some kind of metronomic, unfeeling automaton. If he were a metronome, no one would flock to the television to watch him play music.

Pierre Latour tries another dig — he is desperate at this point — which opens up a lovely opportunity for our protagonist, who’s cleverly maneuvered himself to the rightmost side of the bunch. This is his moment. Through the filter of dark lenses, time slows for him, the whole world unfurls before him, limitless and expansive. Who knows what he thinks when he goes, who knows what’s transpiring in the space where heart and lungs and mind work together to form those elusive states of being we know as emotions? Perhaps there is none of that; neither emotion nor the repression of it, which is, in a way, also an emotion. Perhaps he is simply calm — serene, even. Placid, for in this moment everything achieves a certain clarity. His task lies before him, and he completes it, simple as that. A tick in the box. Done and done.

We watch cyclists hash it out on the final climbs of uphill finishes with glee because we, the audience, want to see suffering and desperation and failure and above all, struggle, pure struggle. Cycling has and always will fetishize these things, things that make up a great deal of the sport’s drama. After all, this is the queen stage of Paris-Nice — the stage which decides everything — and as such, we expect a good fight, a nasty battle to the end, attack after attack until everyone is reduced to the weakness we love to indulge in.

On this day, on this climb with still 3.1 kilometers of backbreaking gradient left to go, Primož Roglič does not give us the satisfaction.

The little displays of brinkmanship — with the likes of Latour attacking, with Roglič’s teammates at the front weaving in and out, shutting things down — are over. So much of cycling is pussyfooting around, of playing mind games, but Roglič, in his element, is above all of this. No one can touch him; his headspace is impenetrable. There’s no need for him to even indulge in such petty psychological diversions simply because he rides with a purity and clarity that does not need masking. His actions speak for themselves, for better or for worse, in this case, for better. This man may be unreadable, but what he does is not.

Accelerando, a speeding up, and the rest of the world moves backwards behind him.

It would be inaccurate to describe him as an explosive rider. An attack on his part feels less like a rocket launch and more like the breaking of an impressive wave, one that has been building and building until it approaches the point where it can build no longer, curls over and cascades under its own momentum. It rushes, it swallows up, it carries the sea forward onto land with a raucous whoosh.

When he goes, no one can follow, though a handful of others try — they have to; Izaguirre, Matthews — but Roglič looks so easy in comparison, and this visible easiness is enough to crack other riders, even those as determined as his pursuers. They round a corner, and out of thin air, he produces a gap of around twenty seconds.

He’s in another world.

All that is left to him is his breath, his body, the bike, the asphalt and the rest of the climb. The second he concerns himself with that which he has left behind becomes the second he is no longer focused, and his focus is like a vice grip — whatever’s pinioned under it is his for the taking.

When he rides like this, smooth and graceful and fast, alarmingly fast— can he hold it, can he hold it, can he hold it, the commentators ask, but he can’t hear them, and if he could, why should he care what they have to say — it is as though he is singing, alone and unselfconscious, his voice filling a room that seemed so empty before it, the hill equally bereft of life before he took it beneath his wheels and made a long asphalt ribbon out of it. It trails behind him in the gentle breeze.

For a taste of something different, I would like to borrow some emotion from music because there is a section in the third movement of Janaček’s second string quartet that captures this moment perfectly. (Feel free to listen to the video below, though Substack will not let me embed videos that start at a precise time for some reason. Here is a link to the precise time.)

The first two and a half minutes of this movement are uneasy needling, lurching in the form of viola triplets, similar in mood and sentiment to riders marking one another in anticipation of, say, the final attack of an uphill finish, complete with surges here and there, ebbing and flowing, bubbling and dissipating. So much occurs in this exposition, stretched out and retracted, murky, and at times, full of repressed passion.1

And then, suddenly and all at once, the climax. The violin upsweeps and shrieks, piercing the air seemingly out of nowhere, and beneath it, the choppy arpeggios of those trying to pull it down, and yet it soars impossibly high above everything, and when you listen, it forces you to sit still, forces you to think maudlin thoughts about equally maudlin things like beauty and the triumph of light in a dark, dark world; things that grow only more fervent with the uptick in tempo, constantly accelerating, unhinged, unyielding all the way to the run-in of the section’s cadence.

That’s Primož Roglič on the final climb of stage four of Paris-Nice.

The camera zooms in. He rides the final kilometer like he’s angry, as though to say, how dare you doubt me, how dare you define each discussion of me by my one loss2 and not my redemptive triumphs, how dare any of you think that I am in any way finished with any of this. But then again, we are talking about a particularly enigmatic man, and — perhaps more than any other cyclist — we can never know what Primož Roglič is thinking. All we know is that as the meters tick down, he is burying himself, is totally and completely in his element, and after he has the barriers in sight, he does not once look back. For him, the only way is, always has been, and always will be forward.

He crosses the line effortlessly, kisses his fingers, peering up at the blue sky, and afterward, when they interview him, he calls what he’s just done “beautiful.” He’s right.

It is.

1

Historical context: the string quartet, subtitled “Intimate Letters,” was penned for a much younger woman the composer was in love with, unrequitedly.

2

Primož Roglič lost the 2020 Tour de France in the final time trial to his much younger compatriot and friend Tadej Pogačar. He went on to win Liège Bastogne Liège and the 2020 Vuelta a España that same season.