Even when I see it the second time, the goosebumps don’t go away. The race.
I wrote in my last journal about seeing them for the first time, and the race is the same thing, indescribable. It’s so fast. It happens in quivers, reverberations. Motorbikes, commissaires cars, VIPs. Then a lull. All at once, then, it comes, like a bat out of hell, sirens, helicopters, screaming spectators, among whom I am enveloped, and when the riders buzz through at a blistering pace, their faces determined, their bodies perched atop their instruments of speed, something which was more joyous when I witnessed it again the day after, at the foot of the Mur de Bretagne, I could not stop myself from chanting allez allez allez like the children on their parents’ shoulders, like the drunk men on balconies. It’s incredible, how fast they are, despite the gradient, their eyes locked in a staring match with God as they wind their way up that hill. But of course, this joy, this resplendent thing, this living organism that flies through like a flock of starlings, was, in the first stage, and even now, today on the morning of stage four, marred by the crashes, by the carnage, by the bloodied faces and legs and the agonies of open mouths. Nothing in the world can prepare you for that.
On the first stage, me and Richard (of The Cycling Podcast fame) climbed up to the foot of the Côte de la Fosse aux Loups in Landerneau to take audio samples from the ecstatic crowd. For an hour or so, we stood in the driveway of Alpecin-Fenix’s hotel and tried and get signal on our phones as sponsor floats tossed goodies at us, much of which were useless. But on his phone, we saw the first crash, the horrible one with the sign. Chute Chute, someone shouts in the crowd. Tony Martin went down, and with him most of Jumbo Visma, and with most of Jumbo Visma, came down everyone.
Oh my god, I kept shouting, because it was a disaster, a pile of flesh and carbon on the road and the signal kept cutting out and at the same time floats for an olive oil company passed by playing Ariana Grande as someone danced between giant faux olive oil bottles, and who's down I shouted over the noise, who’s down? I think I said fuck at least thirty-one times, maybe thirty-two. And then, nothing, no signal, no news. I could get enough data for a group chat I was in to try and hear what was happening, but even then it cut out. Where is Roglič? Where is Pogačar? Where is Thomas? Van der Poel? I kept asking Richard, as if he knew. Some minutes later, word of a second crash, about which we knew nothing. Informational darkness. All I could do was stand in a throng of people on the foot of the climb, waiting for the race to pass, trying not to fret. I thought then, at least it couldn’t get worse.
People say that journalism is objective, and in a way, it is. But all journalists connect with their subjects in certain ways, in interviews, as subjects. With cycling, every day starts out in the mixed zone, little pens where they hole up the press and send riders to them, usually after asking a team’s communications officer via WhatsApp, hey can I talk to xyz the night before or in the morning. The pens on the first stage were quiet because no one was around — all the journalists were at the finish line for La Course. So, in the lull, I asked Ard Bierens from Jumbo to send someone over if they had time, and they generously sent over Mike Teunissen.
Mike was in cheery mood that morning under the gray Breton skies, his kit fresh, his eyes shining, alive. He smiled through the mask, saying, “I’m good — coming back from an injury, but I’m top shape here and I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks. [The mood in the team] is really good actually, I have to say. It’s a bit different from last year, not the biggest favorites, but we’re all still really motivated, especially considering last year, to make the most of it. We’re all ready, all set, to do what we are dreaming of.” And then, hours later, he went down, in the crash.
I had just spoken to him that morning, when he was so happy, so excitable, bubbling with anticipation, eager to do his job, and now he was on the ground in a gnarly, groaning mass of agony. It’s all I could think about. The day prior, I had spoken in a press conference to Marc Hirschi, one of my favorite characters in the peloton, who answered in measured tones about his prospects for the first two stages, only to be catapulted from the bike in the second crash on stage one. His shoulder separated, he landed amongst the brambles, surrounded by them in a poetic but tragic fashion, his bike snapped in two.
And then there was Roglič.
I apologize for the rather scattered nature of this diary entry. So much has happened in the last few days, and in the mean time I’ve also been on deadline for two assignments, because I am here to work, don’t forget. I’m not here as tourist of human passion. Anyway, yesterday should have been a very happy day for me, for that was the morning when, after all I had been through writing about and profiling Roglič, I met him for the first time in person. It was very kind of Jumbo Visma to bring him to me even before the television cameras, and even though we were surrounded by other journalists with their recorders held out (I get the sense Roglič doesn’t come by the English written press’s mixed zone pen that often), there was still an intimacy to the conversation, because when Roglič speaks to you, he speaks only to you, his bright eyes focused on one thing at a time.
One might think that this was some kind of momentous reckoning for me, to see him in the flesh, but like I wrote earlier, Roglič is perhaps the only familiar element in this whole adventure, and in real life, he’s just Roglič. In effect, I already knew him quite well. It was a normal press set of questions, asking about the crashes on stage one, talking about how Jonas Vingegaard was looking strong, the usual things. Still, he was in good spirits, laughing and smiling, at ease. At the end, right before he left, I told him, “It’s good to see you.” The last thing he said as he wheeled off, tossed over his shoulder: You too, huh? And then, he disappeared into the throng of cameramen, TV crews, team officials, the buzz of the race start welling up as the mixed zone emptied itself of its journalists. The next time I would see him would be as he crossed the line, horribly bloodied and battered with a thousand yard stare, the picture of human agony.
To be honest with you, it was very hard not to cry, seeing him like that, and when I finally got back to Richard’s car, I did cry, just for a second, just to let out the pressure in my face and my chest and my racing mind. Like I said earlier, as journalists we are supposed to be objective, but I would be lying if I told you that this didn’t affect me. It’s awful to have seen any of them like that, but Roglič was almost too much. You can’t get so emotionally invested, Richard told me, as we walked back to the car after packing up in the press center, and I know he’s right. I know this is a life I chose and with it comes witnessing the horrible cruelty of the sport. I know that if I’m to survive these three weeks, my skin has to get thicker. I keep telling myself this as I relive it for you now.
When I made my confession to Roglič, when I told him that I was thinking about leaving my current position to pursue cycling full time, that plan was still a secret; it seemed still a long way off into the future. The only three people who knew at the time were Jackson (of this newsletter), my husband, and Primož Roglič. Originally I did not want to include this part of the conversation in the profile I wrote for Bicycling because I considered it an intimate and private moment between two people, though, in the end, it humanized him quite a bit and added an essential honesty to the story which I believe made it better. This was a conversation between a girl and her hero, yet in a bittersweet turn, the publishing of such a conversation marked the transition of this relationship into one between a journalist and her subject.
To make a rather arrogant comparison, this transformation is not unsimilar to the shift of the mentor-protégé relationship between Roglič and Tadej Pogačar after the Tour last year into one of distanced friends and spirited competitors. With the turn away from the personal and towards the professional, there comes a certain kind of loss — of magic, of sweetness, of closeness, of depth. One must feel rather bad for Tadej Pogačar here, too, for in yesterday’s carnage, he was robbed of the chance to prove himself against his elder countryman on an equal playing field, robbed of the chance to prove that his victory last year against Roglič wasn’t just a fluke. Add the crashes of Jack Haig and Geraint Thomas into the mix and you’ll see that the story of this race has been completely turned upside down in an instant, never to be the same again. The narratives we were promised will not materialize.
I had a sleepless night last night, and as I laid there waiting for the sun to rise, I thought over and over again about what Roglič said to me after I made my confession to him. I would be really happy if I could say, Oh, yeah, it will be really fun and nice, but yeah, you have to expect this fucking hard sport, huh? You know what I mean?
At the time, I thought this was solely relevant to the deadlines I had for the Giro and the profile itself, a testimony to the mental stamina it took to write every single day. It’s only now — now that I’ve seen the carnage firsthand and the human toll of it — that I realize what he really meant, that I realize the true, visceral honesty in his statement. Not included in the profile is what he said after: I'm suffering here also every day. I'm tired, but yeah. That's why I'm here, huh? I don't suffer at home. And like I said, at the end it fits to you. For a while, I thought that he said this because he misheard me saying riding instead of writing about cycling and that he thought I was trying to become a cyclist myself. However, sitting in my hotel room writing this, gathering up the stamina to go back into the mixed zone to do my job, I come to the delayed conclusion that this was not the case.
The implication he made was clear: should I pursue this sport as my life, I, too, would suffer, and either that suffering would suit me as it suits him and I would continue on in spite of it, or I would save something of myself and walk away from cycling and its brutality, brutality which is always mingling with a sublimity that keeps us coming back for more like the masochists we are. I admit in these pages that I wanted to go home yesterday. But despite the lack of sleep and the emotional pain of seeing someone you spent so much time thinking and writing about in anguish, I still find some way to harden my heart, get dressed, and prepare myself for the day.
Somewhere, in a team bus, Roglič is doing the same.