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the great silence
(a moment of) men's liège-bastogne-liège 2023
I’ve been sitting here for over an hour thinking about what to write about this edition of the men’s Liège. Much, of course, can be said of Remco Evenepoel’s characteristically masterful performance, which is becoming textbook (often to the bane of fans’ existence): he attacks with 30 kilometers to go and finishes solo. Notably in this edition of the classic tale, he vanquished the competition in the rainbow jersey paired with white bibs (which were not so white after the day’s rain) and he did this without having to face Tadej Pogačar, who, rather unusually, crashed out of the race and went home with a broken wrist. But as I sit here scheming up what to write, my mind drifts back, not to the finish, but to a long stretch in the race in which events transpired that ultimately came to nothing.
When a great tree falls in the forest, it exposes the ground where it once stood to the sun, allowing for the flourishing of plants that have been waiting patiently for that blessed hole in the sky in order to fill their respective niches. It’s normal in sports when the same people seem to win over and over again to want to focus on the smaller stories that are usually overlooked because winning is more interesting than non-winning, until it isn’t anymore, and right now, it’s not. And when Pogačar pulled out of the race, the whole of cycling knew what would and did happen: Evenepoel would launch on the Côte de La Redoute and no one would be able to catch him. The great trees still stood in the forest and the forbs and herbs and saplings closer to the ground will once more have to wait another day.
Indeed, the inevitable lurked in every corner. You could feel it in the resurgence of strength from Soudal Quickstep as they bossed the front of the race again and again, as was expected — why would anyone else do the work when Remco would only capitalize on it in the end? So the peloton drove on, ate up road. The rain pissed down in sheets. Everything about the day retained an air of the funureal. Still, this was a race. And at a certain point, there is the expectation that someone, anyone, should do something. By this point, Evenepoel was burning through his domestiques like matchsticks and the others began to wonder — perhaps they wouldn’t be able to beat him, but they had a better chance if they could at least isolate him.
When the trio of Jan Tratnik, Valentin Madouas, and Magnus Sheffield set out with around 85 kilometers to go, it was the first glimmer of hope one had witnessed all day. The latter two were caught within ten kilometers, but Jan Tratnik stayed out alone in an attempt to bridge to the remnants of the earlier breakaway which was, at this same time, disintegrating. When Tratnik jumped out in front, the strategy made sense: get Soudal Quickstep to chase, burn them out on behalf of Tratnik’s Jumbo Visma teammate, Tiesj Benoot. And Soudal Quickstep did chase, to the point where Tratnik’s companions were caught. Jan Tratnik, however, kept going. Alone.
I do not know why Tratnik decided to persevere in this way. Something about the decision to bridge to the break felt improvised and perhaps a bit melancholic. My years of watching cycling tell me that there is no way Tratnik could win from a condition like this, and yet he kept riding anyway, because why not? What other fate was there other than waiting with his teammates for the inevitable? He instead chose something else, something lonely and ultimately self-effacing. And so, for twenty kilometers, we are forced to watch him pass through the Ardennes forest, through the rain, with no one for company. Jan Tratnik adjusted his position in the saddle, his quiet face tilted upward, his eyes doleful. He seemed simultaneously uncomfortable with the effort and the weather and at peace with the reality he found himself in. He did not appear anxious at all.
When this transpired, we all observed it for quite a long stretch of time, with the shared and full knowledge that it would not end successfully. But this is not the same as it being stagnant or dull. Tratnik would eventually start collecting the cast-off riders from the earlier break, passing by them, moving forward according to some unknowable internal momentum. The motorbike followed his movements which had a certain fluid tranquility to them. He questioned nothing, and when he met his final partner in Astana’s Simone Velasco, he accepted this development too. In Slovene, a language which hates misunderstandings, special attention is paid to the dual subject, used when one is talking about two things or two people, and only two. It could be said, then, that Jan Tratnik and Simone Velasco, they-two, onadva, were out there for a very long time.
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Velasco had been in front all day and was tired, but the arrival of Tratnik renewed his belief that the front remained the best place for him. He sat in Tratnik’s wheel. Relentlessly. Tratnik kept riding, though he must have been exhausted by that point. Even the commentators said, as though the riders could hear them, “Come on Simone, give him a turn.” But Velasco did not. He waited in Tratnik’s shadow, unwilling to commit so totally to something that probably wouldn’t work out. Every once in a while, Tratnik would give Velasco a gentle, beckoning look, and each time, Velasco would shake his head, and Tratnik would continue riding. If Tratnik’s ride could be interpreted as one of quiet optimism, then Velasco’s can be read as a kind of patient nihilism. Regarless, neither held power. The time between the two up front and the others depended on the others.
Behind, Evenepoel found himself left only with his associate Van Wilder. He did not like this. He slowed down the pace to try and bring Louis Vervaeke back into the fold. Vervaeke, who was absolutely cooked and looked the part, begrudgingly returned to his post, did one more pull, and than expired. But all that finagling gave almost a minute back to Tratnik and Velasco. Only then did an inspired Velasco wake up from his slumber and decide to give fifteen seconds of his slipstream to Jan Tratnik. But only fifteen seconds. If I were Tratnik, I would have laughed meanly, but Jan Tratnik simply directed himself around corners, through fields and forests, up and down hills. He would ride until they caught him, but they had not caught him yet.
The Côte de la Redoute is where Remco struck last year, and everyone in the race anticipated the same. The pace escalated. Others joined in setting it as though plotting counterattacks, but in the end, aside from a tug by Mollema, no one had the guts nor the power to really try something. Van Wilder hit the front like a madman. Evenepoel never left the saddle. The gap, in reality, was more of a blessing on the behalf of the peloton. It vanished when they wanted it to disappear. The inevitable was upon Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Recently, I went to the cinema in Ljubljana with my friend Jan as an excuse to get out of the house. At Kinodvor, there’s a film festival every year, Kurja Polt, which is devoted to genre film. It just so happened that they were showing the classic “spaghetti western” The Great Silence — a film about the brutality of bounty hunting ostensibly set in Utah, filmed in the Italian Dolomites by Sergio Corbucci, dubbed in Italian, and played with English subtitles and Slovene subtitles beneath those.
The plot is that of a classic shoot-em-up. The evil but exceptionally skilled bounty hunter Tigrero is in cahoots with Henry Pollicut, a corrupt banker, who takes a cut of the money from Tigrero’s kills. After Tigrero kills the husband of the beautiful Pauline, Pauline swears revenge and hires the services of the film’s good guy vigilante, a mute (it turns out his throat was slit by Pollicut’s associates when he was a boy) who goes only by the moniker Silence. (They later fall in love.) Silence is riding into town with the new Sheriff, Gideon Corbett, who wants to reform the bounty hunting system. Corbett captures Tigrero on a technicality and attempts to transfer him, but Tigrero escapes and kills Corbett. He returns to the town in search of Silence. A western showdown is in the works.
The movie is famous for its ending, which is notoriously brutal. After being seriously wounded by Pollicut’s henchmen (though he successfully gets rid of Pollicut) Silence faces off against Tigrero. But instead of the valorant classic story of triumph and redemption, Tigrero and his associates kill Silence, kill Pauline, kill the hostages they’ve tied up as bait. In fact, this is, in retrospect, inevitable and poignant in its starkness. As if to make a point, after the credits, the filmmaker included the alternative happy ending the producers wanted: the sherriff is alive, Silence was secretly wearing protective armor, everyone is saved. But after watching the real ending, the hollowness of this false story becomes apparant and its saccharine nature is not a source of relief but rather distaste.
I thought about this film when Remco attacked, and when Pidcock went with him and tried to claw back on only to be mercilessly dropped moments later. Others behind fought and strived fruitlessly. Jan Tratnik and Simone Velasco were swallowed up on La Redoute, Tratnik making one last grasp against Remco on the behalf of Benoot. This was all for naught. The ending of this race was inevitable and poignant in its starkness. But, much like The Great Silence, a brutal ending does not render the rest of the plot useless, and in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it does not mean that the preceding hundred kilometers, all that exposition, all that meaning-making, every pedal stroke and pleading gesture of Jan Tratnik and the respondant cynical reticence of Simone Velasco, were worthless. What point would there be to literature or film if stories were only ever about their endings? Why should sport be seen the same way?
An ending is never inevitable until it is over. A race is never boring unless we decide it to be.
In a bit of an ironic twist, Jan Tratnik is from Idrija, and in the Idrijan dialect the dual (dvojina) is not as commonly used.