the limpid valley
a brief note on the slovenian stage of the giro
In the corner of the television screen, I see my friends.
When one is blessed with close friends, they become instantly recognizable even from the blur of a cameraman’s motorbike. When I see them sitting atop a retainment wall or lined along the foliage on the Kolovrat climb, I open Instagram and match their stories with the pictures on TV, to confirm that yes, they are my friends. I am not imagining them. And beside my friends, I see other familiar faces, for the whole affair of the Giro crossing into Slovenia serves as kind of reunion party for every discrete little pocket of Slovenian cycling. (A notable exception: Roglič and Pogačar themselves, who have both disappeared into the fog at altitude in Spain and France.)
There are kids from local clubs dressed in their freshest kits and journalists (hello!) taking in the ambiance for the afternoon’s reports. In the town of Kobarid, the Slovenian Tourist Board has coordinated everything with practiced efficiency. On the corners, the crowds are a sea of green I Feel sLOVEnia flags. The national tricolor, too, is present everywhere — from balconies, fluttering in the wind, affixed cape-like to the backs of spectators running (or speedwalking) alongside the poor, exhausted men in the breakaway.
Some of the spectators, out of either a general Slovene patriotism or fan partisanism1 chant for the ever-present aura of Primož Roglič even though he’s not there, as though they can will him into existence at any moment. Along a switchback of the climb, Bahrain Victorious (whose service course is just outside of Ljubljana) has a whole encampment of tents set up with coolers full of champagne. These are attended to by the likes of team boss Milan Eržen and the national champion Matej Mohorič, who has been more or less hanging around in Slovenia since the classics season ended. Under their white canopy, the spectated become, for one humid afternoon, the spectators. To the glee of Slovenian Twitter, Rob Hatch has to admit over the GCN commentary that the Giro has entered the top cycling nation in the word. And this is true.
As soon as the Giro exits Italy and dips into Slovenia the national change is indeed felt. The houses take on the Alpine profile of the chalet, the trees grow darker, the roads smoother, the towns smaller. The buildings are careworn in a different way, one that may not be describable. Meanwhile, in the race itself, last year’s stage winner Mauro Schmid, KOM leader Koen Bouwman, Bardiani hopeful Alessandro Tonelli, and the Hungarian youngster Attila Valter have formed a breakaway of four. (Andrea Vendrame will join them later by surprise.) They labor up the hardest slopes of the Kolovrat, their shoulders bobbing with a palpable exhaustion, for at this point in a grand tour the body doesn’t have much left to give. And yet during this moment of ardor (10.4 kilometers at 8.9 percent gradiant) not much transpires. When the peloton reaches the same slopes, not much transpires then either. The fans are greeted to a procession rather than a competition.
But in the sun, which burns and turns white the banks of the roads before they are plunged back into the darkness of the hornbeams, everything sparkles. Especially the river, which, parting the valley, churning beneath bridges in an impossible, translucent blue, is more animated than the race itself.
Krasna si, bistra hci planin — You are splendid, limpid daughter of the heights.
This is the refrain found throughout one of the most famous nationalistic poems in the Slovene canon, “Soči” or, “To the River Soča,” by the 19th century poet-priest Simon Gregorčič.2 The subject, it goes without saying, is the river Soča, which in the poem serves as a metaphor for the burgeoning nation-state. The river Soča is also perhaps one of the most beautiful places one can dwell upon the earth. (I am not saying this to be touristic or propagandistic; I am merely stating a writerly fact.)
Perhaps it’s better to use Gregorčič’s words:
These green-blue waves;
The dark green of highland grass
And the cheerful azure of the heights
Have flown together with delight;
From the dew of the blue skies,
From the dew of green mountains,
You have drunk your beauty
The reason this poem (which starts out so loftily and ends so brutally) is as famous as it is has to do with its uncanny prescience regarding the events of World War I. Hence we get into a bit of history.
Gregorčič wrote the poem in 1879, but in it he foretells a great miltary conflict with an unknown foe (“Rain of blood and streams of tears / Lightning and thunder - oh, stifling battle!”) and indeed the Soča Valley would become a hotspot of gruesome warfare in both World Wars, most notably in World War I, where it formed the basis of the Isonzo front. No fewer than twelve major battles would transpire there, with many soldiers having ridden these same roads before on their own bicycles.
Before all this, however, Gregorčič’s worldview was swept up in the height of 19th century European Romantic nationalism (“Do you know you are passing by the graves / The graves of Slovene homeland? / A double grief you suffer here!”) and “Soči” ends with a hope for liberation and the end of the oppression experienced by the Slovene people who have been, at different times in history, trapped under the thumbs of some of Europe’s most fearsome and brutal imperialists. Listed among them are the Romans, Napoleon, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy (including Fascist Italy), and the Nazis.3
Within this vein, the poem ends as thus:
Remember then, limpid Soča,
The commands of your fervid heart:
All the waters stored
In the clouds of your skies,
All the waters in your highlands,
All the waters of your blossoming plains,
Rush it all up at once,
Rise up, froth in a dreadful stream!
Do not confine yourself within the banks,
Rise wrathfully over the defences,
And drawn the foreigners ravenous for land
To the bottom of your foaming waves!
In this respect “Soči” is doubly prescient — about both war and liberation. Fortunately, the Soča river we witnessed today is the Soča found at the beginning of the poem, the limpid, beautiful one, now flowing down from the Julian Alps through the valleys of a free Slovenia.
The race, on the other hand, was a bit less animated than these “lively waves.” In the first part of the poem, ahead of its nationalistic and militaristic finale, one can find these lines, which, to be honest, could serve as their own race report on both a macro and micro scale:
May God welcome you amidst the plains! …
How dearly and loudly you murmur,
How stalwartly and soundly you bound
When you still flow through the mountains!
But when you clatter down to the flatlands,
Why do you lose your lively joy?
Why do you flow tiredly and slowly…
Indeed, it is quite a bit disappointing that, especially considering the animation of Stage 14, a close race in the general classification, and all of this celebration lined up along the Kolovrat climb, things were stalwart and sound in the same way as a military procession. And when the riders clattered down to the flatlands, well, so much for lively joy. Flowing tiredly and slowly, Mauro Schmid, in his exhaustion, almost clocked himself on a road sign.4
Only on the final climb back in Italy did we saw a few tugs of the leash, but none proved fatal or even decisive. A category 2 climb was not difficult enough to dispose of rivals in either the breakaway or the peloton. In the end, Koen Bouwman of Jumbo Visma won from a chaotic, botched sprint. And when the peloton crossed the line, nothing sparated Carapaz from his rivals Hindley and Landa. The only real event that took place today was Bouwman’s stage win and his coronation as King of the Mountains. These were career defining moments for the Dutchman, to be sure, but they were not Giro-defining moments for anyone else.
There are only two more stages left in this grand tour. Our river is running out of mountains to flow through. Realistically, the last chance Hindley or Landa have to beat Carapaz ahead of the time trial is tomorrow. This is a kind of narrative procrastination that makes writing about this Giro a bit irritating, and the truth is, in anticipation (or, more accurately, fear) of the time trial, it is very possible that nothing will happen in that final road stage either. Like today in the Soča Valley, tomorrow, too, could be easily if not predictably squandered.
I do not find anything in cycling to be boring — these inter-team mind games and small tactical machinations are in themselves interesting. However I can, this late in the game, label what kind of riding we are seeing as conservative.
Even in the breakaway, there were no chances taken on the hardest slopes of the day simply because everyone knew there would be another climb after. Conservatism in cycling, as it does in life, arises from fear of the future. It manifests materially in the hoarding of resources — calories, teammates, energy, bullets in the chamber of potential attacks — because a conservative team is constantly thinking about what resources others have or could have. Conservatism walks a fine dialectic between social thinking and anti-social behavior. It is distinctly Machiavellian.
To many, including a few of my friends who came out for a good time, it is rather dull. The lumbering peloton resembled a cadre of sleepwalkers. Or Muzak. Tomorrow, one does not know whether to prepare for a big spectacle arising out of desperation (a la stage 20 of last year’s Vuelta) or merely another anticlimactic day of getting by as easily as possible in order to conserve resources for the final time trial which, if we are being realistic, Hindley and Landa have little chance of beating Carapaz in unless they manage a miraculous Pogačar-esque run. That this will happen is, to me, doubtful.
I’ll borrow from another Slovene poet, Aleš Debeljak5 to both end this piece and to serve as some kind epigraph for this Giro ahead of its final day of real competition:
…Heed the footprints of sleepwalkers
while the chaos lasts. Then measure the shadow and the sky.
no pun intended!
while the translator is unknown, the only translation of this poem into English can be found here and it took me, like, three days to track it down: https://web.archive.org/web/20160629130528/http://spinnet.eu/wiki-anthology/index.php/Soca_River/
One could make an argument for including both Yugoslavias in here too, but I do not for various historical and socio-political reasons I won’t get into because this is a cycling newsletter.
I realize that I am stretching this metaphor to nearly bullshit proportions, but bear with me, I’m having a good time.
from “Church Bells at Midnight” as found in the anthology Without Anesthesia, p. 59.