What does it mean to give all of oneself?
This is a question I ask periodically, and it’s one I don’t think I really understood until I started to ride a bike with any kind of seriousness. Riding a bike taught me that there is, in fact, such thing as having nothing left, that the body could be a ghost of itself, taking the mind with it. It’s a humbling lesson to learn.
To watch the time trial from the mixed zone, standing there in the rain with no umbrella, too stupid and too determined to go inside, to watch them roll in one by one, exhausted in their solitude, I understood better what this meant, this giving. Very few of us give all of ourselves in the way they do, with total devotion to movement, to grasping at something as intangible as time, as impermanent as victory with one’s whole self.
A time trial is a thing of terrible beauty – of solace, of the mind competing with the body, competing against the insufferable terrain and the wheeled machine and the clock. When they come in soaked, their faces are haggard, for this self-competition is fierce, perhaps fiercer than any match against any other man. After all, we know ourselves and our weaknesses better than anyone. It was a glorious time trial, too, the best kind there is, a nail-biter. The stories within were resplendent – Roglič versus his battered body, a fight he would soon lose, Mathieu van der Poel’s epic cram session after which he would ride the time trial of his life, clinging onto the yellow jersey for yet another day, and, of course, the boy prince, Tadej Pogačar, reigning supreme, calm and cool in his angelic white, offering a seductive look at the camera as if to say, that’s right, watch me.
When Roglič rolled in, his face pink, his eyes agonized, I couldn’t believe what he’d done, ridden up to seventh in the stage, after all that chaos and agony, you tenacious son of a bitch. In the mixed zone, when he came to give Jonas a pat on the back, I waved and he winked at me and rode off. So brief was the moment, I thought I’d imagined it. It gave me hope I shouldn’t have had.
Stage six was spent driving. We got there just in time to see Cavendish win again, which, yeah, unbelievable, right? I can’t remember much of that day because I was a little hungover and busy with other work and wasn’t even taking notes, as you can tell by this rather frazzled diary entry. That’s the thing about being on the Tour, there’s a lot of going places and the watching is rather minimal. The most spectacular part of it is being there when they come in, to see their initial reactions, to speak to them. But the rest is spent in the car, in hotels, in overheated and unventilated press rooms crammed together like sardines, refreshing the free wifi when it inevitably cuts out for the umpteenth time. It’s not glamorous, but the moments of proximity make everything else worth it. Sometimes these moments are heartbreaking. In Laval, I was deeply moved watching the UAE soigneur put on Marc Hirschi’s jacket for him, his big green eyes red with tears after the time trial, because he still could not move his arm. It was indelible, how childlike he seemed, how helpless. And yet he goes on, knowing that there is a point where things will hurt less and that this point is worth reaching. Yesterday, Hirschi was better, clearly so. Sometimes there is a light at the end of the tunnel of pain, and getting there is a matter of grit, a matter of the discipline of living.
But sometimes, the pain claims you, and yesterday it claimed Primož Roglič. Many might wonder if I’m disappointed by this in some way, upset that he didn’t conjure up some superhuman strength, that he didn’t come back and win the Tour, as though life is some kind of fairytale. However, my fascination with Roglič isn’t because he’s superhuman; in fact, it’s because he’s very human, incredibly mortal, and his defeat on stage seven reminds us of that. The fact that he’d gone on this far given the severity of his injuries is testament enough that he’s the stuff of legends. He tried until his compact, lithe form wouldn’t let him anymore.
Thus, we return to the theme of giving oneself totally. It’s an interesting phrase, to give all of oneself. There’s a libidinal element to it, an implied climax, an expected resolution, satisfaction. However, sometimes, it’s less of a climax and more of a collapse, a total ceding of the self to the body, to the havoc wreaked upon it by the world. Expiration with no glory. This weakness is also beautiful in its rawness, its honesty, it’s revealing nature. A man laid bare before the world. When Roglič arrived at the finish, his expression was one of anguished resignation, and in what other context are such private moments in people’s lives revealed so viscerally? It is hard not to feel close to them after seeing these intimate things, even though, standing behind the metal barricade, I am but a voyeuristic stranger, a humble notetaker of the extraordinary.
But yesterday, there was also the other kind of expiration, expiration with glory. We saw this in the triumph of Matej Mohorič, one of my favorite characters in the peloton, a man I’ve compared to an artist and a daredevil alike. The emotion on his face when he crossed the line, when he realized the magnitude of what he had done, what he had achieved by means of sheer strength and cleverness, my god, how alive he was, how very fucking alive.
Mohorič is a sympathetic man, quiet, deeply intelligent, patient and generous with his time. He’s one of those riders where, whenever he does something, whatever he does is interesting. He’s never boring, never dull, never predictable. When he goes off the front, we know something exciting will become of it. After his crash in the Giro, when, for a minute or two, I thought to myself he’s dead. He’s not going to get up, to see him reign victorious in the Tour de France on its longest day, completing his hattrick of stage wins in all three grand tours, I couldn’t help becoming a little emotional myself. To win is one thing. To win in an 18 kilometer solo break -- escaping the likes of van der Poel and van Aert and Yates and Nibali, alone with only the road and the constant awareness that the architects of your defeat are always looming, chasing you down -- is a feat of absolute courage and faith in oneself. But this is how he wins, in these sparse acts of brilliance. Comet-like.
On stage seven, Matej Mohorič gave all of himself, every last single ounce, every watt, every kilojoule, every bit of whatever it is one uses to measure the human spirit. In watching his splendor, in being in the presence of his emotions afterwards, he took the world’s breath with him, too.