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tujci in tovariši
post-giro d'italia 2023
I. Assorted Notes on Roglič
For the last six months, I have been learning Slovenian — half of that time in language school in Slovenia. This has come at considerable cost and personal difficulty, but like the difficulty of riding a bicycle up a mountain, there is a specific pleasure in learning a relatively obscure language that shares nothing with your native tongue. The purpose of my learning Slovene is dual (pun intended): to live in Slovenia during the cycling season and to understand Primož Roglič.
Even after the first introductory course of Slovene (which is really intended to teach you how to order coffee and impress your Slovene relatives, of which I have none) you can kind of understand Roglič. His exit interviews are almost identical in Slovene and English: dan za dnem — day by day; danes fantje so bili dobri — today the boys were good; and seveda (of course): bomo videli (pronounced bomo vid’li in Roglič’s dialect) — we will see.
It is in Roglič’s extensive interviews where he is different, not only in sentiment but in expansiveness. The way he speaks Slovene, I think, contributes to his belovedness in his home country, a country where the language is valued an inordinate amount because it is not only unique, it provides a protective cloak in an increasingly anglophone (and previously Germanic) world.
Roglič is from the Zagorje ob Savi — the Sava river valley —region in central Slovenia, and has retained this dialect, one that, even as my Slovene improves, requires me to still work with a translator because it is so vernacular.He is known to have come from working class roots — his father was a coal miner and his mother a receptionist. There is a salt-of-the-earth quality to him that is completely lost in English. And not only that, he is far more open, bright, and wry when allowed to speak his own language. He makes a lot of jokes and off-handed comments — like the endearing fact that he was doing Duolingo exercises right before the Stage 20 time trial.
These qualities are more and more grafted onto his English speaking persona but they in no way flourish. The still-consistent idea that he is in some way “Slavic” — a euphemism for closed off, diffident, cold and unemotional — is a lie and it is a lie perpetuated by language. We are different people in our different languages, regardless of levels of fluency. To become bilingual and to live in two places, is to transform into a dual-self. In a very real way, there are two Rogličs.
Everyone who’s traveled abroad understands the feeling of tujost — foreignness. Right now, I’m in Vienna “on vacation” and speak no German. Everyone speaks English but they hate it in a way even the thickest-skinned among us can notice. We can talk all we want about European values and shared human expression, but the feeling of tujost and the sentiments of shame accompanied cannot be mended by a more obsequious tourist industry, by the command to be nice in the pursuit of some kind of ideal world bereft of understandable frustration and alienation, of a universality which, it must be added, trends towards the anglophone. Add in a whole lot of prejudice, racialized obviously, but also the ethnic inter-white-people hatred that exists in Europe and perplexes Americans, and you’ve got some pretty negative feelings (mutual) that we all wish and pretend aren’t there.
It is objectively true that until that Plance des Belles Filles time trial that “humanized him” Roglič’s perception by the outside world has been as a tujec, a foreigner. Suspicious, impenetrable, an interloper. His first Giro, he was bombarded with motor-doping questions from the Italian press because no one could fathom that this tujec could possibly compete with the best of the best from seemingly nothing, from being a different type of tujec — the ski-jumper who came to cycling late in life, circumventing an extra decade or so of requisite suffering.
A long time has passed between then and now. Roglič has come a long way, but so have our perceptions of and fondness for him. Gone is the man who is as “cold as a refrigerator” as it was put bluntly in L’Equipe in 2020. The tujec is more and more one of us. This process adds another layer of meaning to to me, personally, as a tujka myself, struggling with the process of becoming less so, without the easy stories of marriage, strife, or economic pursuit that precede most migrations. The immigration officer in Celje does not care that “there was this one guy who used to be a ski jumper…”
However, despite these divisions and distinctions, it is important, desperately so, that Roglič’s tears at the Giro d’Italia podium ceremony — tears of relief, of joy, of absolution, of triumph over a circular story that had become cosmically fatalistic and no longer is such — are so universal. We do empathize with him across the tremendous fenestration of language in a way only possible through sport. This is what makes sport so remarkable as a human pastime. We see what happens to Primož Roglič, the actions he writes with his own body through hills and valleys, against the clock and in defiance of defeat and apply these lessons of resilience to our own lives, graft our own meanings onto them. We want to be like Primož Roglič, to achieve the same kind of transcendence, of becoming the highest possible versions of ourselves. His is fundamentally an existential human project.
We are lucky, then, as human beings, that stories are universal when people are not. His story is what enables Roglič to have so many fans outside of Slovenia. However, there is no doubt that his Slovenian fans not only love him differently, they love him more because there is a way in which they can understand and empathize with him that is unavailable to the rest of the world, one I can only hope to and begin to glimpse from the lens of a different kind of tujka.
This impenetrable, collective, overwhelming expression of love is what cheered him to victory on the slopes of Višarje — he said it himself. After the mechanical, he just kept going. He didn’t even think. He just kept going. He entered the other world athletes find themselves in when they can only move forward. There were no choruses of Slovene songs on La Planche des Belles Filles. There were no canopies of Triglav-bearing flags. On that hill in France, je bil tujec. On Višarje, he spoke, with his whole being, in his own voice. I genuinely don’t believe he would have made it without so much love and I don’t think he believes so either.
Is that not incredible to think about?
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II. Assorted Notes on Geraint Thomas
Geraint Thomas, however, is not a foreigner to me. We can perfectly understand each other when we speak, which is a real gift, I might add. I want to take the time to say that what you see on television is true: Geraint Thomas is one of the kindest, most generous people in cycling, full stop. I first met him on the streets of Paris after the finish of the 2021 Tour de France. He stopped by to say hello to me, Richard Moore, and Francois Thomazeau as we ate dinner. He had a nice chat with us as people, not as the press, asked us what we were eating (and drinking), introduced his wife and kid, complained about his soreness and told us he was looking forward to watching Netflix all day when he got home. He didn’t have to do that. Most riders wouldn’t. It is a testimony to his generosity that Thomas is free with his opinions, with his time. His press conferences, those nasty formalities, go long.
Geraint Thomas is just as unlucky as Roglič, in my opinion, but his bad luck is simply less spectacular, theatrical, so it’s forgotten. I would have rather seen anyone else lose this Giro than Thomas who deserved it equally, if we’re going by the moral ledger of cycling’s sympathetic characters. His age, his kindness, his stolid endurance, his muted career smothered by brighter stars — a Thomas win would have been just as meaningful as a Roglič win — and, it must be noted, a Roglič loss.
Thomas is the picture of sportsmanship, not just in the made-for-TV way but in its most elevated form, which is to say in practice. In the final sprint of the final stage of the Giro d’Italia, he sped to the front of the peloton for some unknown reason. For a man prone to crashes, this was no small risk. He raced like a boy, snagging his way up through the ranks until he positioned himself in front of Luis Leon Sanchez, and by extension, Mark Cavendish, who had come to the Giro only to receive misfortune as a reward; who survived crashes, COVID, trips over mountains and long, stupid time trials, day after day, just to give it one last shot, in this, his year of one last shots. And Mark Cavendish, in a fairytale ending, in his missile-like dives, brought down the house.
It was a real sprint, too, and Thomas’s was a real lead out. It’s relatively rare to see such inter-team assistance — in fact, I can’t think of the last time it happened outside of the weird diplomatic machinations that transpire at Worlds. What Thomas did for Cavendish will be remembered probably forever as one of the few acts of genuine solidarity and camaraderie to ever be displayed in a competitive sport like cycling. Sure, rival teams help each other all the time, but usually in exchange for something later. This was pure kindness. This is who Geraint Thomas is. The sprint assured, also, that he would be remembered in this Giro as something other than the unfortunate loser.
He will, and should be, remembered as Geraint Thomas.
III. Notes on the Giro
I believe that the last two stages of this Giro are worth whatever boredom we’ve suffered through, boredom that, in retrospect, wasn’t so boring. The word boring is not fair to Derek Gee, to Thibaut Pinot, to Toms Skuijns, to Ben Healy, to Nico Denz, to Filippo Zana, to Alessandro DiMarchi, to any of the winners and competitors that lit up the roads day after day, who will be remembered for cleverness or lack thereof, who will be reified in the year’s later commentary for trying.
Cycling is not an easy sport to watch. Famously. When Lance Armstrong became popular in America, the general initial sentiment was “Wait, I have to watch this shit for five hours just to see how it ends?” A lot of fair-weather fans go home after their nationalist heroes retire or get busted for doping, or whatever. It’s kind of understandable. There is, I find, a certain grace in cycling’s length. You can take what you want from it. On days I’m really busy and have other work (or language school), the long duration of cycling is forgiving of me. I can tune it at 100 or 50 kilometers to go and often — though not always — miss little. On days where I can really devote my attention to every small detail, to the progressions of landscapes and the interpersonal and tactical developments of a hundred and thirty or so men or women, I am rewarded with the completeness of a story, day after day, week after week.
In retrospect, I think that this Giro’s final catharsis wouldn’t have felt so urgent without all that waiting. We hate to admit it, but it’s probably true. If the GC men didn’t engage on a weeks-long stalemate, if they attacked each other day after day, the frustration and anticipation wouldn’t have reached the dizzying levels they did before that time trial. It would not have been the same.
Like our own lives, it could have only happened this way. I, for one, am grateful.
Foreigners who learn Slovene learn knijga slovenščina — book Slovene, or tečaj dialect, language course dialect. The reality of the language is not one monotypical Slovene but dozens of dialects that share commonality. Once you get over the Mont Ventoux of grammatical understanding, you can pick one of these to imitate, going through daily life like a little actor. At a certain point, learning a language is like learning to play an instrument.