The circumstances were almost unbelievably similar. It was an uphill time trial on the penultimate day of a Grand Tour, one which required riders to switch bikes at the foot of the final climb. Primož Roglič had a shot of winning, but only if he was on a very good day. He was one of the last riders to set off by virtue of his high standing on the general classification, and his Jumbo-Visma teammates, who had all completed their efforts, stood at the top of the climb, waiting. The watching of the clock was agonising. Their hearts raced as the time was announced at each intermediate checkpoint. Every rider in the team had worked painstakingly hard over three weeks for this very moment. Slovenian fans lined the side of the road, willing on Roglič who spun the legs quickly in his trademark style. Hoping, dreaming, praying that this time, things would go right.
There were moments today when the closeness of stage 20 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia to Roglič’s disastrous ride on Les Planche des Belle Filles in the 2020 Tour de France was almost too painful to bear. On that stage, three years ago in the heart of the Vosges Mountains, Roglič lost the Tour that everyone expected him to win. It was a freakishly off day for the Slovenian who had been unflappable to that point. Images of Roglič riding up the steep climb with his time trial helmet slipping back off his forehead, sweat dripping onto his top tube, teeth gritted, have carved a place for themselves in cycling’s history as one of the biggest heartbreaks the sport has ever seen. The faces of his teammates watching at the top of the climb as the disaster unfolded in front of them are etched into the minds of cycling fans everywhere.
This dark, harrowing time trial likely still sits in a quiet corner of Primož Roglič’s memory. Losing the biggest race in the world because of one hour of poor form is not something that will be easily forgotten, especially when Roglič has been unable to win a Tour de France since. It’s for this very reason that the Jumbo-Visma rider’s performance today at the Giro d’Italia is so impressive. Echoes of that dreaded day in the Tour de France would have undoubtedly been swirling around his mind in the lead up to today’s time trial – how could they not when the conditions were so homogeneous? Yet still, he performed astonishingly well. A sign not only of incredible physical form, but also incredible strength of character.
Roglič kept calm and level-headed in today’s time trial even when things were teetering dangerously close to a disaster. He’d got through the opening flat section on his time trial bike, he’d managed to navigate the switch to his road bike at the base of the climb – the place where it seemed the most could go wrong – but it was halfway up the Monte Lussari when it looked like a chance at Grand Tour victory was, once again, slipping out of his grasp.
Over a rough section of road, Roglič attempted to change gear and his chain fell off. The Slovenian was forced to come to a complete stop as the mechanic on the motorbike behind him ran towards him with a different bike. The member of staff looked even more stressed than Roglič himself, unsure where to put the spare bike or how he should help. But just like it was only he who could control the outcome of today, it was Roglič who saved himself with a calm and measured approach, putting his chain back on the chainring and getting back underway, back into his rhythm, re-finding the focus. The TV cameras switched to his teammates during this very moment, some looked as if they were verging on tears, some were angry, some simply couldn’t watch at all, storming away from the screen.
Roglič, paradoxically, remained stunningly, impressively calm. His ability to continue to execute his time trial even after this mishap is something that can only be applauded. Once he finally crossed the finish line, Roglič won the time trial by over 40 seconds ahead of Geraint Thomas despite his mechanical. With that time gap, he took the stage and overall race win convincingly, an important victory for both him and his team.
What Roglič also did today was finally draw a line under what happened in France three years ago. The 33-year-old is a tough character to read, he often shows little emotion and doesn’t give much away to the media or TV cameras as they prod him for reactions. But when he knew he’d won this year’s Giro d’Italia, he gave a small, rare slice into what it really meant, and perhaps how much Les Planche des Belles Filles has haunted him all these years.
In the huge crowds of Slovenian fans that surrounded him, Roglič embraced his teammates with pure passion. They too shared this victory, of course, many went through that rollercoaster at the Tour with him and have been fighting to put it right ever since. Sitting in his plastic chair at the top of the climb, he rubbed his eyes and covered his face with his hands in a state of shocked elation. Waiting to be called on to the podium, Roglič looked to be fighting back tears. It’s not often that we see him so emotional, but this is what today’s stage, and what bike racing in general, can do to its protagonists. When you have been on a journey like Roglič has, with so much heartbreak and pain, moments of victory like today are ever sweeter.
It may have been devastation for Geraint Thomas and his fans, but no one can deny how much Roglič deserved to pull on that pink jersey on the podium today. Perhaps it is a reminder to us all that no matter how big the setback or the disappointment, the past should not haunt us forever and, just like Roglič has proven, hope of redemption should never be lost.