This has not been the opening week of the Tour that we expected. Nor, even more than us, was it the week that Primoz Roglic had planned and prepared meticulously for. Whether or not he expected to be winning at this point, he surely didn’t think he’d be heading home before the first week had drawn to a close.
Prior to pinning a number on in Brittany last weekend, the Vuelta champion had spent just 15 days racing in 2021. Compare that to the 29 of compatriot Tadej Pogacar, or Bauke Mollema’s whopping 46.
Instead of rocking up to the Criterium du Dauphine, where last year he suffered a crash that arguably proved detrimental to his Tour de France challenge, the 31-year-old headed to altitude. It was all part of a belief, increasingly prevalent in the upper echelons of the professional sport but not especially novel, that a concentrated period of tailored training is better preparation for racing than racing itself.
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In a strictly physiological sense, that might be true, but it’s a fact that a rider cannot win races if he doesn’t start them. It’s easy to think of the likes of the Daphine and Tour de Suisse as purely preparation events for Le Tour, but let’s not forget that they are races, and of significant value, in themselves. Ineos Grenadiers, for all their faults, turned up to both of those, as well as the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie, gave them their all, and came away with victories. Primoz Roglic, although not without success this season, has added only another Itzulia, the Tour of the Basque, to his palmares. A rider of his talents could, and should, have so much more.
The decision to steer clear of racing and put all his eggs in the Tour’s basket also overlooks something crucial that is true of life itself, true of sport especially, and true of no sport more than cycling: there will always be elements that you cannot control.
And that is where the beauty of cycling really lies.
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Most professional sports shape the world around them. Played-out in purpose-built arenas, they construct predictability, ensuring the participants' only opponents are their opponents – and themselves, should you care to get philosophical about it.
Cycling, in contrast, wraps itself around the world. Rather than seeking to eliminate unpredictability, it is invited to join in. In planning races that take them down treacherous descents, at perilously close quarters to each other and to spectators, on machines capable of extraordinary speeds, in weather conditions that cannot be predicted to any meaningful degree, we insist on a vulnerability of our athletes that would be anathema in any other competitive pursuit. We do not ask them to expose themselves to chaos, we demand they do so.
Roglic’s commitment to controlling the aspects that he could, and completely shutting the door on those he could not, was so total that he practically positioned chaos in his blindspot. It should have been taped to his handlebars.
Which is not to attribute blame to him for the crash on Stage 3, the subsequent injuries from which proved too much for him today. It is partly, however, to speculate that perhaps more time spent in the peloton might have tuned his brain into the chaotic rhythms of bike racing, and given him a better chance of staying on his bike.
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And even if you don’t buy that, and choose to dismiss it as a load of hippy nonsense, it’s not really the point anyway.
The point is that it’s within this enormous uncertainty that we find the emotional pull of the sport, for its participants as well as its spectators.
Cycling is not poker, which is a game of luck, but one where the more skill you have, the less luck you need. In needing a successful participant to be particularly lucky, to not fall victim to those factors they cannot control, it is probably more like poker than any other sport. Central to their similarities is that for any given event every participant, even the favourite, is considerably more likely to lose than win.
Which is why in tournament poker, a player can only win if they sit down at the table not only prepared to lose, but expecting to do so. That expectation grants them the freedom of mind to take necessary risks, knowing that no amount of skill can make up for their opponents being dealt successfully better cards. To make it worthwhile they have to enjoy the uncertainty of the journey, the vulnerabilities as well as the certainty of a (successful) outcome.
Primoz Roglic sought to reduce the risk of defeat by avoiding the chaos of bike racing. Chaos came for him anyway. He ought to have embraced it.
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Tour de France
Pogacar holds up Roglic's number in tribute