As the final week of the Giro d’Italia ticked by, I tried to make a note of things I could write about in my final blog about the race. Aside from the bone-chilling descent off the Mortirolo and an exciting ‘will they/won’t they’ breakaway finale, I wasn’t left with much. But then, as I’m sure you’ve seen by now, I had a pretty special day in Verona.
For two weeks – ever since the time trial on stage 9 went so well for me – I had been counting down the days until Verona.
I helped my teammates where I could as they continued to fight for breakaway success, but every time the race started to explode, I jumped on the gruppetto train rather than go into the red. It’s not exciting, and it’s definitely a gamble to pass up opportunities, but I was committed to my choice.
That’s not to say that I had an easy ride… The Giro d’Italia is anything but easy, and I actually suffered quite a lot; with the mindset of saving my legs, every effort hurt doubly because I didn’t want to hurt. I had my doubts at times. I wondered how much I was really saving, and whether guys like Roglic would be as tired as I needed them to be by the time they rolled down the start ramp.
With just five climbs between me and the time trial, I started stage 20 prepared to suffer. We hit the first climb and the race immediately exploded, but I found myself cruising past dropped riders, not even feeling the effort. “Whoa,” I thought, as I realized that my plan had worked and I floated up the first climb. I told my director, “These legs can win tomorrow, I just need to get them to the finish today,” and settled in for a long day.
The exasperated cries of “piano!” and “gruppetto!” every time guys felt like the pace was too high became music to my ears, as it was a reminder that most of the peloton was struggling. 6000kJ later, I hopped off my bike and bounded up the steps to the bus. I was tired, but in a great mood after laying the groundwork for a great time trial, and set to work getting everything in order for the next day.
Success rarely comes by accident, and I’ve been racing at this level of the sport long enough to know that, for me, it never would. I have seen what the truly elite athletes are capable of and I know that to beat them, every single aspect of a race must be absolutely perfect. Then, and only then, could I possibly come out on top. When this golden opportunity fell into my lap with Tom Dumoulin’s departure, I made sure that nothing was left to chance, and the team staff matched my commitment to make sure I had the best race possible.
When I rolled down the start ramp, it felt like I was racing a video game, the corners appearing just as I had visualized them so many times, my legs pouring out energy like a hose that had been pinched for two weeks and had finally been released. Soon I was on the climb, breathing through my ears as I fought the undulating ascent towards my first finish line. As I sprinted over the top, the video game came to life as I attacked the descent not as something to be survived, but as a race in itself. And it’s here that I must give due credit to Cervelo and the disc brakes. Until that descent, I have never experienced so much control over braking as I held the tires on the absolute limit of traction.
At the bottom, I set to work emptying the tank of everything I had left after three weeks of racing around Italy. There comes a point in every time trial where the suffering becomes so intense that you have to decide how badly you want it, and that moment came with two kilometers to go. I fought the cobbles, trying to put the power down as my legs screamed at me that they had had enough, and I wondered if I was suffering so much just to get another top-10.
Then I thought of my wife, my mom, and my brother, who must be shouting at their screens. I thought of my friends and teammates and everyone who helped me to this point. I thought of Victor Campenaerts, who didn’t even rank me as a rival before the race. But most of all, I thought of my dad, who suffered for six years with cancer but never stopped believing in me, and I decided that I could suffer for two more minutes. I remembered the promise I made to myself before the race that I would fight all the way to the line, regardless of how the race went, and let the result fall where it may.
Because of all the noise from the crowd and the fact that I was still using my ears for respiration, I never heard my director say that I had set the fastest time. It wasn’t until I rolled down the pink carpet in the arena and saw my name at the top of the board that I flipped out. The next few hours involved a lot of sweating, knee bouncing, lip biting, hand wringing, and a growing belief that I might have done it. With my phone kilometers away on the bus, Iwan Spekenbrink loaned me his phone for a call with my wife, who was just as anxious back in Girona.
When the moment came that I knew I had just won a stage of the Giro d’Italia, the emotional dam broke. Amid the joy and relief, I also grieved at the knowledge that there would be no congratulatory call from my dad. All of that, on a global broadcast no less, is hard to process, hence the constant head-shaking.
I made sure to soak in the award ceremony, sharing a moment with my dad, who was certainly high-fiving everyone within reach up in heaven. It is a memory that I will always cherish, partly because it was so long in coming.
I have been literally overwhelmed by the messages from around the world. I spent two hours replying on Monday and barely made a dent. After returning home, time with my wife relaxing and recovering from the excitement of it all became more important. If yours was a message that I did not get to, know that I appreciate all the support!
Within all those messages I received was the common theme that I ‘deserved’ to win. That’s not for me to say, but I’m humbled that so many people think so. I still can barely believe that it really happened, but then I see the giant bottle of champagne sitting on the shelf as proof. I have no idea when or if I will ever step atop a podium again, but I will always be able to point to that unforgettable day in Verona when everything finally came together for me.