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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2024

The Happy Assassin

He’s back! That cheerful young man from Komenda, Slovenia: Mr T. Pogačar (UAE). Boy howdy, is he back. 

You’d have to have been living on the dark side of the moon to not know what he did at the recently concluded Giro d’Italia. Of course he won, as expected. But how he won was even more impressive than most folks anticipated.

I said last month that I didn’t see anyone else entered in the Giro who was quite at his level. For once, I made an accurate prediction. His two most likely rivals were Dani Martinez (BORA-hansgrohe) and Geraint Thomas (INEOS). That proved out. But the margin of victory over Martinez, in 2nd, was 9:56, and over Thomas, in 3rd, 10:24. We have to go all the way back to 1965—60 years!—to find a wider gap between 1st and 2nd. Pogačar was simply riding in a race of his own…marching to a different drummer.

Along the way, he won six stages, matching the record set by Eddy Merckx in 1973. He wore the maglia rosa for 20 straight stages—all but Stage 1—breaking Jacques Anquetil’s 1960 record of being in pink for 18 stages. 

He could quite easily have won a couple more stages. He could have won Stage 1 and had the jersey for the whole Giro. He was 3rd but equal on time on that stage, joining a late 3-rider attack that put some distance between him and any other GC riders who entertained even the slimmest delusional fantasies of contending for the overall…20 seconds ahead of all his probable rivals right out of the gate. (Last year’s final margin of victory after 21 stages was 14 seconds…Pogačar had more than that after one stage.)

He beat Filippo Ganna in the first time trial on Stage 7 by :17. Ganna (INEOS) is arguably the best time trial rider in the world right now. He caught and passed three riders who started ahead of him. And he still lost to Pogačar. Granted, it had a stiff uphill finish, which favored Pogačar. In the second, flatter ITT on Stage 14, Ganna beat Pogačar by :29. It might be a stretch to assert that he could have won that stage, but any minor flub by Ganna and it could have happened.

He won uphill finishes on Stages 2, 8, 15, and 16. He also won Stage 20, dropping his rivals on the two monster ascents over Monte Grappa before a long solo descent to the finish. The other two uphill finishes of the tour were won out of breakaways, although he still finished 2nd on one of them and probably could have won if he’d wanted to be greedy. On the other, he finished with the same time as Martinez and Thomas, ahead of all the other hopefuls. In other words, throughout the entire Giro, he never conceded a single second to any other serious GC contender.

Aside from the overall dominance, what stands out is how easy he made it look. We know it wasn’t easy for him. He was working hard. But his version of working hard bears only a vague resemblance to the way the other riders were working hard. He looked comfortable, cheerful, unruffled...often with a smile and a wave to the tifosi, even in the middle of dicey downhills. How can anyone not like this guy?

One of my favorite moments was at the finish of Stage 16. Pogačar had reeled in breakaway rider Giulio Pellizzari (a neo-pro, just 20 years old) right near the end and beat him by :16. Pogačar waited for the kid to come in and congratulated—or consoled—him. Pellizzari asked Pogačar for his pink sunglasses and Pogačar not only gave him the glasses, he stripped off his pink jersey and gave him that as well. Pellizzari doesn’t have a single pro race win yet but he now has something almost better to frame and hang on the wall of his den.

So there you go…a Giro that will be remembered not for nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat tension but for a display of cycling excellence so superior, we haven’t seen anything like it in almost a lifetime. For sure, the level of competition was not as stout as we might have liked, but that is sometimes the way the cards are dealt. And for sure again, the competition ought to be much more challenging at the Tour de France in July, when Pogačar tries for the elusive Giro-Tour double. If Jonas Vingegaard (Visma), Remco Evenepoel (Soudall-QuickStep), and Primoz Roglič (BORA-hansgrohe) are all there and all recovered from their Basque Country injuries, it could be one helluva battle.

I will be watching le Tour avidly to see how it all transpires. But don’t expect me to follow up with one of my usual post-Tour reviews, because…

                             • The Last Word •

This is my final On the Road column. I began these pieces in July, 1999. This June column will complete 25 years of these once-a-month scribblings: 300 columns. Those are nice round numbers, of years and columns. That’s enough. I woke up one morning in March of 2024 with a big head’s-up display floating in front of me, saying: time to retire. Time to know when to walk away.

I turned 77 in that month of March. I was 52 when I began writing these pieces at the BikeCal site. 52 is not exactly a spring chicken in terms of cycling fitness or experience, but I did feel as if I were still in something approaching my fightin’ prime. I was just one year removed from finishing in the top 20 in the California Triple Crown Stage Race, one of only two riders over 50 to make that list. I was still doing double centuries and was knocking off dozens of centuries every year...52 of them in 2006, for instance. I wasn’t a fast racer but I was still riding with the alpha dogs of our local bike community. And I occupied leadership roles in all sorts of cycling events and projects. I was in the thick of things.

Now? Not so much! Many of my latter-day columns have been about what I might call elder-cycling. As the years went by, I sort of reinvented myself as the poster boy of the Old Farts, celebrating still being out there, logging the miles and stretching out the smiles, well past what we think of as middle-aged. The benchmark birthdays of 60 and 70 came and went, and eventually, inevitably, so too did my enthusiasm and dedication to the activity of cycling. I’m still riding and still enjoying it, when I get around to it. But it is no longer the driving, motivating engine in my life. I no longer schedule the rest of my life’s activities around my cycling plans and agenda. Rather, I fit the cycling in around other activities and priorities that are more important for me now. So it goes.

All that being the case, I’ve come to understand that I have less to say about cycling, in these essays, than I once did. The fires that a few years ago had me in the saddle for 8000 miles a year have been damped down...and so too then have my ideas about new columns become a bit thin on the ground...not much in the way of inspiration. So, time to hang it up. Time to move on. 

Thanks to the folks at BikeCal for giving me this bully pulpit for cranking out the bike blarney every month. And thanks to all of you out there who have checked in every month or every so often to see what I might have to say about our favorite pastime. It has been a good ride.

Editors note: I want to thank Bill for his 300 columns going back to 1999. It's not easy finding an interesting topic every month, but he always did it. It's been a great ride.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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