PREVIEW: “A Pilgrim’s Progress”- Daniel Friebe
December 7, 2021
This is an extract from The Road Book Cycling Almanack 2021. To read the full contribution from Daniel Friebe, purchase your first edition in our shop. Velogames members are welcomed to enjoy a 10% discount + complimentary Exercise Book (RRP £10.00) with every purchase of The Road Book 2021. To claim, use the code: VGRB21at checkout.
Burgos sits on the northern tidemark of what Spaniards call their Meseta Central or ‘Central Plateau’, the spires of its gothic cathedral rising to greet approaching visitors out of an oversized saucer of beige flatlands. The birthplace of El Cid, the home of Spain’s most prized blood sausage, the cradle of General Franco’s fascist regime. Despite other distinctions or claims to infamy, the city has not hosted the start of a Vuelta a España until this year. What the organisers have christened the Vuelta de las Catedrales rolls out from the very front step of the burgaleses’ proudest landmark at the end of a scorching, topaz-skied afternoon on the middle weekend of August – and instantly pairs an ancient backdrop with a modern-day cycling tradition: Primož Roglič in the leader’s jersey, as sure and snug as a bishop in his cassock.
The Slovenian is attempting to become only the second rider in the Vuelta’s history to win three consecutive editions, after Tony Rominger in the mid-1990s. The Vuelta is an 89-year-old institution, a now self-confident paean to a sublime canvas of coastline, mountains and other landlocked wonders – and yet it is not usually classed among races that can define a career. Nothing, though, about Roglič’s journey to this point has obeyed a familiar logic or timetable – from the ski-jumping to the transformation of his public persona in the last year. The modern Vuelta indeed almost allegorises his trajectory, with its stomach-lurching, theme-park stage profiles and perennial promise of redemption. If Roglič’s entire cycling career is itself a wildly successful Plan B – undertaken because, as he has said, ‘I realised I would never be the world’s best ski-jumper’ – the Vuelta has become his favourite indemnity. More importantly – or just romantically – the 2020 edition reinforced, or perhaps indulged is a better word, our childlike belief in plotlines generally only found in fairy-stories and sport-showbusiness, particularly the fable of dire misfortune followed by happily-ever-after.
This year, too, Roglič has decided to defend his Vuelta title only because of disaster at the Tour de France. ‘When things go wrong I try to look at things neutrally, not positively,’ he said before the Tour – an almost seminal Roglič-ism. After his crashes in France and eventual withdrawal after a week of racing, the approach has allowed him to reset, regroup and win gold in the Olympic time trial in Tokyo. What presents itself as an infuriating commitment to non-committal in the first week of Vuelta – the daily refrain of ‘We’ll see, huh?’ or ‘I don’t know, huh,’ delivered in the same playful baritone, mixed zone after mixed zone – is therefore not the vapid cliché it seems. Rather, we are hearing the same sincere and neutral voice with which Primož Roglič addresses himself every morning, readying himself for the day. It tells him that we really will see, that he really doesn’t know, least of all in a sport as cruel as cycling has sometimes been to him in the last couple of years, in a race as unpredictable as this.
That fickleness reveals itself as early as day three, when Rein Taaramäe takes Roglič’s maillot rojo on the Picón Blanco. It is a choreographed move by Jumbo-Visma, designed to discharge or at least defer responsibility, but it is still something of a surprise when Taaramäe wins from a large break. The Estonian is 34 years old, with a much richer palmarès than most probably realise, including another stage win at the Vuelta exactly ten years ago. There was also a 2015 annus mirabilis, when he triumphed precisely here, at the Vuelta a Burgos, and much closer to home, in the Arctic Race of Norway. Taaramäe has an intriguing alias – Vader, inherited from an arctic fox in an Estonian literary classic, not a Star Wars über-baddie – and soft, downturned eyes offering a window into a gentle soul. Thirteen years ago, aged 22, he announced himself as the closest thing pro cycling then had to the Pogačar of the day – which in truth wasn’t very close at all – by escaping to a seemingly certain victory on the stage to Xorret de Catí, only to vaporise in the final 3km. I ask him to relive the moment on the morning of stage 4, and he laughs: ‘I hadn’t even read the road-book… I was so young, so naive.’ Now neither of those things, he is under no illusions about how long the ‘dream’ might last. But, as Roglič keeps saying, ‘We’ll see, huh?’
That afternoon – Rein’s first in red – is also a journey into a Spain that time has forgotten. Before Covid, the last (and, in fact, still ongoing) pandemic in this part of the country was called ‘depopulation’. Stage 4 finishes in Molina de Aragón, a Moorish taifa before the Reconquista. Media outlets from all over the world have made what at first seems like a dubious claim: that the area surrounding the town is ‘Europe’s biggest population desert’ with its 1.6 inhabitants per square kilometre. Census data suggests only parts of Lapland are as devoid of human life. The day of the biggest thing to happen to Molina in years is no doubt the worst time to get a sense of the problem, but the entrance to the town before and the exit in the evening – over the scorched prairies of what even locals refer to as La España vacía or ‘Empty Spain’ – offer some clues. Against the backdrop of a wider exodus from rural areas all across southern Europe, here especially it is frankly not hard to imagine why young people are fleeing. The temperature today edges 40 degrees, which is not uncommon in summer, but in winter it frequently dips to 10 below zero. This accounts for another nickname you won’t find in the tourist pamphlet: ‘the Spanish Siberia’. In some of the neighbouring villages, where today we see cries for help – work, subsidies, hope – scrawled on cardboard banners and bedsheets, there isn’t a single inhabitant under the age of 18.
One thing the Vuelta’s flying visit does bring Molina is a beautiful, poignant storyline. It is a year and 12 days since Fabio Jakobsen’s horrifying crash at the Tour of Poland, and today his comeback seems complete as he wins in a Grand Tour for the first time since the final stage of the 2019 Vuelta in Madrid. Again it is Deceuninck-QuickStep, and again it is a sprinter back from oblivion, but the celebration is more restrained, less tearful than the one we witnessed in Fougères after the first of Mark Cavendish’s four stage wins at the Tour. Jakobsen has said repeatedly that he now wishes to put the whole nightmare behind him. For months that was also what one of his lead-out men today, Florian Sénéchal, wanted to do. The Frenchman was the first to attend to Jakobsen in Poland – and indeed his quick thinking, propping his teammate’s head and tongue in a safe position, may even have saved his life. Sénéchal had to have therapy to get over the trauma of what he saw that day, which may also explain why his is a measured, mindful joy. He says the ordeal has taught him that ‘If you stay as mentally strong as Fabio, you can achieve anything.’