Just a quick post today to do some emotional scene-setting for what we hope will actually happen some time in the next week or so... a Belgian in the maglia rosa. The rise of the BCS — the Belgian Climbing Sensation — will graduate from long-running sad punchline to a real, and spectacular, thing.
But first... it’s the Hungarian Climbing Sensation!
Yes, that’s Attila Valter of Groupama-FDJ in pink today, thanks to some time picked up on Tuesday’s scattered stage. He hasn’t done anything too spectacular, but he’s a very talented kid, and his country (Hungary) and his team (FDJ) have about as much of a track record at the Giro as the Fontecchio family. [We are training though.] Also, given that COVID wiped out a grande partenza scheduled last spring for Budapest, I suppose the lesson is that good things come to those who wait.
Which brings me back to Belgium. Unlike Hungary, which didn’t even know it was waiting for someone to lead the Giro d’Italia, Belgian fans are keenly aware that they haven’t had someone tug on the pink jersey for 20 years. That was Rik Verbrugge, who briefly led the race from the day 1 prologue until stage 4, way deep down in the Mezzogiorno, when Danilo Di Luca won a hilly stage and brought along Dario Frigo to take the pink jersey off Verbrugge’s back. Belgian fans probably didn’t care that much; Verbrugge wasn’t a serious contender for the win. Little did they know that once he lost the jersey, Belgium would never see it again.
Uh, OK. Well anyway, it’s been a tough run for a country with the sport’s proudest traditions. When it comes to Giro success, Italy laps the field several times, but you know who is second? Little old Belgium, halfway across Europe. Not big, neighboring France or mountainous Spain. Not their Alps neighbors Switzerland or Austria, or newcomer Colombia or anyone else. Belgium are #2 in total days in pink, in overall Giro titles, and in different riders to pull it on at least once. Of course, when it comes to individual success, they are #1, not coincidentally, because Eddy Merckx owns all of the maglia rosa records, even topping Alfredo Binda for days in pink.
Since Eddy, there was, in order(ish), Wilfried Reybrouck, Johan De Muynck, Patrick Sercu, Michel Pollentier, Freddy Maertens, Rik Van Linden, and Verbrugge. All fine gentlemen who turned their pedals in anger with the greats of their time. But very few, apart from Sercu, who are remembered today. And since 2001? Let’s see, they had a podium finish for CrAzY Thomas De Gendt, lots of forgettable top 20s from Maxime Monfort, and the usual assortment of stage successes. That’s all. Every few years the Belgian talent pipeline would spit out a true climber (I see you Jurgen Van Den Broeck), and some of us would get prematurely excited, only for him to get sent straight to the Tour and into 17th on GC.
Along now, however, comes young Remco Evenepoel, who as you know is so spectacularly talented that we can hardly believe he even exists. How did he come to be born in Belgium? Even more shockingly, how did he fall first into football, in Belgium, before cycling finally got its mitts on him? How can he be so, so insanely talented? I don’t really know, but he is, and it’s a massive deal. Remco has been a media fixation back home for a while, and his incredible run of results, before last year’s horror crash, had the nation in a furor that is hard to imagine for anything short of a Rode Duivels world cup or the return of the missing panel of the Gent Altarpiece. In a sense, Remco’s inevitable triumphs are already so woven into the Belgian media narrative that a Giro win might not really add to his legend.
But that breakthrough moment can be elusive when you’ve been on a long losing streak. As a Red Sox fan, I know all about this. Our endlessly regurgitated tale of woe went on and on even as it seemed like it had to end, until finally the dam burst, spectacularly. What is the Belgian cycling equivalent to losing over and over and over and then looking like you should win only to dig an impossible 0-3 hole before finally, finally seeing your luck change and your talent take hold and blow it all to smithereens?
Well... that would be Remco coming along and showing his talent, only to fall off a road and really hurt himself, then to go into a long rehabilitation that even a month ago looked to be coming along far too slowly from a competitive angle (we were all just kinda thankful his skeletal structure was unbroken), and for him to arrive at the world’s second-hardest stage race with not a single race day in his legs. And then kick ass.
I don’t actually know if Remco will kick anyone’s ass, because his current display of form might yet be a mirage. The Giro is simply knocking around the Apennines right now, not tackling the major climbs which will decide the race, so if he is tapping out a nice rhythm and staying in contact with the likes of Egan Bernal, well, that’s nice but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
But if we were to get ahead of ourselves... wouldn’t we see his 11 second deficit to Valter as a minor obstacle likely to evaporate on the climb to Guardia Sanframondi Saturday? Wouldn’t we then start to wonder if he can continue to cling to Bernal’s wheel over the longer climbs, and rely on his time trialling to keep the Colombian at bay all the way to Milan? Aren’t these early stages providing him those precious race miles he supposedly needs to reach his peak form? And do people even need race miles anymore? I don’t know. And again, I am not saying that we should get ahead of ourselves this way. I am only saying that, if we were to do so, this is what it would look like.
Meanwhile, a small country holds its collective breath a bit longer, waiting to ascend to a throne that the older generation remembers so well, and that the younger generation has only dreamt of. So close, and yet still so far away. Stay tuned.