MONTE ZONCOLAN, Italy (VN) — He tried to celebrate the stage win properly, but the teeth of Monte Zoncolan had taken his legs and heart. He veered off course, and dismounted his bike, walking just feet after the frenzied finish.
But Michael Rogers took far more from the mountain: perhaps the most beautiful win of his career and his second stage win of this Giro d’Italia.
The Tinkoff-Saxo rider probably couldn’t have written a better script for this part of the season himself. When he pedaled around the team buses before the start of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Rogers had no idea what was to come, only that he was happy to be back racing sooner than anticipated after testing positive for clenbuterol at the Japan Cup last season. The UCI released a statement this spring, saying there was a high probability the substance came from eating contaminated meat.
Now, it’s as if Rogers never left at all. After two stage wins in the Giro, Rogers, a past world time trial champion on three occasions, is enjoying a resurgence when it seemed doubtful he’d race at all, and faced a two-year ban that could have ended his career. Asked if he felt redemption here in Italy, he replied, “Certainly.”
“Through the period there where I was under the temporary suspension, it was a life lesson I learnt that it’s what you create and what you give. It’s not really what you have, physically,” Rogers told journalists here in a press conference. “I really saw some great opportunities arise in this race and I took advantage of them, whereas before I maybe wasn’t as hungry. But it’s a great lesson, and I’m thankful for that lesson, too.”
Rogers won stage 11 via a breakaway, and won up the Zoncolan on stage 20 from a large break, though he benefited in part from the misfortune of Francesco Bongiorno (Bardiani-CSF), who had to stop after a fan, seemingly intending to push him uphill, only pushed him into Rogers’ back wheel. The Australian rode alone from that moment, grinding his way up the Zoncolan, one of Europe’s most difficult and infamous climbs. He was swarmed by fans himself, and had to paw them away.
“I only saw what happened on television after the stage. I mean there was a bit of a problem with some of the fans. I think they’re out there on the mountain all day and drinking the local drop or something, but a couple of times — one spectator hit my handlebars a few times, and I asked him to move and he kept hitting and hitting them and eventually force was required,” Rogers said. “They have to give us a little bit of room to pass. We can’t ride through gaps that don’t exist.”
Rogers left no doubt in the end, tapping out a pained cadence and inching up the mountain. He was in the dark, however, as to how far up the mountain he was in relation to his pursuers, chasing hard.
“Time gaps — I didn’t know anything. I didn’t have any information from the car. I’m sure they had limited information from race radio,” he said. “I just tried to get everything I could, tried to get out of the seat, which is not easy for me, as much as I could. I had to keep the speed, and once I was in the those last couple hundred meters I knew I had it, but it wasn’t until then.”
He had ample time to think of the looming win, but didn’t let himself lapse into emotion until it was nearly over. Those long seconds — when a rider realizes he’s going to win, and then does — are the best in the sport, he said.
The Zoncolan features incredible steep sections of more than 22 percent, and has a long, sustained 14-percent average in the middle of the climb. That couldn’t stop Rogers.
“… At the end of the day that’s why we do it, isn’t it? You always aim to be the best you can. Winning for me is still a thrill. I enjoy also the working part of it, being part of the team, and with the experience I have I enjoy teaching a team that’s full of energy, a team that I’ve found here,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the thrill is still winning. I always say from the moment you know you’re going to win to the moment you cross the finish line, that’s the pinnacle of the sport, isn’t it? Whether it’s 5 kilometers or 5 meters. That’s what I love about the sport.”
Team manager Bjarne Riis said he wanted riders in the break, and he got two: Rogers and Nicolas Roche.
“Fantastic, yeah,” Riis told VeloNews at the finish. “We hoped, you know? It’s never easy. It’s a great day, a great breakaway with him and Nico. They worked fine, and he was strong. Very strong. Impressive.”
And while Riis wasn’t sure Rogers needed a good Giro, there’s no denying that the results are a buoy.
“Needed? I don’t know. I think it’s very important. And we are very happy for sure,” he said. “Two stage victories is great, and [Rafal] Majka up there doing good. Though the past three days he’s been sick. He’s still there. He did a great ride today. I’m very happy.”
Of course he wasn’t the only one. And for Rogers, it marks an emergence from a dark time to one of redemption, at least on the road.
“You always remember the beautiful moments, don’t you, in life? And today was certainly one of those. I always thought there was light at the end of the tunnel and I always believed that,” he said. “I continued to work hard and continued to be patient. And I think I’ve done that in this race.”