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Life Lessons from the Giro d’Italia

The 106th Giro d’Italia ended yesterday, the first of three global cycling Grand Tours alongside Le Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana. After 21 stages, including some of the worst weather in the history of the event, Slovenian Primoz Roglic edged out Welshman Geraint Thomas on the penultimate stage – a mountainous Individual Time Trial – to win the maglia rosa (pink jersey) as overall general classification winner.

I followed the race closely for three weeks. So, in the spirit of threes, here are three important lessons that us mere workweek-mortals can take from the incredible spectacle that was the Corsa Rosa:

1) Be ready. Belgian and World Champion Remco Evenepoel was widely considered the favorite to win the Giro, romping to victory in the Stage 1 and Stage 9 individual time trials. However, COVID caused him to abandon the race after Stage 9. The next man up, Tao Geoghegan of Britain, crashed out of the race in horrific fashion barely a stage later. Halfway through the race, the script completely changed: three men – Roglic, Thomas, and Portugese champion Joao Almeida – found themselves competing closely for their first Giro victories when they were barely discussed as potential race winners just days before.

Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz once said that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Victory – whether in cycling, war, or our careers – is rarely the result of a flawless and comfortable plan. We must be ready to perform when opportunity shows up, because it may not happen when we expect it – or when we plan for it.

2) Believe in yourself. Primoz Roglic is no stranger to Grand Tours or individual time trials, having won multiple ITT stages and an Olympic Gold Medal. But, poised at the start line of Stage 20’s ITT 26 seconds behind race leader Geraint Thomas, all the global cycling world could talk about was a different ITT performance by Roglic.

In 2020, leader of the grandest of bike races – Le Tour de France – by a wide 59 seconds, Roglic was in the yellow jersey on the penultimate stage – also a mountainous time trial – when disaster struck. He had an exceptionally poor day on the bike, and upstart-fellow-Slovenian Tadej Pogacar had an exceptionally good one; the latter stole victory in the Tour de France by beating Roglic by more than 2 minutes in the time trial, an epic reversal of fortune that left Primoz devastated.

Fast forward to the Giro 2023 and yet another mountainous individual time trial that would decide the winner of the entire race. Since his 2020 Tour de France, Roglic had endured a string of terrible luck – crashing out of multiple TDFs, the Vuelta, enduring injuries, and being relegated to co-leader on his own team. The specter of his 2020 performance loomed large for the cycling public. But not for Roglic.

Roglic smashed every expectation on Stage 20 of the Giro, beating race leader Thomas by an incredible 40+ seconds to win both the stage and the General Classification. Not even a mechanical issue halfway up the mountain, which caused him to come to a full stop, could keep Roglic from victory.

In our own lives, we often have cause to doubt ourselves. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, sometimes we embarrass ourselves, sometimes we end up on the losing side. But doubt doesn’t have to define us. Ignore the doubters and believe in yourself. Doubt is not destiny!

3) Be a best friend. The final day of the Giro – Stage 21 – took the riders around a beautiful course in the Italian capital of Rome, the Eternal City. Under the backdrop of the Roman Colosseum, this was to be a day for the sprinters – the larger, more powerful riders who excel on flatter courses for which raw power-output and team positioning are the decisive factors for victory.

Just a week before, Isle of Man sprinter Mark Cavendish announced that he was retiring from cycling at the end of the year. Perhaps the greatest sprinter in history, Cavendish has won more Grand Tour stages than all but three men and won his first stage as a professional at the Giro 15 years before. Troubled by injuries and changing teams, the sprinter suffered through the entirety of Giro 2023 without being much in contention for any sprint stage victories.

The key to a sprint victory is a good “lead-out” – teammates who sacrifice themselves by riding exceedingly hard in the run-in to the finish line in order to get a sprinter up to top speed so that they can win the race. Unfortunately for Cavendish on Stage 21, as the race approached 1 km to go, he was down to just one teammate in his “lead-out” train.

That is, until Geraint Thomas took over. Thomas – who, as mentioned before, had lost the Giro in heartbreaking fashion a stage earlier in the individual time trial – rode for a different team but found himself at the front of the race. He looked back and saw his good friend and fellow countryman, Mark Cavendish, with only one teammate left, and thought, “let’s help a brother out.”

Thomas jumped to the front of Cavendish’s lead-out train and helped pull him into perfect position, expending every last ounce of energy he had after three weeks in the mountains of Italy for his friend. Cavendish executed the rest and, on the final stage of his final Giro d’Italia ever, took the victory.

Friendship can be hard. A lot has been written about the difficulties males in certain societies have in developing close friendships. But the bond between Thomas and Cavendish is a powerful example of how important friendship can be, not just because of a successful bike race, but because of the embrace between the two men after the finish line.

If you have the choice between being a friend or being a stranger to someone, choose friend. Not because you might be able to transact something from them later in life, but because good friends enrich the soul, inspire our hearts, and look after us.

And if you’re lucky enough to make that choice and get that chance to be a friend, don’t just be any friend.

Be a best friend.


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