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Riding backwards

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Clink, clink, clink. Frrrr, frrrr, frrrr. Go, Go, Go. Three weeks with this soundtrack: the noise of wheels, chains, shifting gears and shouts of the public. A total of 3,383 kilometres under the belt and 21 days of hard labour. All without dreaming about that moment of glory. Watching the battle from the back or the belly of the group, accumulating water bottles for everyone, confused in the crowd of numbers and creaking chains. Eyes bulge for hours, as you dodge the handlebars of other competitors. At best a few minutes leading the pack, peddling like crazy but only when someone is missing, before the live TV coverage even starts, and when your mom and girlfriend are not even watching. 

A world apart from the pageant queens and pink jerseys. For the pedal worker, this is what the Giro d’Italia is all about. Superhuman fatigue. A dark and purely painful effort, because it only takes a second to fall and the asphalt hurts. If your name is Vincenzo Nibali or Alejandro Valverde, it is easy to say that cycling is the best job in the world. But if your name always and only shows up at the end of the ranking, why bother?  Why suffer hours in the saddle and work your arse off behind the scenes, without coming close to the podium and the flowers on arrival? The answer is written in one place: at the bottom of the rankings, the opposite of gold. In the not so glamorous life of the losers. The last of the support riders, who have little chance of getting a newspaper headline or a close-up on TV.

Once there was a real prize even for them: the black jersey - the prize for finishing last in the Giro. But it did not last long at all: six years from 1946 to 1951. Then it was abolished following the protests of the cyclists, because the backwards prize had become a farce. The black jersey was always better than nothing, it won over sympathy, people recognised you. And it was not merely symbolic: last place in Giro was worth a lot of money, more than placing sixth. Then the salamis, pots and pans and random freebies offered by the sponsors after each leg. It was enough to trigger a battle in the wrong direction. Sante Carollo and Luigi Malabrocca especially remind us of this: in order to come last they would hide behind a hedge or inside a barn; they would stop to drink a coffee behind a hairpin turn and then cut the finish line just in time to beat the cut-off. And we also remember Giovanni Pinarello only for the black jersey won in the 1951 spring-summer edition, the very last black jersey. Or at least we would have if “Nani” had not later become a successful bicycle manufacturer.  

In the end it is Nani Pinarello’s fault that Marco Coledan suddenly brought the amusing feat back into fashion. It happened on 30 May 2015. Second last, the deadly stage number 98, from Saint Vicent to Sestriere. Facio Aru was in the lead, Contador in crisis but kept the pink jersey, and Hesjedal climbed up to fifth place. Only one stage left, the usual final day parade. The numbers are in, for the ranking. But in the back something unexpected happened, and only those who remained at the finish line until the very end noticed. More than 45 minutes had passed since the first arrivals and at just 250 metres from the finish line, a huge guy in black and white stopped to lean against the barrier. Marco Coledan, a 26-year-old Trek wingman, took a trick from Malabrocca’s book and waited. That morning he started in last place, so he waited. He waited for his Sante Carollo, a German speed-cycler by the name of Roger Kluge. “I fell during the first stage,” Coledan recalls, “and during the race I fought off a knee infection, followed by bronchitis and a fever. I still managed to reach the last real stage and had no intention of giving up that special last place. Since I was kid, I rode Pinarello’s bikes, who was from Treviso like me and recently passed away: for me it was a sort of a tribute to his story.”

Coledan and Kluge crossed the finish line 53 minutes and 30 seconds after Aru. The same time for both, and a virtual black jersey for the Venetian. The jury, not convinced by his noble intentions, decided to charge Coledan a fine of 500 Swiss francs. Article 12, section 1, subsection 007 of the rules clearly states: the cyclists must always compete to the best of their ability, without distorting the competition.

Not that those who finish last make less of an effort. From the bottom of the group, the Giro is just as hard as it is from the top. “But most of all, it follows a different logic”, explains Coledan, “because today the only thing that matters is the role the team assigns you. You have to complete many of the stages only to save your skin, and legs, because you will come in handy the day after. Even breaking away is not everyone, in a team of nine athletes. Usually my role is to support the sprinter, to protect him against the wind, to help him forward at the right time. Generally roles depend on the type of team you ride with. If you have a leader in the overall ranking, all efforts are focused on him. Today, in modern cycling, a ninth or tenth place counts more than any stage win”. 

From the start of the 99th edition of the Giro in Holland, on 6 May, Coledan was present. A few weeks earlier he was the first to fall in the Paris-Roubaix, but recovered in time. And for a few weeks he slaved away for three, assisting Ryder Hesjedal, who won the Giro in 2012. But from the outset he was one of the favourites for the opposite of the throne, the non-existent black jersey. 

The name is Cheng Ji, first name Cheng, last name Ji. Another peddler who earns his salary in a different way, as a serial sprinter. His role starts at kilometre zero. His aim is to ride into an action from afar, steal a few shots and show off his jersey and sponsors’ names. He intrigues the commentators, who have hours of footage to fill with speculation. He has not disappointed so far: lagging behind in the standings, he will face the decisive stage of the Giro from second last place. Two hours, six minutes and 21 seconds: this is his distance from the temporary pink jersey Bob Jungels. 

His story is not so common, in hindsight. Ji chose one of the strangest sports for a Chinese man. He decided to become a professional cyclist starting from a country where riding bikes is common but not as a career. Ji used to run on foot, but there was a problem: Harbin, his city in the northeast of China, is more famous for ice sculptures than it is for runners. With Siberia just around the corner, temperatures drop to 20 degrees below zero in winter. So at a certain point Ji started sprinting, but on a bike, under a roof and in a velodrome. Then the big jump from China to Europe in 2006 and his debut in the Giro in 2007, with his entry into the Dutch Skil-Shimano team. 

Born in ‘87, he was the first Chinese cyclist to compete and finish a major stage race, the 2012 Vuelta a España. He closed the event in 175th place. That is last, 4 hours, 32 minutes and 35 seconds after the winner Alberto Contador. Ji was also the first Chinese man to participate in the Giro d’Italia, in 2014, but that time he was unable to reach the bottom over the three weeks. The Giant cyclist returned to glory in 2014, when he was the first from his country to ride the most prestigious route: the Tour de France. He held his own despite an injury to the knee, and reached the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées. Final position: 164th. Last. More than six hours after Nibali, who that year won the yellow jersey. In short: the chosen one. 

Scrolling through the list of non-winners of the Giro, we find other stories like those of Coledan and Ji. Similar yet all unique. In 2014, last place was conquered by Jetse Bol: a Dutch long-distance cyclist who also knows how to sprint. But he suffered the uphill slopes. He started with blades under his feet, as a speed skater. In 2013, the honour was left to Davide Appollonio, one of the few cyclists from Molise to participate in the group. 

The 2012 black jersey winner was a Spaniard, actually a Basque from Bilbao: Miguel Minguez. Another sprinter destined to finish at the back of the pack, another story ended badly. In 2012, his impressive team, the orange Euskaltel-Euskadi, closed up shop. With few results for his CV, he was unable to find another contract. And today he is 28, but watches his colleagues on TV. Jos Van Emden, on the other hand, is still passionate, competing the 2016 Giro d’Italia. The Dutch cyclist, an excellent long-distance rider, a terrible climber, took the black jersey in 2011. But he mainly remembered because three years later – in 2015 – he decided to make a marriage proposal in the middle of a time trial. He braked, performed the ritual gesture, received a fateful “yes” and resumed pedalling. 

After all, this is the life of a cyclist: everything happens from the saddle of a bike; the bike almost becomes a part of you. You ride and you work hard because that is what you are good at. It is a life in which you learn to put aside your childhood dreams and the victories accumulated in your youth.  You simply do your job. Because except for a few members– two, three at most – a race like the Giro is ridden only for the team. Your individual result only counts if you can compete for the pink jersey or a decent place in the standings. Or you are a sprinter, fast enough to win at least one stage. Otherwise – in 90% of cases – your job as a professional cyclist is very clear. This is modern cycling; nothing is left up to chance. You can forget the idea of breaking away and surprising everyone by unexpectedly winning a stage.

If you are a support rider, you have to do your job. Think of eating and bring the water bottles when needed; stick one centimetre behind the captain if necessary. And if the captain punctures a tyre and cannot waste time changing the wheel, you stop, unhook your wheel and pass it over, then give him a push to get started. Then someone will come to your assistance, eventually, because your time and position are not important. It is not the job of a champion, but difficult nonetheless. Even coming last after three weeks and 3,383 kilometres of fatigue, climbs and stress is an impressive feat. And if you are lucky, you might even get to wear the black jersey. Even though the black jersey no longer exists, and only did for a brief moment. Ultimately, finishing last still means finishing. Which is not for everyone.

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