From a dropped chain to Roglič redemption: Inside the gut-wrenching 36 hours that shook the Giro d’Italia

How Primož Roglič won — and almost lost — the Giro d'Italia racing with a gravel-inspired setup.

Photo: Chris Auld/VeloNews

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

No! No! No! No! Not again!” — that’s color announcer Rob Hatch calling the action live on Eurosport in the most decisive moment of the 2023 Giro d’Italia.

Primož Roglič just dropped his chain in the most inopportune time as Saturday’s all-or-nothing uphill time trial hit the boiling point.

The entire cycling world — from his anxious teammates waiting at the finish line to thousands of Slovenian fans packing the sides of the road to millions more watching live on TV — thought they were witnessing a painful rerun of the disastrous La Planche des Belles Filles time trial that cost Roglič the yellow jersey at the 2020 Tour de France.

In an instant, his Jumbo-Visma teammates jolted from growing contentment that Roglič was powering into pink to abject horror.

Roglič’s chain popped off the gravel-inspired single chainring after hitting a bump on the knee-snapping steeps of the Monte Lussari climb.

“You see that bicycle change, then you think, ‘It won’t work, will it?’ I walked away, and I thought it’s over, it’s over,” said Jumbo-Visma teammate Koen Bouwman to Eurosport. “But it’s still Primož, isn’t it? It is unbelievable. Beautiful, beautiful. We knew this is a time trial where it could be happen. It’s gorgeous.”

But unlike 2020, Roglič didn’t unravel.

Instead, he calmly stepped off the bike, remounted the chain, and was given a quick push by his following team mechanic, and of all people, a former ski-jumping teammate from the Slovenian national team who just happened to be standing nearby.

Instead of the gravity of the moment imploding on top of him, this time the stars were aligning.

“I kicked the chain off myself,” Roglič said. “Things like that can happen, but I was able to put it back in the end and move on.”

It was the capstone moment of a dramatic, incredible 36 hours to conclude the Giro d’Italia.

Roglič pulled off the coolest of chain-fixes to put an exclamation point on one of the Giro’s most remarkable comebacks.

Moments later, Roglič roared crossed the line ahead of an ecstatic throng of Slovenian fans a stage-winner to carve out a 14-second winning margin over Geraint Thomas, the fourth-smallest in race history.

After nearly three weeks of struggling to find form, shaking off two heavy crashes, avoiding COVID, and leaning on a young, relatively inexperienced squad of replacement riders, Roglič erased all the demons from the 2020 meltdown and more.

And he did it with a single chainring and a massive, 10-44t SRAM XPLR cassette built for gravel racing. What an ending.

Completing the Giro circle: ‘Primož always comes back stronger’

Jumbo-Visma celebrates Roglič’s victory. (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

The Roglič party carried all the way from the steep slopes of Monte Lussari — quite literally down the road from where he used to hurl his body off ski jumps in his teens — to the Coliseum of Rome on Sunday to wrap the 2023 Giro.

“I made it thanks to the crowd. I’ll never forget the support of all these people,” Roglič said. “I had goosebumps and tears in my eyes when I saw all these people cheering for me. I didn’t care so much about the result. I’m incredibly proud to be the rider they came here for.”

Decked out in head-to-toe in pink with a matching pink bike, Roglič’s victory marked the completion of the Giro circle that began nearly a decade ago.

After showing promise in his grand tour debut at the 2016 Giro, when he won a time trial to finish a distant 58th, Roglič seemed destined to become Slovenia’s first grand tour winner.

By 2019, after winning stages at back-to-back editions of the Tour de France and finishing fourth overall in 2018, he returned to the Giro intent on winning.

No one had heard of Tadej Pogacar, and the Giro seemed like Roglič’s moment of arrival, but Richard Carapaz rode away from everyone, delivering the first of stinging GC disappointments that would haunt Roglič the next few seasons.

Yet as his teammate Sepp Kuss said Saturday, Roglič harbors an innate ability to shake off adversity like a morning chill.

Crashing out of both the Tour and Vuelta a España in 2022 saw Roglič on the back foot all spring, but he dug deep with trademark, hard-edged resolve in the closing three stages of the Giro’s final week.

Kuss, who is a GC talisman of sorts in grand tours, helped set the winning pace across the Dolomites.

“That’s Primož, even with adversity, he comes back stronger,” Kuss said. “It’s just amazing. It’s beautiful for him to be here with all the Slovenian fans, it’s just beyond words.

“We knew Primož was biding his time, just picking the right moments, but it’s always a risk if you wait until the end,” Kuss said. “With such a hard TT you can really make the difference. We are so proud of Primož and we’re so happy to ride with him.”

Details carry the day: ‘We practiced the swap seven or eight times’

Roglič rides his one-ring setup on the road to Tre Cime on Friday. (Photo: Gruber Images/VeloNews)

Roglič didn’t look his sharpest going into Friday’s “queen stage” to Tre Cime, and everything was still tightly wound among the top-3.

In a race that was hyped as a two-horse race between Remco Evenepoel and Roglič, the ever-steady presence of Geraint Thomas and the proud Ineos Grenadiers train was chugging confidently into the final weekend with a 29-second lead.

“Five days after my second crash in the Giro, I still struggled a bit but I kept fighting,” said Roglič, referring to the week-two spill that also took out Tao Geoghegan Hart. “I made it thanks to this crowd. I’ll never forget the support of all these people.”

After studying the brutal third week and the beyond-steep slopes of Friday’s and Saturday’s stages, Roglič and Jumbo-Visma decided to change the script.

With two climbs to go in Friday’s “queen stage,” Roglič swapped the road bike set-up for a single chainring crank with an 11-44t gravel-racing SRAM XPLR cassette. The strategic swap was designed to give Roglič extra spin on Tre Cime, but it looked like he was running out of gas in the high altitude high in the Dolomites on Friday.

Thomas opened up a surge with 400m to and it appeared he would even widen his lead when Roglič pounced with one well-timed acceleration that gapped the gasping Thomas and earned him back three seconds.

That was the first warning shot.

Momentum seemed on Roglič’s side going into Saturday’s time trial, but Thomas wasn’t going to go down with a fight. Equally pride, but with nothing to prove, the 2018 Tour winner was out to remind everyone he owns something Roglič still doesn’t — the Tour’s yellow jersey.

Saturday’s time trial brought eery similarities to the 2020 Tour disaster, except this time Roglič was the attacker, and Thomas took the final starting spot. The tables were turned, and the first tell-tale sign that things might go Roglič’s way came at the bike-swap transition zone.

“We practiced the substitution seven or eight times,” Roglič said Saturday. “I knew that the final time trial was the decisive day. I knew that from experience. I did it today. With this crowd and these people. It truly is a day I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Roglič’s smooth swap was a model of Formula 1 efficiency as he clicked back onto his one-ring gravel-equipped groupset and sped off again, while Thomas came to a complete stop after he not only swapped bikes but for a better ventilated climbing helmet as well.

The gap started to widen. Thomas’s lead was shrinking as fast as the road got steep. Then the chain slipped.

Roglič wins battle of nerves: ‘Finally I had luck on my side’

Roglič overcame a potential disaster with panache to win Saturday’s time trial. (Gruber Images/VeloNews)

Jumbo-Visma’s decision to ride the oversized cassette went from what appeared to be a stroke of genius to cycling’s biggest boondoggle in a matter of seconds. The risk of losing the chain is higher with a single ring, and though it shouldn’t slip on a climb, it did.

Roglič claims he kicked it off as he bounced over a small bump, but whatever the cause, he came to a grinding halt at the absolute worse moment.

“It can’t be, can it?” said Jumbo-Visma Sam Oomen, who was watching at the line in horror. “It’s one of those moments when the world stops for a moment. Unbelievable.

“It’s like a madhouse and a rollercoaster all in one. But it is very, very special.”

Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels followed up behind Kuss and was waiting at the finish line. His heart sank when he heard the call over the radio.

“I was waiting at the finish line. Then it seems as if things are always going too slowly,” Engels said. “When he had a problem with his bike I thought it was over, but luckily he stayed calm, and could carry on.”

In a sport that continually lives by the motto that you cannot make this stuff up, something even more extraordinary happened.

Just as one of Jumbo-Visma’s mechanics stepped off the following motorcycle to help Roglič, a spectator in a red shirt alongside the road sprinted down the road to give Roglič a push.

It turned out that the fan was later identified as Mitja Meznar, a former ski jumper who competed as a junior with Roglič on the Slovenian national team at the 2007 World Ski Jumping World Championships.

Their fates reconnected just at the right time, and Roglič was quickly back on the road to pink.

“Luckily he was there. It was so steep that it is impossible to start on your own,” Roglič said, who didn’t realize who his guardian angel was. “Thank God I also had a bit of luck on my side. I put the chain back on. I got some rest, I stood there and I was able to restart.

“I didn’t think about giving up for a moment,” he said. “I clearly still had enough in my legs to keep going.”

Of all the factors that lined up this weekend, the bike selection on Friday’s and Saturday’s stages proved decisive, and allowed him to spin a high cadence and do his trademark seated accelerations on the steepest slopes.

Roglič just won the pink jersey with similar gearing to what some riders will be racing Unbound with this weekend in Kansas. The circle is complete.

An exclamation point to a spectacular career: ‘You have to keep fighting’

Roglič celebrates the Giro. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Saturday’s apogee was a fitting finale of a slow-boil Giro. After a string of high-profile abandons, poor weather, and a back-end course design, all the tension, fatigue, and ambition poured out in raw, unedited passion across the Dolomites.

In a sport that’s unique in delivering the purest of emotions, even the Giro’s closing 36 hours stands out. Mark Cavendish’s sprint victory Sunday in Rome was the icing on the cake.

Nothing in recent grand tour racing comes close in terms of final-hour changes of fortune, except that 2020 Tour de France closing weekend that saw Roglič on the wrong end of that equation.

This time, it was Roglič turning the tables. Even Thomas could tip his hat.

“At least he smashed me,” Thomas said. “To be honest, Primož deserves that, with the mechanical he had. Right now I’m devastated. To come second, I can still be proud of that, but at the moment, it just hurts.”

Roglič took all the drama with trademark aplomb, quipping at the finish line, “We did it, huh?”

The enormity of his victory cannot be underplayed.

Even if some wonder what might have happened if the likes of Evenepoel, Aleksandr Vlasov, or Geoghegan Hart were still in the race, the tape reveals that Roglič was consistent across the entire race.

After finishing sixth in the opening time trial, he was never lower in the GC. Two crashes, poor weather, and a chain slip couldn’t stop him this time.

In a Giro course loaded with time trials, it’s no surprise his victory was cemented against the clock. In fact, all four of his Giro stage wins across his career have been time trials.

Roglič is never one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but his eyes welled up as he kissed his wife and hugged his young son.

Thousands of loyal Slovenian fans cheered his name as he celebrated Slovenia’s first Giro crown.

At 33, he doesn’t sound like a rider who’s looking backward. There’s still some unfinished business at the Tour de France.

“There’s so much emotion going on after my time trial win,” Roglič said. “Every grand tour is a challenge. I can’t compare my win at the Giro with the Tour or La Vuelta. The Giro was what I was hunting for this year.

“You always have hope to fight your way through a situation. That’s how I am. It’s pretty much the story of this Giro,” Roglič said. “Then when you ride that final time trial, you don’t really care if you win or lose.

“You just give everything you’ve got in the middle of that jubilant sea of ​​people. And in the end, we could all celebrate together.”

The Giro’s emblematic trophy “Trofeo Senza Fine” now bears his name. With three other Vuelta titles to his VC, Roglič confirmed his place as one the most prolific and successful grand tour races in his generation.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.