I have done two Grand Tours. My former team-mate Matteo Tosatto has done 32. So there is quite some distance before I can call myself experienced. Nevertheless, I still know what it feels like to ride stage 21, that blessed last one – in Italy, at least.
The 2014 Giro was a celebration of survival. The following year was a celebration of victory, with the maglia rosa Alberto Contador on my wheel in Milan. And yet. stage 21 marks the end. The race stops, but life goes on. It’s good, but also sad in a way.
Each time I’ve done the Giro, I have spent twenty stages looking forward to the final day, fantasising about what it will feel like when there are no more pages in my race book to tear out. Words cannot describe how demoralising it is to rip out stage eight and realise there are still thirteen stages remaining. The body is already tired.
The final stage is like the end of primary school. At the beginning, it seems so far away. The amount of hard work and struggle required in order to get there is impossible to comprehend. Then all of a sudden, it’s over. Finished. And despite having told yourself you will never miss it, you soon realise how much you actually enjoyed it.
Three weeks living in a bubble is replaced by reality. Less than 12 hours after having been part of the winning Giro team, I was standing alone in my apartment. My wife was at work. My suitcase was full. The washing machine was full. There were no soigneurs. Cycling up snow-covered mountains us nothing compared to separating colours from whites.
Don’t get me wrong: obviously it’s a massive relief returning home. It just takes a bit of time to adapt. Because, for every day spent counting down towards stage 21, you’re riding deeper into the sacred Grand Tour universe.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be a sprinter who has to perform on the Champs-Elysées, or on any final Grand Tour stage for that matter. A rider like me doesn’t regard the final stage as anything difficult. But the success of an entire team’s Tour may rest on a fast man’s shoulders before the final lead-out. For them, the race is only finished when there are no more finish lines.
For me, stage 20 feels as much the end as stage 21. Perhaps even better: I remember in 2014 when [then-Tinkoff team-mate] Michael Rogers won the Giro’s penultimate stage on the Zoncolan.
Zoncolan was the final barrier that stood between me and my first Grand Tour finish. As wrong as it may sound, I could actually enjoy one of the world’s steepest climbs. I knew Rogers had won, I was far from the time cut and the race was over.
Yet we still had one day left. Mechanics, riders, soigneurs and sport directors still had a job to do the next day. Our routines remained the same for another 24 hours. To me, this was the best part of the race – the day before the final stage. The relief of knowing I made it, but the comfort of knowing nothing changed. Bus, hotel, massage and dinner. Everything was just done with such a sense of calm. It was such a contrast compared to the next day.
The end. The parade into Milan. Pink everywhere. Now I know what it feels like to have bar-tape that matches the leader’s jersey. The sweet taste of prosecco as we rolled out of the start. It all felt great. However, we still had to actually get to Milan. Eventually I got back in line and took to the front, just as I had done every other day. Stage 21 is still a race, like all the others in the book.
Last year, it was also quite a nerve-wracking experience. As I am not Italian, I am not particularly superstitious. But I’ve never knocked on my helmet whilst saying ‘touch wood’ so many times. I wasn’t taking any chances. Anything could happen: a broken collarbone for my leader, a puncture with five kilometres to go, or a final desperate attack from Astana. But it didn’t. Alberto won. And we all got to go up on the podium in Milan.
Stage 21 was finished. There is no stage 22. There never is. Before I knew it, I was sitting in an airport hotel drinking a beer and eating peanuts from the mini bar. Twenty-one stages and a pack of peanuts. I was going home.
And as I sit and write about my experiences, I wonder what Paris must feel like. It’s something I hope to be a part of this summer. But before reaching the Champs-Elysées, there are many hors-catégorie climbs, gruppettos, bad legs and crashes to overcome. Touch wood, I’ll get there. Touch wood.
Chris Juul-Jensen rode the 2016 Tour de France, finishing 119th overall in Paris