This is not a column about the Giro Rosa - or at least not directly. This is a column about the afterglow.
You know... when you wake up in a panic trying to conjure up some memory of that day's elevation profile - and then realize with a luxurious exhale that you are between the sheets of your bed at home. When you find your muscles and nerves so fatigued that they twitch spontaneously at rest, yet you can soothe them by thinking... "shh... it's over..."
When you grasp real - not imagined - hugs from your loving supporters, when you dedicate a day to doing all of your favorite non-bike things, when you wake up at 4am and can fully enjoy ice cream for first breakfast. That is the afterglow. It is when you finally might watch the videos or read the press. It is a time to bask in secret grins of victories and allow the vulnerable tenderness of acknowledging sorrows.
Two of the first lessons that we learn as cyclists are "it is mostly mental" and "take your recovery drink". The afterglow is the recovery drink of that mental state - a critical time of reflection, assimilation and adaption.
Making it through an entire stage race in one piece takes more fortitude than we sometimes credit ourselves for. Every day begins with the expectation that you will be a little better than you ever have been before. Many of the accomplishments - some things you never before would have thought possible - get buried under worries about tomorrow, regrets about today and concern about where you put your sandwich. Daily repetition normalizes what should rate extraordinary.
The reality is that exceptional physical demands only tell a part of the story. There is an amazing effort to maintain such extended and narrow focus and a weariness of remaining resilient in the face of obstacles that range from bad legs to a bad crash to the team camper breaking down to absorbing the fact that you have been assigned to what is clearly the only room in the entire hotel without air conditioning.
If you're lucky, you might get a quick day-in-review download at a post-stage team meeting - but in general, whatever emotion or worry you lived through that day is immediately tucked away in favor of a constant emphasis on preparing for tomorrow. Hang on too much to a triumph, and you may forget that the fight is not over. Dwell too long on a failure and self-doubt may undermine you just when you need a bit of strength. Sometimes it is just too exhausting to do a lot of real-time deep thinking. I often think of Scarlett O'Hara - as in, "I won't think of that now - I'll think of it tomorrow when I can stand it". True Gone with the Wind fans know that that declaration is followed by, "after all, tomorrow is another day", which is another good maxim of stage racing.
As long as it is a "race day", all bets are off - but once the final stage finishes, that is when it is time to pause for some reflection. Such a completion often has a few automatic reactions - to immediately begin thinking about the next goal, or perhaps to dissociate from the experience entirely and immerse oneself in the "real world" that had been pushed aside. Tempting, and both valid in due time - but neither strategy honors the afterglow.
Should you be victorious, take a moment to celebrate that accomplishment - such wins just do not come that often and can't be taken for granted. After a loss, a bit of gentle processing is in order as well - generally, losses are irritatingly rich with "opportunities for learning". And if you should have the awkward experience of not quite winning what you set out to win, but still getting second, and still being proud of the effort put forth, and yeah, I won a stage, but I wish it had been more, but you can't get too greedy... not that I have any personal experience with that current storyline... phew. Then a bit of emotional rest is definitely in order.
To you racers driven to improve, locking in lessons for improvement is logical and practical - so I encourage this for improvement - but take this time also to seal in the experience. I become increasingly aware that someday, when Racing Life is past, I am going to want to have a hold on some memories - the silly stuff like the time that you needed ice for your knee while driving, and there was none to be found, until you thought like an American and asked at Burger King and they gave you an entire trash bag full, and it leaked on the team car, and you tried to play it off on someone else's water bottle.
So remember - Coach was right about that recovery drink. You will absorb the nutrients best right after the race, a time when both cells and synapses are most pliable. So take a day or two - or as time permits, an hour or two - of quiet time to yourself. Make a habit of honor effort and experience regardless of outcome and revel in the hard-earned afterglow.