The boxing writer Bill Heinz maintained that one found the best stories in the loser's dressing rooms, and, with that adage in mind, reporters scrambled down the hill past the finish line in Espelette in pursuit of Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), who had just dropped off the podium in the final time trial of the Tour de France.
Roglic, however, is not much given to overt displays of emotion, in victory or in defeat. In the aftermath of his stage win in Laduns on Friday, he cut a restrained, almost subdued figure, and there would be no tears, complaints or visible disappointment after he placed 8th in Saturday’s time trial, 1:12 behind winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and – crucially – 1:11 behind Chris Froome (Team Sky), who leapfrogs ahead of him and into third overall.
On arriving at the LottoNL-Jumbo team van, Roglic contemplated warming down on the rollers, but then opted to sit into the back seat of a team van. "It was what I could do," Roglic shrugged as he was told his time splits against Froome. A television crew approached anxiously, as though concerned that they were intruding on some moment of unspeakable grief, only for Roglic to beckon them forward with a nod.
"I did what I could. I'm happy with it. I have nothing to say that I didn't do good," Roglic said, neither in disappointment nor in satisfaction, but as a simple statement of fact. He politely dismissed the idea that he had not recovered sufficiently from his aggression in the Pyrenees 24 hours earlier.
"I always said, you know what I mean, it's not finished until it’s not finished. Every day is a new challenge, I did what I could and I'm happy with it. I was also good power and everything, so I don’t have any regrets."
All the momentum had appeared to be with Roglic, the strongman of the Tour’s final week, coming into this penultimate day test in the Basque Country. Victory on the final Pyrenean stage, following a high-wire act of a descent off the Col d’Aubisque, had lifted him above Froome and into third place overall.
Roglic began Saturday’s hilly, 31km time trial with an advantage of 13 seconds over Froome. The Slovenian’s cycling career has been a novel one – he only took up the sport in earnest aged 22 after leaving ski jumping – but he first established himself at WorldTour level with his ability against the watch, most notably when he won the Chianti time trial at the 2016 Giro d’Italia, and he was slightly favoured to retain his place on GC.
The early returns were not promising, however. Roglic was already 30 seconds down on Froome at the first time check in Ustaritz after 13km, and that gap edged out to 49 seconds by the time he reached the second check at the 22km mark. Although the Slovenian dealt well with the short, steep Col de Pinodieta in the finale, his race was already run. He will reach Paris in 4th overall, 3:22 behind yellow jersey Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and 58 seconds down on Froome. His teammate Steven Kruijswijk will finish the race in 5th overall.
This Tour was only the third Grand Tour of Roglic's short career, and his first time to launch a concerted attempt at the general classification. At 29 years of age, Roglic’s precise margin of improvement is uncertain, but his limitations are equally unclear. The relative neophyte’s third season at WorldTour level was already garlanded by overall victory at the Tour of the Basque Country, Tour de Romandie and Tour de Slovenie, but his Tour performance was a surprise to match Thomas' overall victory.
"Yeah for sure, it's been really crazy, so I'm really happy," Roglic said, before parrying a follow-up about his prospects for the race in 2019. "I'll first finish this. We'll do some other races and then I'll think about next season at the end of this season."
A question about taking on Thomas, Dumoulin, Froome et al in future Tours was also politely rebuffed: "It's so many strong guys now, so nobody knows with who and what we will compete."
After losing his heavyweight world title to Sonny Liston in 1962, Floyd Patterson’s disappointment was such that he left Comiskey Park wearing a false beard and glasses, and, still disguised, travelled immediately to Madrid to put an ocean between himself and his defeat. In Espelette on Saturday, there seemed to be no such trauma for Roglic.
"Ah, not really," he said. "You know what I mean, I did everything I could. It's what we got out of it, and I can’t be disappointed with it."