Tom Dumoulin‘s magical ride through home crowds from the Omnisport Apeldoorn to Loolaan – 9.8 pan flat kilometres in 11’03”– opened the 99th Giro d’Italia with a huge dose of the factor once innocently known as X. It put him on the podium, deep in conversation with King Willem-Alexander, guaranteeing the race huge crowds and national celebration for the rest of its stay in the Netherlands.
Even before the royal visit, Apeldoorn had given the Giro a royal connection. Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands from 1890 to 1948 and a long time resident of Apeldoorn’s stunning Het Loo Palace, was a precocious cycling enthusiast in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Adored in France, she was given the charming soubriquet La Petite Reine, the little queen. The epithet subsequently slipped from monarch to machine and, in France, at least, the humble bicycle is to this day known affectionately as La Petite Reine.
Going back to Dumoulin, while he celebrated, others nursed wounds. Jos van Emden’s hopes of victory today ended when he crashed on a left-hand bend. Stefan Kung‘s ended in a spill turning right. In this sport of stoics who ride through injuries that would sideline other sportsmen (and what other sport provides its participants with a list of hospitals containing 109 entries?), every broken scaphoid, cracked femur, shattered collarbone and evening medical bulletin owes Apeldoorn a permanent debt.
700m of today’s race route ran parallel to a back street named Hoofdstraad where in 1848 a Prussian cloth merchant, his wife and their three-year-old son set up home. An “X” might usefully mark the spot because, in 1901, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, no longer three and now Professor of Physics at the University of Würzburg, won the first ever Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him.” Röntgen refused to apply for a patent, wanting mankind as a whole to benefit from his discovery, which others called “Röntgen rays” but he, lacking such ambition and pending inspiration for a better name, described as X-Strahlen – X-rays – unpicking his own name and becoming Mr X.
Today’s Mr X was Fabian Cancellara, in the last season of an astonishingly successful career, but depleted by illness. As he sped across the finish line with a time no better than 8th best, you could almost hear the fans whispering Sic transit gloria mundi. Yet, even as the ill ex-champion’s day was ending anonymously, another rider was acquiring a reputation. A former ski jumper from Slovenia named Primož Roglič, now a first-year WorldTour rider with LottoNL-Jumbo, held the best time for one hundredth of a second less than 53 minutes. Even second place in the Giro opener is enough to ensure that Roglič will never again be Rider X, his name misspelt and mispronounced, his face anonymous. Whatever else Apeldoorn is, it turns out, it is the sort of town where you can make a name for yourself.