Tuesdays with Wilcockson #2

Merckx on the Col d’Allos at the 1975 tour de France

Grinta: the hidden ingredient of great racers

The Italian word grinta has become so prevalent in cycling journalism that a Dutch-language magazine in Belgium chose Grinta for its title. Translated, it means grit, spunk, bravery, or endurance. And when European sportswriters use the word to describe an underdog’s performance in cycling’s Heroic Era of the early 20th century, they are likely thinking of all four of those nouns.

They would certainly use grinta to describe how Eugène Christophe, when leading the 1913 Tour de France, broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet, walked more than 10km with the bike on his shoulder, crying all the way, to reach Ste. Marie-de-Campan, where he repaired the forks at the village blacksmith’s shop, and then, despite having lost a couple of hours, carried on riding over the Aubisque and Peyresourde climbs to Luchon — and still finished that Tour in seventh overall.

Journalists would use grinta to tell the story of Fausto Coppi’s winning the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia in a 192km-long solo breakaway over five mountain passes … or describe the heroism of Eddy Merckx at the 1975 Tour when he battled to second place overall after being punched in the liver on one stage and breaking his jaw on another … or relate how Lance Armstrong picked himself up after being floored at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, fighting back to the lead group and then charging clear to win the stage (with a cracked frame) to clinch the 2003 Tour yellow jersey.

So how does the latest generation of pro racers shape up to those cycling legends? Do they exhibit the same levels of grinta as their predecessors?

Take reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. The man with the flashy sprint certainly has to show grit and bravery in negotiating a risk-filled mass stage finish at the Tour or Giro. But his performance that impressed me the most was when he won (with Rob Hayles) the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds in Los Angeles.

The then teen-aged Cavendish was a last-minute replacement and had never teamed with the veteran Hayles before. They overcame their lack of competitive experience together with sheer class. The pair was impressively fast in lapping the field to take the lead with 28 laps to go — and even more impressive, Cav especially, in hanging with the pack as team after team launched attacks in the closing kilometers.

At the end of that high-speed 50km contest, Cav was in tears, not only from the thrill of becoming world champion at 19 but also from the pain of racing (and beating) the world’s best trackmen. That took grinta! In an emotion-tinged interview, the young Brit said that winning a rainbow jersey was “something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”

Cav in his new rainbow stripes

Another young racer who has displayed enormous amounts of grinta in his so-far brief career is Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. He needed plenty of nerve on stage 7 of the 2009 Giro to join a breakaway on a treacherously wet (and cold!) alpine descent into Chiavenna, where he easily took the sprint. Even more impressive was his victory a month earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem.

Also on a cold, rainy and windy day, Boasson Hagen wasn’t supposed to win this rugged Belgian classic. His teammate Mark Cavendish was favored, but the Brit flatted just as the race split apart. Their team director Brian Holm told me he wasn’t expecting anything from the Norwegian. After all, he explained, it was only three days after a difficult Tour of Flanders, where Boasson Hagen “had diarrhea and had to stop to go to the toilet three times…. That must have taken something out of him.”

Despite that, Boasson Hagen got into the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem with two senior teammates, both former winners of this classic, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt. Still, no one was expecting anything from the 21-year-old Norwegian when on the final climb, the ruggedly steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, he jumped away from the Hincapie group and bridged to lone leader Aleksandr Kuschynski of Belarus — and after pacing each other for the remaining 35km, Boasson Hagen led out the sprint from 300 meters to win easily.

Hincapie could have complained about an upstart colleague stealing the race, but realizing the scale of Boasson Hagen’s grinta, the American admiringly said, “It’s huge for Eddy … and it doesn’t get much tougher than today.”

Eugene Christophe at the 1919 Tour de France

Like Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, the Slovak phenom Peter Sagan has quickly established himself as a rider of immense talent and grit. Only two months into his pro career, at age 20, he shocked the cycling world by taking two stage wins at the 2010 Paris-Nice in bitterly cold weather — the first by out-sprinting a select group of six that included Spanish stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador; the second with a solo attack on a steep climb 2km from the finish.

A few weeks later at the prologue of Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie, I witnessed his ambition first-hand. Standing beyond the finish line, with no other reporters around, I was able to talk to riders as they circled back after finishing their time trials.

Sagan raced across the line head down, riding as hard as he could, and didn’t see what time he’d done. He said he understood a little English, so I indicated that he was one second slower than the fastest rider, Italy’s Marco Pinotti. Sagan knew enough English to react to his narrow loss with: “F–k! Only one second?” And the very next day, goaded by his prologue defeat, he proved the strongest sprinter, with the most grinta, in a wild bunch finish.

Like the legends of the past, modern stars Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Sagan all have immense talent and, even more important, that indefinable gift called grinta.


Images: John Pierce, Photosport International


Follow me on Twitter @johnwilcockson


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  1. Jesus from Cancun

    The first time I heard “grinta” it was used to describe Andy Hampsten’s famous Giro ride up the Gavia in a snowstorm.

    I agree, Grinta, Allez and Panache are cycling words; they might have originated from one language, but now they belong to the Cycling language.

  2. ben

    Great word…great article.
    I think many times in mondern times we wrongly compare modern pro-racers w/ those from the early days…when the only thing those 2 eras have in common are 2 wheels and a desire to win. So much around them is different…in terms of how they are cared for/looked after…but also the scrutiny of their every move.

    Thanks for pointing out some gutsy performances and the riders that grunted them out. These racers (and the guys from the old days too…good God those early TDFs and Giros were CRAZY!) inspire me to suffer and I hope to make my own Cat.4 gutsy moves in the coming soon…if on a much lesser scale!

  3. CAT4Fodder

    One thing to keep in mind…the medical treatment for athletes back in 1975 was not exactly what it would have been today. Makes his feat even more impressive.

    And…as much as I admire walking your fork down to the blacksmith…as they say…there is no crying in cycling (except for Cadel).

  4. Paul

    Christophe had to repair the forks himself, he would have been expelled from the race if the blacksmith had done it. I remember reading about one rider who was penalized because a local village boy worked the bellows while he was repairing a broken fork. Those early Tour riders were dealing with a whole other level of difficulty that is almost impossible to imagine today. Riding over Cols that were not much more than goat paths on single speed steel bikes, no real support system, and 400 km stages …

  5. CAT4Fodder


    I was kidding I hope you know. Those guys were in my mind, more like the RAAM riders of today than what we perceive to be the modern bike racer.

  6. DavidA

    I mentioned this on RKP before, the story about Sean Kelly crashing in a sprint and gashing his forehead open. He sat on the curb and told the medical person to just stitch it with no numbing agent or deading shot, which he did. Also the time when Kelly was on the Belgian Splendor team and one of his team mates was complaining that the stage race they where in had too many hills and his legs were really getting sore. Kelly had crashed that day and had skidded most of the skin off his back. That night bandaged and wounded Kelly turns off the light and sleeps like a baby. His team mate said that after seeing Kelly sleep sound and not say a word the next day, he was ashamed to ever have said anything about his sore legs….Grinta

  7. Adam

    CAT4Fodder: No, Cav does not look a little chunky. That picture is from Paris Tours, only two weeks after winning the Worlds so he looks fit – abeit short – and like a world beater. It’s not some training shot image and your comment doesn’t really add to a great piece of writing – what more does Cav have to win before snide comments about him cease?
    Great piece and I too can’t wait to see where the careers of EBH and Sagan lead. I worry the former may be so good at so many things as to spread himself too thin.

  8. Big Mikey

    Adam – Actually, the picture of Cav does make him look a little chunky, and at this point in the season, it’s a legitimate question (e.g. Jan Ullrich).

    The snide comments about Cav will probably cease when he proves he’s capable of avoiding making comments that offend his fellow competitors, the fans, journalists, etc.

    1. Padraig

      Okay, so it’s time for me to chime in about the picture of Cav and the comments therein.

      First, that image was shot at Paris-Tours just weeks after he won worlds. I’d think that didn’t need explaining as his kit and bike don’t match what Sky does at all, but it seems necessary.

      Second, that shot appears to be catching him at maximum inhalation. Breathe right and you’ll look fat.

      Finally, I need to remind everyone before things get too snide and sarcastic that we conduct the comments section in RKP a little differently. We expect everyone to remain civil. Critical is fine, but treat this community with respect. It’s not too much to ask that we remain polite even as the dialog grows spirited.

  9. Adam

    He’s no Ulrich, and that’s just what he always looks like. The shot wasn’t taken at this point in the season – it was taken shortly after an extremely impressive Worlds win. That picture is him at his best. People have said the same thing the last three winters but he keeps winning.
    The point is, none of his teammates (other than Greipl) ever have a bad thing to say about him. He’s a big race winner, not a Nobel Laureate, and as this article articulates he rides with grinta (his MSR win may be one of the greatests sprints ever). No comments about his weight or the appropriateness of a post race tweet can take that awway from him.

  10. Chromatic Dramatic

    Thanks for the new word…

    Grinta is exactly how I would have described Cadel’s TdF victory. When odds were stacked against him, his team having fallen by the wayside and no one else able to help with the chase, Cadel put his engine into gear and ground back the km’s.

  11. CAT4Fodder


    lighten up. C’mon – my comment was driven because I honestly had to do a double take as it looked like some club rider on a Sunday jaunt.

  12. Champs

    Cavendish will never be in grimpeur form like Andy Schleck’s insane 6’1, 140 pound frame. For that matter, Andy Schleck will someday stop looking like the Greg LeMond of old, and more like the LeMond of now.

    If he starts losing races, THEN we can start blaming him fo being no more gaunt than your typical Cat 3 racer.

  13. Hautacam

    How is it possible to write (and drop a dozen or so comments on) an article regarding “grinta” in January 2012 without a single mention of Johnny Hoogerland’s incredible ride in a certain French stage race last summer? The man not only finished the stage, he completed the race — in the top half of the field, no less. After getting 33 stitches in his leg.

    Instead we’re slagging a random shot of Cavendish and whinging about comments being moderated? Good grief! Priorities, people, priorities!

  14. Ryan Surface

    +1 on Hautacam’s comments re Hoogerland. Agree with the examples in the Article but have to say Hoogerland really impressed me in the TdF and now I know the right word to use for his classy and courageous riding GRINTA!

  15. Tricky Dicky

    Two examples, one very recent (to celebrate the new season) and one fairly recent (that just sticks in the memory):

    – Will Clarke this week. 140km-odd alone. Too tired to even raise his hands at the end. Merckx was there and he approved. ‘Nuff said.

    – Cadel Evans and friends, stage 7 Giro 2010. A pictorial definition of “grinta”. Do a trick – pull up the picture, put it in black and white and you could be watching the legends from 50 years back.

    Great blog.

  16. Jash

    Indeed I did enjoy this piece very much. Thanks for that. However to be fair, I too had to look twice at the pic of Cavendish. I thought maybe it was inserted strangely and the ratio got accidentally changed to appear more squat? Whatever the truth be, I take his appearance to be of extreme encouragement that I too can be fast without looking like the “perfect” cyclist. Here’s to more Grinta all around!

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