Every Day, I Think About the 2020 UCI World Championships Men’s Road Race: Slovenian Rhapsody, Part 1.
[Author’s Note: This is a piece about a bicycle race, however, it’s not meant to be a piece of sports journalism — rather it’s better classified as a work of creative non-fiction. We can never know what goes through a cyclist’s head when they race, we can never truly understand their motives, their inspirations, but their actions tell a story, and my goal here is to distill those storytelling elements into a broader, if somewhat embellished narrative.]
Slovenian Rhapsody, Part 1
70 kilometers to go, in the midst of the French Offensive, 22-year old Slovenian cyclist and 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar is at the front. His compatriot, Primož Roglič, the man whose Tour de France dreams were devastated by the much younger Pogačar a week earlier in the final time trial, sits in his wheel. As they ride, Tadej Pogačar thinks. He schemes, he dreams, he has a choice to make, and the time for making it is fast approaching. He shifts gears, stands up, stretches his legs for a few seconds. There’s still a lot of race left, and yet, paradoxically, never enough.
As Pogačar pedals, Roglič is in his own world, managing his effort, concentrating on swallowing air in deep, methodical breaths, hoping the oxygen will slow the beating of his pounding heart. He cannot bear to anticipate the results of this race — the last time he made such predictions, they ended in tragedy — and so he grinds into the climb, urging his bike forward the best he can. In the face of so many unknowns, the sound and friction of tires on tarmac comforts him. Gravity’s one of his life’s few certainties.
This is a story about a handful of kilometers in a bike race, but it’s also a story about the deep and nuanced relationship between these two men — men whose lives are irrevocably entangled by their common heritage and that fateful day on La Planche de Belles Filles.
Now teammates for Slovenia, both Roglič and Pogačar are strong contenders to win the 2020 World Championship Men’s Road Race. Whether they will ride as rivals or as comrades remains to be seen. For now, the pair chase the slipstreams of the French domestiques Nans Peters and Quentin Pacher, responding deftly to each surge and relaxation of the tempo. The riders approach the top of the Cima Gallisterna, and on the descent, the last two members of the earlier breakaway are caught.
It makes sense for Roglič and Pogačar to be near the front. Moments ago, the leader of the French team — and one of the race favorites — Julian Alaphilippe, looked as though he was going to make a move. If he launched, a reaction from the Slovenian team would be necessary to shut it down. Interestingly, it appears that in the ensuing chaos, the Slovenian domestiques, hitherto at or near the front of the race, have disappeared, leaving Roglič and Pogačar to take matters into their own hands. It remains unclear whether Roglič follows Pogačar up the line because he wants to assist him or because he wants to keep an eye on him.
However, over the course of a couple kilometers, the first of many confusing moments transpires. Tadej Pogačar looks back constantly for Roglič, relieved that the other man is still there, albeit a few bike lengths behind. In the footage so far, it doesn’t seem as though the two men are in any kind of conversation — the behavior of one surprises the other. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, and Pogačar can’t keep glancing back for much longer — there’s a tight turn up ahead and too much is happening too soon.
At 68 kilometers, Roglič is several positions behind, completely distanced from the front. It is unclear why and how this happens. Is Roglič simply caught off guard, distracted by all the commotion? Does he not have the legs to go with the surge in tempo? Is he trying to recoup his domestiques? Perhaps it’s something more Machiavellian. Maybe Roglič’s just sitting back for now, waiting paitiently for Pogačar to burn himself out by chasing the French. Who knows? All that’s certain is that Primož Roglič is going backwards. Pogačar sneaks another look behind him — it’s the last time the camera catches a glimpse of the young man before he, too, is gone.
Interlude 1: The Players
Primož Roglič is many things. He’s the son of a coal miner. He’s a husband, a new father. Famously, he used to be a very talented ski jumper, until an unfortunate crash put an end to those dreams when Roglič was a young adult. After the accident, Roglič knew, deep in his heart, that his days as a winter sportsman were coming to an end one way or another and so, to spare himself some of the agony of failure, he quit. For a while, like many young men entering their twenties, he drifted aimlessly through life, working odd jobs as he searched for something to commit to.
At some point during this nebulous period, Roglič started cycling. After a few amateur races and grand fondos, he fancied himself rather good at it. After a few more, he decided he would become a cyclist. Thus the 21 year old sold his motorbike, worked as a janitor cleaning stairs in a mall, pinched every penny he could in an effort to buy his first real road bicycle. The rest, as they say, is history. Primož Roglič is impossibly good for someone whose career started impossibly late. His success, combined with the narrative of his life, propelled him to his current status as one of the best, most beloved cyclists in the world, not to mention one of Slovenia’s national heroes.
Biographically, he and Tadej Pogačar couldn’t be more different. Born nine years after Roglič to a family of very different class status, Pogačar began cycling as a youth, his talent nurtured through adolescence by Slovenia’s biggest names in the sport. Cycling formed the backbone of his life, and he devoted himself wholeheartedly to it. By the time he entered the Would Tour, signing with UAE Team Emirates in 2019, Tadej Pogačar was already a hotshot, a contender. He had the legs, he had the skill, he had the talent. All he needed was an opportunity to shine.
One thing the two have in common is that they are both shy, quiet men who keep their cards close to their chests. Pogačar’s timidness is easy to understand. His polite, quiet disposition already lends itself to introversion; but beyond that, he is a young man learning all the usual hard lessons of adulthood while simultaneously being thrust into the limelight very, very quickly. Think of it this way: if you went from being a pretty big fish in your country’s small pond to winning the Tour de France in less than two years, you’d probably be a little shy too.
Primož, however, has lived much more of life and is therefore more complicated. Put a camera in front of Primož Roglič and he will give you nothing. All you’ll get from him is the same canned interview (“Uhhh yeah, really hard stage today. We had good guys out there and we did the best we could…” etc. etc.) recited in the same stoic demeanor. Even in behind-the-scenes footage like the documentary Team Jumbo Visma put out about his 2019 Vuelta win, Roglič shuts down the second the camera is nearby. Save for the few tender moments spent with his wife and newborn son, the film portrays a man with superhuman focus on one thing and one thing alone: winning.
Everyone who knows Roglič intimately — his wife, his teammates, his directeurs sportifs — swears by him, claims that beneath the surface he’s warm and good-humored, humble and kind. However, the public does not get to see this version of him. The Primož we see is cold, unemotional, contemplative, so much so that he’s earned himself a reputation for being robotic — a machine built to ride a bike and ride it well and nothing more. Part poker-faced strategy, part coping mechanism, when the man gets anywhere near a bicycle, the rest of the world does not exist for him. Even when he is suffering, his face does not show pain.
When Tadej Pogačar defeats Primož Roglič in the final time trial of the 2020 Tour de France, Roglič collapses on the ground, visibly shaken, eyes haunted, sweat mingling with tears and instantly, that years-long facade of focused calm is blown apart. Instantly, Team Jumbo Visma’s Slovenian winning machine is proved human after all. Tadej, on the other hand, is stunned. As the interviewers rush over to him, all he can say is, “I’m just a kid from Slovenia…” Pogačar’s face is one of surprised anguish. He can’t tell whether to feel the joy of victory or the twinges of guilt at what he’s done to his compatriot. As if to answer Tadej’s question, Primož rises from the asphalt, interrupts his interview, and embraces him. “Good job,” he says. “Good job.”
Primož Roglič does this because it is sportsmanlike, but more importantly, because Tadej Pogačar is his friend. He wants the younger man to experience the magnitude of his achievement untainted by any worry or remorse over Primož’s own defeat. With that embrace, Roglič gives Pogačar his blessing, grants him permission to celebrate, reinforces that there will still be a future for their time together after this. It is a simple act, transpiring over the course of a few seconds, but it reveals for the first time a glimpse of the gentle kindness Roglič’s wife and teammates have sworn by all along.
To put it simply: Tadej Pogačar made Primož Roglič human to the rest of the world.
The Mishap at the Autodrome, Revisited
I have replayed the footage spanning the end of the Cima Gallisterna and the beginning of the autodrome countless times in an attempt to see what happens between our two protagonists at their moment of decision. The events to follow are nebulous and murky, jumbled up between careening hairpins and constantly shifting camera views. Despite this, there’s still enough there to tell a story.
First thing’s first: somewhere between the 70 kilometer mark and the 65 kilometer mark, the Slovenian duo call Alaphilippe’s bluff. They know after they enter the descent that the purpose of the French Offensive is not to launch Alaphilippe to victory but to make it look like that’s what they’re going to do. They do this to get a rise out of the peloton, to tire everyone else out with the pursuit and in some ways, this works out quite well — the peloton’s dropping riders left and right. If Alaphilippe actually appeared poised to attack solo, neither of the Slovenians would allow the charge to go ahead without them. But Alaphilippe’s doing no such thing, and as a result, Roglič and Pogačar both (albeit at different times within those five kilometers) decide to let the Belgians do the work of chasing.
Primož Roglič has been missing since the 67 kilometer mark. We don’t see him again until the riders enter the autodrome with 59 kilometers to go. He’s managed to fall all the way to the back of the peloton for reasons entirely unknown. One wonders whether he’s just having a bad day — a mechanical issue perhaps. Maybe his legs are simply unable to sustain the pace of the French. Regardless, he’s suspiciously far back and none of his teammates are around to help return him to the front. How could Slovenia let this happen?
58.6 kilometers to go: Jan Polanc drops back to assist Primož Roglič. The Slovenian rider 15 positions from the front long assumed to be Tadej Pogačar is no longer there as the French wind their way around a corner of the racetrack.
57.9 kilometers to go: Tadej Pogačar pops his head out of the middle of the peloton and signals for the team car. The announcers miss this development and the camera only captures it for a split section. It appears as though the Slovenian team is having a rather tough time — one leader’s fallen behind while the other seems to need some kind of assistance, either medical or mechanical.
But this is not true.
As is often the case in cycling, what appears to be chaos is, in fact, order. Tadej Pogačar isn’t in distress. He’s dreamt up a plan — a beautiful plan, a noble plan — and he’s waited patiently for the calm flat of the autodrome to set it in motion.
57.7 kilometers: Pogačar drops to the back of the peloton, and as it passes, one can see a team of three Slovenian riders move their way up near the front of the bunch. One of them is Primož Roglič.
57.1 kilometers: Tadej Pogačar steadies himself. The sound of rushing wheels fills his ears as the peloton absorbs him, the rushing fades as it spits him out. There’s no radio — he has no way of communicating with his teammates or the team car save for whatever sound he can force out of his big lungs.
In cycling, the number 13 is considered bad luck, and if one is assigned that number, it is tradition to pin the lables upside down on one’s jersey in order to mitigate said misfortune. As the camera shows Pogačar fall behind the group, we can see that he has not done that. He’s young, too young to be superstitious; too talented for bad luck to affect him in any major way.
Pogačar’s behind the team car. It’s clear they are not expecting him, but no matter. He reaches down and puts his water bottle in the back pocket of his jersey. He’ll need it for later, and he wants to make sure he doesn’t forget it in the chaos of what’s ahead. He pedals back up to the car, gestures at it.
56.8 kilometers: The announcers suspect Pogačar’s had a mechanical issue. In reality, Tadej’s bike is perfectly fine — it’s just not the one he wants, not the one he needs right now. It’s too heavy, and if he’s going to fly, his wings have to weigh as little as possible.
It’s now or never. If Tadej wants a lighter bike, the only opportunity he has to get one is at the autodrome. It’s the one truly flat part of the course, and he’ll need to build up as much speed as possible to make it back to the rear of the peloton. The width of the track makes it easier to pass the team cars. It spreads out the group, which relaxes a little bit because they know that the most punishing climbs are ahead of them, the racetrack their sole chance for respite.
It happens so fast. The car stops, and a man gets out. Pogačar quickly but carefully abandons his bike in the grass as the man unlatches another bike off the roof of the sedan. He hands it to Tadej who leaps into the saddle and in one fluid, continuous motion, launches himself.
Pogačar picks up speed, hurtles forward faster and faster, weaving in and out of the cars, and within a minute he can see the mass of bright colors fanning out across the road. With ease and grace, he passes by the neutralized car of the race commisaires, and, looking as though he’d expended no effort whatsoever, he’s back in the bunch.
At 52 kilometers to go, blond-brown hair poking out from the slats of his helmet, Pogačar steadies himself, rests his hands on the brakehoods of his bicycle and takes a deep breath, trying to get oxygen into his lungs, slow down his heart rate, recover from the big effort he’s just had to make. None of his teammates are present to help guide him up through the ranks — they’re up there with Roglič, shielding him from the wind. It’s an indication that Pogačar is acting on his own — that the bike change has caught his comrades by surprise. He takes an energy gel and pops it in his mouth before weaving to the side of the group, careful not to get sucked into the center by any of the jolty maneuvers in front of him.
Meanwhile at the head of the pack, the Belgians set the pace, fan themselves out across the road, slowing down the tempo a bit from the hellacious sprint the French made them suffer through. It seems as though the race has finally simmered down, but while the pace relaxes, the anxiety froths beneath the surface.
Over the course of the next ten kilometers, several contenders test the patience of the Belgians. Australia sidles up to the front with Michael Matthews. Poland’s leader and 2014 World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski tries to get in position, the Dutch rider Dylan van Baarle in his wheel. Britain’s Luke Rowe brings his young compatriot Tom Pidcock to the front, but Rowe can’t sustain the pace for long and fades back into the bunch. Pidcock, without a domestique, is left in the wind, and despite an effort by Rowe to come back a few kilometers later to help his associate, the attempt is ill-fated and ultimately amounts to nothing.
At some point, the Slovenian team reassembles — whether that’s because Pogačar rode his way forward or because everyone else dropped back to help him is unclear. He settles in and has a chat with Primož Roglič.
Tadej Pogačar has a lot on his mind. He’s got a lot of decisions to make, questions to ask himself, and it is at this point in the race where all those decisions coalesce and he tells his friend what he plans to do.
A day before the World Championship Road Race, in a Zoom interview with Cycling News, Tadej Pogačar confesses that he’s still processing his feelings surrounding the Tour de France. “My head’s all over the place,” he admits. The interviewers question whether or not he and Roglič will be able to work together after what happened at the Tour, and both men insist that they ride well as teammates and there will be no problems. When asked about who would lead the Slovenian team, Pogačar does not give anything away, but he does say that Roglič winning the race would be like “a fairy tale,” a dream come true — albeit with the caveat that there would still be a lot of tough competition, and who comes out on top remains to be seen.
What Tadej means by “a fairy tale” is not that the possibility of Roglič winning is in any way fantastical — after all, the man’s one of the best cyclists in the world, second place in the Tour de France be damned. He means that Roglič winning would be the perfect ending to a great story, turning an arc of disappointment into one of redemption.
Primož Roglič is already the stuff of fairytales, the rainbow bands would simply add another chapter.
Let’s be very clear here: Tadej Pogačar has the ability and the form to win the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race. The course suits him, he’s already warmed up from the Tour, he has a good team around him, and if it came down to a bunch sprint, he could hold his own. He could choose to compete for the victory, and if he makes that choice, he’d be a force to be reckoned with. But by the time he meets up with Roglič at the foot of the Cima Gallisterna, Tadej Pogačar has long since made the decision not to win.
The two stay together for a while.
One can imagine Pogačar debating his plan with Roglič, insisting that it’s the right thing to do, insisting that somebody has to take the initiative at the 42 kilometer mark — besides, that’s where Anna van der Breggen launched herself in the women’s race yesterday, and nobody caught her, not even at the finish line.
“I’m going to make a break for it, Primož,” Tadej says.
“Someone’s got to wear out the Belgians. They’re shutting everything down. They’re going to grind us into dust through strength in numbers ‘til the end if something doesn’t change. My legs are good, I know I can do it.”
Primož does not want Tadej to go. It’s too early, it’s a waste, and secretly he’s worried that if he lets Tadej break away, he’ll ride away victorious and further twist the knife the boy lodged a week ago in Primož’s heart. Tadej, however, knows that his legs aren’t good enough for that. He could win if he stayed with the group, but in a solo breakaway with forty kilometers left to go? Fat chance. Still, he doesn’t tell Primož that, for the sake of both their pride.
“Why you, though, Tadej? We have domestiques for that.”
“Jesus, Rogla. Like the Belgians are going to waste their energy on some lowly Slovenian domestique. But the winner of the Tour de France…well.”
Tadej has a point, and when Primož looks around and sees none of his other teammates nearby, he realizes that Tadej Pogačar is all he’s got left. Used to commanding a powerful train of riders as the leader of Team Jumbo Visma, the current situation has Roglič feeling rather exposed. If Tadej goes, he’ll be all alone, but if Tadej succeeds in wearing out the Belgians, it would be much more helpful than the alternative of simply taking turns in the wind. Besides, if Tadej wins from a breakaway, they’re still on the same team. It would be a victory for Slovenia, their victory. With a sigh, Primož acquiesces, and though he agrees to the strategy, he remains unsure as to whose benefit Tadej’s breakaway will serve. Only Tadej knows the answer to that question.
44 kilometers to go, Roglič assumes the position ahead of Pogačar, leads him in and out of lines of weaving riders. The speed is brutal and the maneuver is difficult, but they persevere, waiting patiently for an opening. Every few seconds, Roglič looks back at his young companion, checks to see if he’s still there, not yet used to their roles as equals — as teammates for their country or as riders, as people. Their teammate, the sprinter Luka Mezgec joins them and takes over for Roglič, who’s relieved he no longer has to do the hard work of braving the wind, of dodging riders left and right while setting Tadej up. Roglič’s admittedly not a great domestique, but Mezgec is, and he makes quick work of guiding Pogačar exactly where he needs to go.
Roglič slinks back into the peloton, holding his breath a little, craning his neck to watch Mezgec deliver his precious cargo on time and in great condition, right at the doorstep of the Cima Gallisterna. As the wheels whoosh around him, he reflects on the gentle, strange friendship he’s shared with Tadej Pogačar, hopes that all those words of encouragement and advice have paid off, wishes that their days as mentor and protégé could last just a little longer. Tadej disappears from Roglič’s field of vision, and all Roglič can think is come on, Tadej, come on.