Tour de France 2020

‘Stubbornness and persistence’ key to Slovenia’s rise as Tour de France force

With Slovenian athletes flourishing across various disciplines, it's not only Roglič and Pogačar flying the flag of the small nation.

The small nation of Slovenia has risen to the top of the biggest bike race in the world, with Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar currently one-two on the Tour de France podium.

It’s not just Pogačar and Roglič flying the flag for Slovenia, with the WorldTour peloton boasting a handful of top riders from the nation, and outside of cycling, a number of their compatriots rising to the top of their respective sports. For a small mountainous nation of just two million, Slovenia punches above its weight.

Related:

“There are great professionals in Slovenia in all kinds of sports, it’s a tough nation and we are all pushing each other,” Roglič told reporters last week.

Top athletes in other disciplines include NBA basketball stars Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat, Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak, and two-time Olympic champion skier Tina Maze. According to the country’s Olympic committee (OKS), Slovenia also ranks 15th for the number of Olympic medals per capita.

Leading Slovenian sports psychologist Matej Tušak, who used to work with Roglič at the beginning of his career, said because the country is small, its coaches are more motivated and work harder to train the nation’s smaller pool of talent.

“Slovenians have an ambition to be great… That forces us to take a different path if we want to be successful,” Tusak told AFP.

“If you are a basketball coach in the U.S., even if you do nothing, there are so many players, that from time to time you will get some with talent and athletic capacities that will make a career with just a little of your work.”

Andrej Miljković, a columnist at leading sports weekly Ekipa24, added that the drive for success from coaches and athletes, along with a “particular stubbornness and persistence” inherent to Slovenian sportspeople, forged a pathway to the top.

Tušak said strong state support – inherited from its Communist past when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia until its disintegration in 1991 – is another reason.

It’s not only the state that goes all-in to support athletes, but also the public, with OKS head Bogdan Gabrovec saying that the encouraging environment creates “a positive atmosphere and motivates the young for their work and for new success.”

Slovenia go one-two on GC.
Slovenia went one-two on the GC after stage 13. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat – Pool/Getty Images

Meanwhile, doping scandals have not left Slovenia untouched.

German doctor Mark Schmidt, accused of masterminding an international blood-doping network in what has become known as the Aderlass affaire, went on trial in his home country on Wednesday. So far, 23 cyclists and skiers from eight countries are known to be involved, including several riders from Slovenia. Cases and court hearings relating to this investigation are ongoing. Only two months ago, Swiss rider Georg Preidler was handed a suspended sentence for sports fraud related to the incident, having already been banned from cycling.

What’s more, Slovenian former cyclist and now manager Milan Erzen is suspected of having done business with Schmidt.

Tušak admitted there was “always a risk” of doping, but to dismiss impressive results from Slovenian athletes as being owed to that would be “ridiculous.”

Tušak said top sports physician Radoje Milic had spotted “exceptional… oxygen transmission” in Roglič when he tested him in 2012, and later found the same trait in Pogačar, now 21. After stage 13 of the Tour last Sunday, Roglič was questioned by reporters about whether his performance could be trusted, with the yellow-jersey wearer insisting “I have nothing to hide.”

Milic was so impressed by Roglič’s potential that he reportedly told the Adria Mobil team “we have a man that has just started training and has the kind of results nobody has had before. Take him to your team.” The Slovenian continental squad took note, and signed Roglič to his first pro cycling contract in 2013.

Seven years and a 2016 transfer to LottoNL-Jumbo later, Roglič is now odds-on for victory at the Tour de France and poised to etch another mark in Slovenia’s book of sporting achievement. And behind him, at 21 years of age, Pogačar has time on his side to make many more etches after that.

— AFP contributed to this report