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Vuelta a Espana

Commentary: Is Primož Roglič pushing himself too far at Vuelta a España after Tour de France injuries?

The Slovenian is preparing for a bid to take his fourth Vuelta just weeks after breaking two vertebrae.

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I’ve been very fortunate in my cycling life to have not been involved in a serious crash resulting in any major lasting injuries. However, last week I fell in a slow-rolling crash and sprained my wrist. I didn’t know this at the time, so I kept going for another 30 miles, hard-woman style.

This, in fact, was a terrible decision. A few hours later, the function in my wrist was lost, the pain was horrid, and as someone who types for a living, I quickly became late on all of my deadlines, including this one. Even now, something’s not quite right in the way my fingers curve and extend to form words.

Obviously, I know I am not a professional cyclist with a professional cyclist’s exceptional pain tolerance. Yet I cannot imagine breaking two vertebrae, continuing on in the Tour de France and attacking on major alpine climbs, finally being sent home when the pain became unimaginable, chilling in Tignes for a month (broken vertebrae ostensibly takes between six and twelve weeks to heal), ponying up, and then deciding to be the GC leader of the Vuelta a España. But then again, I am not Primož Roglič.

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The current mythos of Roglič holds that he’ll be able to pull it off again — to come back just as he always does, and that there’s no one out there who can best him in the hills of Spain. This has been the concluding yearly narrative since 2019. But this time is different, feels different. This time, there’s a strange sort of desperation to it — a last resort, similar to that of many others who seek out the Vuelta to soothe the wounds of the previous grand tours.

Recently it was revealed in the Dutch press that Roglič was still in pain, but that he would, of course, try his best. Now, whether that pain is as apocryphal as Wout van Aert’s “knee pain” that sent him out of the Belgian championships before the Tour, we can’t know. But given the healing time for a broken vertebra, one is more likely to err on the side of caution.

Don’t get me wrong, Roglič is still one of the best bike racers in the world. But looking back on this season ahead of the Vuelta, even I have to admit he seemed more fragile than we’re used to. In Paris-Nice, he had to overcome some kind of personal demons in the last stage after getting dropped by Simon Yates. In Itzulia, he felt considerable pain and ceded the GC to Vingegaard.

In the Dauphine, he seemed strong but perhaps not as strong as his Danish protégé. And then, in the Tour, bad luck got the best of him again in the cobbled stage. Now, the Vuelta starts tomorrow, and one doesn’t know what to expect.

If Roglič is still in pain, one must wonder why exactly Jumbo-Visma has decided to send him anyway with the explicit program of competing for GC rather than stages. A bigger question is whether it is ethical to send a rider who has sustained a major injury to another grand tour even if he himself wishes to participate, but that is a considerable and nuanced topic of debate.

Of course, spectators want to see Roglič race in Spain, and showing up is a big part of a cycling team’s business model. Yet I’ve seen many fans on social media simply wishing him well, worrying about his well-being, or even expressing the sentiment that they didn’t want him to ride out of fear of further injury. This is a far cry from the celebratory atmosphere of last year, after Roglič came back from his similarly unlucky Tour to conquer the Olympic Time Trial. Then there’s the matter of the 2022 Vuelta itself.

Cycling’s version of an extremophile, Roglič thrives on long, hot, difficult climbs. However, the parcours of this Vuelta is different, gentler. It’s the most forgiving Vuelta parcours we’ve seen in some time — in fact, there’s only one “especial climb in the whole race — Stage 15’s Alto Hoya de la Mora in Sierra Nevada. For an injured Roglič, that might be a blessing in disguise, but for Roglič the GC contender, those kinds of climbs are where he shines best. Looking at his competition, this less difficult parcours comes as a benefit for the likes of Yates, Jai Hindley, Richard Carapaz, and João Almeida.

As for strategy, Roglič’s penchant for not being in the leader’s jersey could come back to bite him in a field far stronger than the one he faced last year. Ceding the lead to Rein Taaramäe and Odd Christian Eiking was virtually riskless in a GC field headlined by Enric Mas, Adam Yates, Jack Haig, and a very tired Egan Bernal. In such a field, Roglič’s GC lead over Mas was a whopping 4:42.

This year’s is different. One must remember that in 2020, Roglič almost lost to Carapaz on the final mountain stage and Yates got the better of the Slovenian on the final day in this year’s Paris Nice. Jai Hindley won this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Furthermore, the team Roglič has been sent with by Jumbo-Visma is one of the weaker teams it has put together in some time. Rohan Dennis and Edoardo Affini are clear picks for the Stage 1 team time trial, and we’ve seen Dennis pull his weight in the mountains for Egan Bernal in the 2021 Giro. However, this year, he’s been plagued by illness and injury and remains a question mark. In the difficult mountain stages, Roglič will have to rely heavily on Sepp Kuss who is coming off a particularly demanding Tour.

One wonders why lead-out man Mike Teunissen is even there except to perhaps contest a few sprints or help the time trialists pull on the flat. Other teams aren’t as weak as they were last year either. Ineos Grenadiers has sent one of the strongest teams they’ve put together all season: Carapaz is helped by 2020 Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart and super domestiques Pavel Sivakov and Carlos Rodriguez, while the likes of Ethan Hayter and Dylan van Baarle are clear favorites for stage hunting.

Bora-Hansgrohe is another strong team, where Hindley will be aided by the likes of Wilco Kelderman and Sergio Higuita. Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl is sending Remco Evenepoel, Remi Cavagna and Julian Alaphilippe. This Vuelta is a very different animal.

And yet, Roglič, despite all of this is still the favorite. If he were healthy, he’d be overwhelmingly so. Beneath all of this doubt I’ve spent 1,000 words sowing here, setting realistic expectations to live with, there is still a scintilla of hope. That’s what makes Roglič such a fantastic athlete: even when he’s been knocked down, beaten up, and is visibly, tortuously suffering, he still manages to find something within himself to fight like hell, pull himself up from the depths of despair, and if not outright win, then at least survive.

In a world in crisis where resilience itself feels increasingly unsustainable, the incredible feats of Roglič offer comfort for many. But at a certain point, the body can only withstand so much. A threshold will be crossed wherein Roglič doesn’t pull through. That will be a sad day in cycling. In light of all that’s happened this season, perhaps it’s best if we start preparing for it now.