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This story appeared in the January/February 2020 print issue of VeloNews.
Anyone watching the podium ceremony at the end of the 2019 Vuelta a España knew it was coming.
After the handshakes, the trophies, the jerseys, and yes, even an unbridled smile for what was a very tense and pressure-packed three weeks for Primož Roglič, it was inevitable. And finally there it was. Roglič spread his arms wide and split his legs beneath him like a pair of scissors. With his signature victory salute, Roglič was soaking up the moment of his incredible journey to become Slovenia’s first grand tour winner.
And just as fast as Roglič could tuck his knees, someone out there on social media raced to be the first to post on Twitter, “Hey, did you know Roglič used to be a ski jumper?”
Roglič’s improbable origin story has become something of a punchline among some cycling fans. Media over-kill with every journalist fawning over his ski jumping legacy hasn’t helped. Yet to make a punchline out of Roglič’s personal journey and extraordinary achievements diminishes the racer that many inside the peloton say is the most dangerous man in racing.
“He is just wired differently. He can do numbers that other people cannot,” said Jumbo-Visma teammate George Bennett, who helped pace Roglič to victory in the Vuelta. “He is the standard right now. He is the guy to beat. Ineos have strength in numbers, but now, so do we. It’s going to be very interesting next season.”
Roglič isn’t some sort of cycling version of the Jamaican bobsled team or a novelty like Eddy the Eagle (another former ski jumper). Roglič crushed the Vuelta, and ended the season ranked No. 1 in the world. He’s very much the real deal. After winning the Vuelta in dominant fashion, everyone knows Roglič is no laughing matter.
Yet even Jumbo-Visma staffers and directors will make light of Roglič’s unconventional background. Standing outside the team bus, even though they are in on the joke. Did you know he used to be a ski jumper? Everyone laughs.
The mood is good around the Dutch outfit these days. Team brass knows they won the lottery when they plucked the unknown and untested Slovenian out of the blue to join Jumbo-Visma in 2016. How good is Roglič? In the very first day of his very first grand tour—the 2016 Giro d’Italia — he came within a fraction of a second of beating Tom Dumoulin in the 9.8-kilometer time trial. Barely a week later, Roglič took his first WorldTour win, taking the individual time trial in Chianti. It’s been an uphill trajectory since then.
“I have never seen a rider learn so fast what it takes to race at this level,” said Jumbo-Visma sports director Addy Engels. “You have to remember that he did not start racing until he was 21. And now he has won a grand tour in only his fifth one. That is impressive.”
Roglič was the iceman throughout the Vuelta. Still stinging from his near miss at the 2019 Giro, where he won two stages early and held pink only to let it slip away in a few key miscues, Roglič was wired tight all the way to Madrid. Spanish journalists were pulling their hair out when he would serve short shift to post-stage inquiries, offering abbreviated four-word answers to three or four questions before ducking out.
“He’s pretty hard to read,” Bennett said. “He keeps his cards pretty close to his chest. But what he can do on the bike is impressive. He is almost freakish in how strong he is.”
Like Nairo Quintana, Roglič hides his pain and suffering behind an express-less mask that’s as opaque as it is unnerving. When you hear teammates describe Roglič, they use words like “focused,” “driven,” and someone who is “detailed-oriented.” Yet teammates say he can also be funny, in a Roglič kind of way.
“He’s a great leader to work for. He stays calm in every situation, and that carries over to us,” said teammate Sepp Kuss. “Things don’t faze him. He brushes things off. He says things that are uniquely Primož.”
An example? Engels recounted a crash at the Giro involving Roglič that left his shorts torn and his buttocks hanging out. “Grande Casino!” Engels recalled Roglič saying. “Me like! … [before pointing to his torn pants] but I don’t think my teammates like.”
“He is exactly the same as he is in the race,” said teammate Jos Van Emden. “It’s full-gas in the key moments, and relaxed the rest of the time.”
Roglič is not one of those chest-thumping, in-your-face type of racers. As a leader, he’s quiet, does his work, and delivers for the team when it counts. As a racer, he’s ambitious and ever more lethal in the big races. He has his quirks, too. He is the only rider on the team who drinks exactly one glass of red wine each night. He also likes the taste of beer, and will often drink a non-alcoholic version to help rehydrate after stages.
“He is very dedicated, but he’s funny,” Engels said. “Every day we laugh at the dinner table with Primož.”
Jumbo-Visma might be loose and laughing now, because they know the joke will soon be on their rivals.
In June 2018, a film crew accompanied Roglič to the Tour of Slovenia. By then, “Rogla fever” was in full pitch. Fans packed in around the team bus to cheer on their national hero. The previous summer, he became the first Slovenian to win a Tour de France stage, attacking in swashbuckling style over the Col du Galibier to win ahead of Chris Froome into Serre-Chevalier. As far as Slovenian sports stars go, he’s top dog right now. Think of Peter Sagan in neighboring Slovakia, and you get the idea of how much buzz he generates back home.
“He is bigger than any sportsman right now in Slovenia,” said Andrej Hauptman, a former Slovenian pro, now a sport director at UAE-Emirates. “Cycling is booming now because of Primož. The entire nation watches every race he starts.”
The crew followed him to his hometown of Kisovec, a small coal-mining town in the hills of central Slovenia. Roglič, born October 29, 1989, was just a baby when his nation fought for its independence as the former Yugoslavia broke into pieces. Slovenia escaped the ravages that tore up other republics, and a young Primož was among a new generation of Slovenians growing up proud in a newly independent nation. His father was a former miner who now works at the local water purification plant. With no other brothers or sisters, his doting mother raised Roglič at home.
As Roglič describes it, cycling didn’t find him, he found cycling. His first love was ski jumping. Jumps dot the Slovenian mountains, and the nation has rich alpine and Nordic ski racing traditions. Tina Maze, a double gold-medalist in downhill and giant slalom in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, is perhaps the most famous. As a young boy, Roglič was drawn to the allure of ski jumping, also called “ski flying.” By the time he was 10, he was already hucking himself off the local jump at Zagorje ob Savi.
“It was like flying. I liked the feeling. It’s something everyone dreams of doing,” Roglič said. “I wanted to be the best ski jumper in the world.”
His local hill is modest, at 50m in height (about 150 feet) on the lower end of what would be considered a medium hill, but it’s where the Roglič story begins. Today, Roglič is a strapping, 5-foot-9, 145-pound professional cyclist. When he was a budding 10-year-old, he was little more than a whippet.
Ski jumping is, at its nature, a gravity-defying pursuit. Weight is the enemy. Anything that would put on weight is banned, including cycling. Instead, ski jumping is founded on elasticity, explosiveness and discipline—three attributes that would later help catapult Roglič to the top of the cycling world.
“Ski jumping is a different sport, but there is a lot of stretching, yoga, speed work and core training,” Roglič said. “The skills are different, but I think that those skills helped me as a cyclist.”
At the junior ranks as a 17-year-old, he won a gold medal at the world championships in 2007. A few weeks later, he ventured to Planica, site of one of the most notorious ski jumps in the world. It’s holy ground for ski jumpers. At 139m (about 450 feet), Planica is what Alpe d’Huez is to cycling, or the Hahnenkamm is to downhill ski racing. It’s among the highest, longest and most harrowing jumps, with unpredictable wind and huge crowds. Skiers jump so far and so high at Planica it’s called ski flying. Success here would confirm Roglič’s credentials as an aspiring Olympian.
Things went horribly wrong. In one of those “agony-of-defeat” moments, Roglič immediately seemed off-balance as he bounded off the ramp. His legs askew, Roglič would completely lose control of his tuck, and crash on his left side, with his shoulder and head taking the brunt of the brutal impact. As a video clip available on YouTube reveals, Roglič would rag-doll down the landing area, lose both skis, and slide hundreds of meters on the snow before coming motionless to a stop. He was airlifted away in a stretcher, yet incredibly enough, Roglič did not suffer serious life-threatening injuries. His body was banged up and he suffered a concussion from the impact, but he bounced back to jump again.
“I did not have the respect or fear [for Planica] that day,” Roglič said, years later. “At that time, I thought I could do everything, jump more than 200m–you learn that you need the respect.”
But something changed that day. While Roglič would continue to train and compete for four more seasons, his progression stopped. Others moved up the pecking order, and he was overlooked for Olympic Games selection. In many ways, his ski jumping career ended that day on Planica, and a future in cycling that he could not yet see lay ahead was born.
Zero to hero
If he was the accident-prone ski jumper, he was the accidental cyclist.
Unlike many professional cyclists, who discover the passion for racing bikes at an early age, Roglič came to cycling almost as an afterthought. Slovenia is hardly a hotbed of cycling. While kids in Belgium want to be the next Eddy Merckx, Roglič was just looking for a new challenge to help fill the void of ski jumping.
By the time he was 21, Roglič knew that his ski-jumping career was over. Roglič admits he was a bit lost as he considered his future without ski jumping. He still had the discipline and ambition of a full-time athlete burning inside him. Though he was never a fan of cycling growing up, he dabbled in duathlon and triathlon, and soon started to ride a bike. The speed, freedom and physical challenge immediately appealed to him, and he realized he was innately good at it. And almost out of the blue, he decided he wanted to become a professional cyclist.
“I felt it was time for a change,” Roglič recounted. “I liked cycling and thought, why not? I will try to become professional.”
Those who saw it first-hand just laugh at the audacity of the 21-year-old who started reaching out to Slovenian cycling clubs. At that point, Roglič estimates he had ridden 3,000km in his entire life. Hauptman, now a sport director at UAE-Emirates as well as the national coach for the Slovenian Olympic team, remembers it well. At the time, Hauptman’s pro career was winding down, and he was managing a Slovenian continental-level team called Radenska that also ran a development squad.
“He called me one day—I had no idea who he was—and he said, ‘hello, I am Primož and I want to become a professional bike racer,’” Hauptman said with a laugh. “I said, how old are you, 21? It’s not so easy, cycling, especially starting from zero. He told me he used to be a sportsman, and I thought, OK, if he was a runner or a cross-country skier, but when he said ski jumper, I just laughed. I told him, OK, get a bike and call me back. I never thought I would hear from him again.”
If anything, Roglič is determined. He sold his motorcycle and worked at a supermarket to save up money to buy a second-hand racing bike, and promptly called Hauptman back. As Hauptman recalls, Roglič crashed more than he won.
“His big problem was staying in the group without crashing,” he said. “Once he was alone or on the climbs, you could see he had something special. He had a huge engine.”
The first hints of Roglič’s raw power came during training rides. One day, the team rode five hours at race speed and ended with a climb, and the only rider who could beat him was Jan Polanc, today a WorldTour pro who was at the time the most highly touted young rider. Roglič was a quick learner, and was always asking questions and for advice. Hauptman showed him how to stay in the group without crossing wheels and taught him how to corner on descents.
“He made mistakes, but only once. He was mature, focused and very strong mentally. He believed in himself,” Hauptman said. “He really started at zero, and now he is a hero. It’s incredible.”
By 2013, barely a year after dedicating himself to cycling, he had his first pro contract. He joined Adria Mobil, a Slovenian continental team that dates back decades. His first pro win came in his second season, taking a mountainous transition stage at the Tour d’Azerbaïdjan, beating current WorldTour pro Will Clarke in a two-up sprint, ahead of such names as Ilnur Zakarin and Pello Bilbao.
Though the skillset was dramatically different between ski jumping and cycling, there was important crossover. Roglič’s core strength and flexibility help him with his near-perfect time trial position, so much so that he almost beat Dumoulin in his first grand tour race against the clock. Roglič also brought an athlete’s attitude and mindset from snow to pavement that continues to pay dividends.
“When I was a ski jumper, I was not allowed to ride the bike because it would bulk you up,” Roglič said. “We did a lot of work with core strength, balance, flexibility and acrobatics. All that helps me on the bike.”
Based on promising rides, at 22, Roglič went in for testing at a top Slovenian sports lab. According to the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, Roglič revealed a V02max of 80.2, close to the top numbers posted by Chris Froome or Egan Bernal. By 2015, word was going around the WorldTour of a freakishly strong Slovenian. Roglič backed it up by winning the Azerbaïdjan tour as well as a stage and the overall at the Tour of Slovenia. Jumbo-Visma sport director Frans Maasen revealed how the team got the heads up.
“I got a call from a Slovenian friend, he said, ‘I have quite a story for you. I have found this ski jumper who has a huge motor and can ride like no one else.’ He wouldn’t stop talking about him,” Maasen told the film crew. “At first, I didn’t think much of it. We flew him to Netherlands to take a test. He was like a Ferrari.”
By 2016, just four years after he started to train and race, Roglič was at the WorldTour. Impressed by his capacity, the team brought him to the 2016 Giro in what would be his first grand tour. Roglič was, at least on paper, little more than a neo-pro. On his first day of his first grand tour, he nearly beat Dumoulin. Nine days later, he won a rolling, 40.5km individual time trial across Chianti, ahead of established stars like Fabian Cancellara and Bob Jungels.
A star was born. And before long, as the wins started to pile up, Roglič started using his trademark ski jump podium pose. And soon enough, someone on Twitter chimed on, “Hey, did you know that Roglič used to be a ski jumper?”
Cycling history is littered with riders who came to the sport with tremendous physical prowess but who disappeared because they could not deliver results on the road. That Roglič would only start racing at 21, win his first WorldTour race four years later, and win a grand tour in just his fifth start only underscores Roglič’s remarkable evolution.“He’s a rider you see once in a generation,” said Jumbo-Visma general manager Richard Plugge, who extended Roglič’s contract through 2023. “We got a bit lucky to find him, but Primož has done it all himself. We are only supporting him.”
Plugge has patiently rebuilt the Dutch team from the ashes of the scandal-ridden Rabobank team, taking over management in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal of 2012 that also had devastating effects in Dutch cycling. Right at the center of the team’s rejuvenation is Roglič, a rider that everyone inside the team bus believes can win the Tour de France.
Supporting Roglič is a fleet of strong climbers and experienced helpers, including Bennett, Robert Gesink, Laurens De Plus and Steven Kruijswijk. Wout Van Aert and Tony Martin, Roglič’s roommate during the Vuelta, provide support on the flats. The arrival of Tom Dumoulin in 2020 will only make Jumbo-Visma deeper and Roglič stronger.
Roglič’s agent confirmed that Jumbo-Visma managers were keeping Roglič fully informed when negotiations heated up about the possibility to bring Dumoulin on board, revealing they did not want to ruffle Roglič’s feathers. Roglič fully backed the Dutchman’s arrival.
“Tom will help make the team stronger,” Roglič said. “I want to win the Tour de France. After winning the Vuelta, I believe I can do it.”
Rivals are taking notice. He’s no longer some untested promise or the rider formerly known as a ski jumper. He’s now the most dangerous man in the peloton.
“Of all the riders out there who could be a danger man, I see Roglič right at the top,” said Ineos sport director Nicolas Portal. “Boof, what he did at the Vuelta was impressive. We will have to work harder if we want to keep winning the Tour.”
Roglič’s success at the Vuelta was no surprise to UAE-Emirates sport director Joxean Matxín Fernández, who has the Slovenian pearl Tadej Pogačar under his wing.
“He’s got the skillset, the motor and now the team,” said Fernández. “I thought he was going to win the Tour last year. I don’t think it will be long before he does.”
The stats don’t tell the full story of Roglič’s meteoric rise. And the enormity of his transition from ski jumping to cycling seems underappreciated. It’s one thing to move to cycling from cross-country skiing or running, where a big engine is essential. Roglič’s rise is like a golfer wanting to take up baseball, and then win the World Series within a few years.
In many ways, Roglič chose the wrong sport. He got lucky when he crashed at Panica, and eventually walked away from ski jumping. Cycling is his gift. Roglič is no longer the rider who used to be a ski jumper. He is now the rider best positioned to dethrone Ineos and end the team’s near decade-long throttle on the yellow jersey.
None of that mattered to Roglič on the late-summer evening in Spain. He had pulled off the unimaginable to win the Vuelta. He hoisted his trophy, tipped backed a beer, and dipped into a few more ski jumper poses. Twitter was going nuts.