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The flawed brilliance of Primož Roglič

Roglič is so obviously one of the best grand tour riders of his generation. Yet he's now lost three major stage races in heartbreaking fashion.

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This past December, team Jumbo-Visma and Dutch broadcaster NOS released a behind-the-scenes documentary from the 2020 Tour de France titled “Code Yellow.” You can watch the entire thing here, but before warned: Unless you speak Dutch, the film’s juiciest bits may sound like The White Album being played backward.

For English speakers, the film’s most poignant moment comes right at the end. Primož Roglič, having just lost his seemingly insurmountable lead during the penultimate time trial to Tadej Pogačar, is left to contemplate the crushing defeat. For five or so agonizing minutes the camera lingers on Roglič as he rationalizes the situation (“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose”) and tries to analyze how he can squeeze four percent more effort out of his body to beat Pogačar (“Ahhh, bleep“).

During the segment, Roglič closes his eyes often and just soaks in the moment. We as fans will never know the cocktail of emotions coursing through his brain at that moment.

Also read: Primož Roglič reflects on agonizing TT defeat

I thought of that scene often over the past week while watching Roglič eviscerate the field at Paris-Nice, and to be perfectly honest, this column was initially focused on Roglič’s domination at the race. For seven days he and his Jumbo-Visma team squashed the entire peloton beneath their yellow cycling shoes, with Roglič taking the yellow jersey, the points jersey, and three stage wins after seven of eight stages.

Roglič was so obviously the strongest rider in the field, yet rather than defend his lead, he charged forward, running up the score on defending champion Max Schachmann. On Saturday evening Roglič led Schachmann by 52 seconds on GC, but to those of us following the race, it felt more like 52 hours or 52 days. The international conversation centered on whether or not Roglič should have gifted a stage win to breakaway rider Gino Mäder, as he was almost certainly assured of the overall win.

Also read: Primož Roglič pips final breakaway rider to secure hat-trick at Paris-Nice

In Super Bowl terms, this was the San Francisco 49ers drubbing the Denver Broncos, 55-10.

In my reading, Roglič’s decision to push himself onward, even during moments when he could have just sat up, had less to do with Paris-Nice, and everything to do with that scene in Code Yellow. How do you get four percent better, when your entire life is focused on perfection? Well, you push yourself harder than you need to at races like Paris-Nice, to go deeper and harder than you went last year.

Playing defense doesn’t get you ready for the Pogačar rematch, though does it?

And then, Roglič’s seemingly assured win at Paris-Nice, and this entire narrative, crashed on a winding descent in the glowing French sunshine.

On Sunday Roglič crashed, twice, and dislocated his shoulder. He mounted a valiant chase to try and get back to the peloton, but the margin was simply too big. Schachmann took the win and the mixed feelings that came along with it, telling reporters that he wish he had beaten Roglič in a different manner.

Now, Roglič and his fans — I include myself in this camp — are forced to soak in a question of an altogether different nature. And, to be perfectly honest, the question of how Roglič can close the gap to Pogačar seems a lot less pressing when compared to this new inquiry.

Why is it that this champion, who is so obviously one of the top two grand tour riders of his generation, consistently fails at the worst possible moments?

In the last eight months, we have seen Roglič transformed from obvious winner to surprise loser in three major WorldTour races, including the Tour de France. In fact, three of his last four stage races have concluded with agonizing defeat when victory seemed all but assured.

In all three situations, Roglič rode with an effortless brilliance alongside his juggernaut team for most of the race. He appeared bulletproof, a Terminator on two wheels. He maintained this untouchable aura for the lion’s share of each race, only to spectacularly crumble with the finish line in sight.

First, it was the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he won the second stage and wore the yellow jersey until a crash on stage 4 knocked him from the race with one stage remaining. Then, there was the Tour de France, where Roglič suffered the biggest come-from-ahead defeat since 1989.

And now, Paris-Nice.

One loss of this nature is just cycling. Two losses equate to a cruel twist of happenstance. But what do we make of three crushing losses? Three heartbreaking defeats, when victory slipped from his clutches, in his last four stage races?

Alberto Contador suffered some pretty stinging last-minute defeats, as did Cadel Evans, and we cannot forget Purito Rodriguez at the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Still, I cannot for the life of me remember the last time a rider endured three of them in such short succession. And I’m sorry, I cannot chalk this up to luck, the way that others may do.

Primož Roglič is unquestionably a rare and brilliant rider who has the full array of physical skills needed to win the biggest races. But he is not perfect, and whatever flaws are inside of his body or mind have bubbled up at the worst possible moments. I could fill three more columns with speculation about the roots of Roglič’s losing streak, but the point of this column is not to navel-gaze on why Roglič has lost. Rather, I’m more interested in how these three setbacks impact Roglič going forward.

Roglič will no doubt find himself in situations like this, again and again, clutching the yellow jersey with the finish line in sight, and victory all but assured. More gut-wrenching losses could transform this current losing streak into an identity, and maybe even a legacy. I’ll go ahead and speak for the Roglič fan club out there — we don’t want that. 

So, what transforms this losing streak into a blip on an otherwise storied career?

Winning the Tour de France erases these bitter memories for good. That’s a scene I’d happily watch in English, or in Dutch, or in any language, again and again.