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Urška Žigart is Slovenia’s newest WorldTour superstar

The Team BikeExchange rider had her first 2021 victory on Sunday. Here, she explains what it's like to be a female pro in Slovenia.

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On Sunday, Urška Žigart won the final stage of the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana with a stunning 25km solo breakaway. It was the young Slovenian’s first victory of 2021, and a good day on the podium for Team BikeExchange (Ari Fidanza sprinted to second).

While Žigart has been racing professionally since 2015 when she joined the BTC City Ljubljana continental squad, the 24-year old has been riding in the Women’s WorldTour’s upper echelon for two years. Early this year, Žigart transferred from Alé BTC Ljubljana to Team BikeExchange.

When Žigart left Alé BTC Ljubljana — a team formed from the fusion of BTC City Ljubljana and Italian team Alé Cipollini — she wasn’t only leaving behind three Slovenian teammates but also half a dozen years of racing for a Slovenian team.

2020 proved that cycling powerhouses indeed come from Slovenia, but what is the experience like for riders not named Tadej or Primož?

In late 2020, VeloNews spoke with Žigart, Slovenian’s national time trial champion and also partner of one said Tadej, about women’s cycling in the stunning central European nation.

https://twitter.com/GreenEDGEteam/status/1391405838636568582

VeloNews: Slovenian cycling is not a secret anymore. Is women’s cycling popular in Slovenia, as well?

Urška Žigart: Cycling has always been a somewhat popular sport in Slovenia, but now it’s really a big boom. Women’s cycling has never been too popular. Yes, now you can meet more and more women on (road) bikes and it’s really nice to see it, but in terms of professional women’s cycling, it’s not growing as fast as we’d like. We have some juniors, maybe enough for one team, but it’s incomparable to countries like Italy and Netherlands where they have many club teams and races.

VN: Were there professional female (or male) Slovenian cyclists that you looked up to when you were young?

UZ: No. I started cycling when I was 18, so that is pretty late. I was immediately on the team with other Slovenian cyclists so they became my friends and teammates not so much idols. I remember that when I joined the team, I looked up to Polona Batagelj the most.

VN: Do young Slovenian women have the same opportunities to become professional cyclists as men?

UZ: I think up until this year they had even better opportunities than men because we had our own Slovenian UCI team and there was a natural progression for talented riders. Now that we merged together with Alé it’s a bit harder because only a part of it is Slovenian, but it’s still a good connection. On the other hand, men have more continental teams to go to after junior years, but because there are more of them it’s harder for them to get a spot in the elite team. Slovenian girls have just two or maybe three teams to develop in, but there are only about 10-15 of them in all of Slovenia so it’s hard for them to learn to race with such a small number of them.

VN: What is your cycling background? Did you start in another sport?

UZ:  When I was in elementary school I did athletics and then a few seasons of volleyball, and then I quit everything. Then just for myself, I did some running and then I started cycling in my free time. First on a stationary bike and then I bought a road bike and I joined BTC City Ljubljana in 2015, but in the first two seasons I didn’t race a lot and I had a lot to learn. I still have problems with riding in a group comfortably and I think this is an important thing that I missed not racing as a junior.

VN: When you joined Alé BTC Ljubljana, did you feel prepared to race at the WWT level?

UZ: Yes. It was not much different than my last two seasons with BTC City Ljubljana. The races were similar, the teams at races were also similar, but now we are slowly getting to the same format as men’s teams with WorldTour teams having a superior status than others and pushing other teams to start meeting the criteria to also become WorldTour teams.

In the previous years, in the team BTC City Ljubljana, without them, we wouldn’t have had the chance to gain the experience and race all over the world. They really invested a lot in us. I’ve been with them since I started cycling, and if it weren’t for them, I would’ve never had a chance in this sport. They’ve opened the door for us Slovenians, first with supporting the BTC City Ljubljana team and last year with the Alé merger to step up to WorldTour level, so I am really grateful that they continued to believe in us.

VN: 2020 brought great exposure to Slovenia through Tadej and Primož. Did that bring more attention to women’s racing in Slovenia? Has it brought more money to the federation or to the development of young Slovenian girls?

UZ: It has brought more attention I think, and we followed with some good results in the world championships with [Eugenia] Bujak (Alé BTC Ljubljana) and [Urša] Pintar (Alé BTC Ljubljana) both improving the previous best Slovenian result in world champs. I don’t think I am the right person to address the questions about where the money goes, but I hope the young girls will get more chances to go to even more international races and not just racing with younger juniors in Slovenia.