LA VUELTA A ESPANA 2021: WEEK 2



30.8.2021



Risk, Reward, and a Reformation of Character: How Primoz Roglic is answering his critics


Primoz Roglic’s Vuelta so far has, on paper, been reasonably successful. Two stage wins, a few days in the red jersey, and ultimately, a relatively conservative defence of the modest time gap he holds over the select group of other major GC contenders. There was one small blip in the middle somewhere… but we’ll get to that later.


When you follow a rider’s career, you tend to notice negative feeling towards said rider more keenly, but the criticism aimed at Roglic over recent seasons has felt unjust, at times. His critics come in many guises. Some are tongue in cheek, mocking his desire to obtain bonus seconds, to fight for every place at the finish line. Some perceive him as cold and unapproachable; talented but too calculated and measured to get excited about. I would suggest they are misjudging a man who is at heart a fierce competitor; a lover of the sport, and most importantly, a truly decent person. We’ll get to that later, too.


First, back to the race.


Stage 9 concluded the first block of racing, and was a day of big climbs, 4,500m of them to be precise. For Jumbo Visma, it was about consolidation; tracking Roglic’s rivals and not taking unnecessary risks in the extreme heat. The aggressor among the favourites was once again Adam Yates; he attacked on the final category 1 climb of Alto de Velefique and while he looked good, Primoz shut down each attack and looked as if he could have launched an attack of his own. But he rode within himself, and contained the threats, preventing any challenges on his lead from arising.


Following Stage 9, many were quick to question his lack of ambition, preferring to defend his slender lead than use the climb to launch an attack and gain additional time on his rivals.


To answer the doubters, as a fan, was to remind them of recent disappointments: why would he take risks when he didn’t need to? It was hot. There were still many days of racing ahead. He didn’t want to go out too soon and risk being pegged back. He preferred to ‘keep his powder dry’ and save what appear to be good legs for later in the race, following the disappointments of recent grand tours and the expectation that lay on his narrow Slovenian shoulders.


It was the kind of tactic employed by many a GC leader in recent years but often it seems that Roglic draws criticism where others have drawn admiration; and in an era where attacking tactics seem to be the standard, riding defensively is increasingly seen as a negative.





The Architect of his own Downfall


Following the rest day, as is often the case, the breakaway took control of the race and the peloton let them. Yet it was not to be a quiet day in the GC group. On the only categorised climb of the day, Primoz made a move and aimed to distance the rest of the GC group. It was bold, and it succeeded – for a while at least – as he gained almost half a minute on his rivals.


Going over the top of the climb though, the dry, sketchy descent caught him out as he pushed on to try and capitalise on his advantage, and through the narrow gap between my fingers, the only way I could watch the cringe-inducing downhill section, I saw him come down.


No.


No, no, no. Not again. Was my initial reaction to the fall. It’s not the first time he’s gone down like this; it’s not the first time this year – painful memories of the double crash in Paris-Nice sprung too readily to mind as I watched Primoz pick up his bike, re-engage the chain and begin riding again.


A lucky escape for him, maybe. We wouldn’t know for sure until after the stage. Not so lucky for the fans who tried to regain control of their breathing and stave off the impending coronary episodes. It’s tough being a Roglic fan. And yet the doubters say he’s cold, and calculating?


He’s meticulous and measured when it comes to planning; he knows his own body and when he can push, and how hard. Before the 2021 Tour de France he rode every climb, rode recon on the TT routes, researched and prepared. It didn’t work out there, sadly. The months of planning and preparation were in vain. Here at the Vuelta, though, like last year, he is here to salvage something from his season. He is riding on instinct, with verve and passion, and most importantly, in his best form, and it’s a sight to behold. There is little doubt in my mind that the attack on stage 10 was spontaneous, borne of a good feeling in the legs and a desire to take a chance, and use his talent to spark life into the contest.


Of course, the critics tore into his unnecessary risk-taking following the stage, and perhaps he could have taken it easier on the descent, but in the end, as he told reporters: ‘no risk, no glory’. He has arrived at the Vuelta physically in great shape, mentally relaxed, and without the immensity of the pressure that the Tour’s relentless ‘Pog v Rog’ narrative inflicted on him. He’s riding expressively, and with freedom. He reflects the spirit of the race itself, the least pressured of the three grand tours, and the one where historically, surprises can happen. His tactics on stage 10 may have been high risk, high reward, but they were what the race was crying out for.





The following day, as he and the rest of the GC group closed in on the doomed Magnus Cort up the formidable final ascent in Valdepenas de Jaen, he shared a moment with Enric Mas; somehow almost static whilst climbing a wall, the two gladiators sized one another up, perhaps discussing whether they would fight, or reach an entente cordiale, before they opted to attack; breaking Cort’s heart and setting the GC battle alight once again in the process.


It was a GC battle which, on the face of it, belonged to Odd Christian Eiking for the majority of the second week, as he took over the red jersey from stage 10, and there are of course no guarantees in cycling. The battle which flared into life for a couple of stages was nullified once again as the second week drew to a close in Extremadura, and the protagonists looked head to the final week. But if Roglic continues in his current form, and in the mood he appears to be in, there is no reason to assume he won’t be once again wearing red, as the final test, a 33km time trial, approaches.





The Makings of a Legend


I’m going to propose a theory now, which others may or may not agree with. But this is my column, so here it is. For all his reputation as a cold, ruthless killer of races, who gives nothing back to reporters and hunts only for bonus seconds, Primoz Roglic is a really nice human being. We, as close followers of his career, know this already: as a team mate he is grateful, warm and inclusive, a big brother figure for the likes of Jonas Vingegaard, a friend to the rest, and always appreciative of the effort others put in and the sacrifices they make for him. He is openly joyful over the successes of others. As a rival he is respectful and generous. Overall, he’s an empathetic, decent guy, possibly to a fault, who cares what others think of him, and reacts accordingly.


Over the course of the past season or so, he appears to have developed a self-awareness that has resulted in a shift in the perception of his character by both the media and the neutral fans. Just as he is occasionally the architect of his own downfall when it comes to his performance on the road, the gradual shift in perception has also been down to his own actions: he cares what people think of him. He wants to please others. And as a result, he is becoming the favourite rider that everyone always thought he could be.


I believe that his reactions following the controversial win over Gino Mader in Paris-Nice, and later, in the Basque Country, where he openly allowed David Gaudu to take a well-deserved stage victory, show an intent to make right the perceived wrongs and be the bigger man. If this theory holds true, and Roglic is listening to his critics, perhaps this goes some way to explaining stage 10 of La Vuelta where it seemed as though Roglic responded directly to detractors of his defensive riding on stage 9 by attacking in an unplanned move which, if it weren’t for the crash, would have resulted in a time gap on his rivals.


This may just be wild speculation, but what is clear is his transformation from the almost aloof, stony-faced, self-effacing quiet man to what we now see, a rider who is content to show his true self, playful and mischievous, friendly and intelligent, becoming confident in himself as well as in his bike racing – the international media are seeing now what we have seen all along. It takes a rider to win a race but it takes a character to become a legend, and with his fighting spirit, his incredible talent and his unique and quirky personality, it’s finally fair to say that Primoz Roglic has the makings of a legend.