Why Primož Roglic’s Tour de France Defeat Was So Damn Soul-Crushing

Kate Wagner
·9 mins read
Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images

From Bicycling

Arguably, Primož Roglič is amongst the world’s best cyclists, having now placed on the podium in all three Grand Tours. Arguably, Roglič is set for life, materially speaking, and his successful career will likely continue for at least another half-decade if not more. Arguably, winning second place in the Tour de France is a major achievement, one nobody in their right mind would scoff at. Arguably, Roglič and his team made mistakes—reasons for his loss range from ineffective strategy to a poorly thought out bike change to sheer bad luck. Arguably, one should celebrate the historic feat of the young Tadej Pogačar, who catapulted himself into the yellow jersey at the last second, ascending through the ranks over the course of the last few weeks despite a relatively weak showing from the rest of his team. Arguably, we should all be excited to see what this newest generation of cyclists will bring to the table. All of these things are arguable, and yet, and yet, Roglič’s loss of the maillot jaune in the final time trial still feels absolutely soul-crushing.

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Over the course of the past few days, I have tried to pinpoint exactly why Roglič’s defeat, which has a handful of historical precedents in cycling, seems so acutely devastating. There are upsets in the Tour de France every single year, and the laundry list of tragedies ranges from doping scandals to simple misfortune. In fact, the inevitability of tragedy is part of the unique Romanticism of cycling, a sport that combines every single literary conflict—man vs. himself vs. nature vs. machine vs. man—into a cocktail of the profane and the sublime.

While there is the more obvious comparison to the 1989 Tour de France LeMond-Fignon scenario (in which Laurent Fignon agonizingly loses the Tour to LeMond by eight seconds in the final time trial), I actually think, emotionally speaking, the closest parallel to what happened in this year’s Tour is the infamous battle between teammates Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1986. By the end of Stage 20, LeMond had made up an over four minute time deficit to unseat Hinault, a five-time Tour winner who was the overwhelming favorite in the court of public opinion (especially in France). Despite the odds that Hinault could come back by way of an aggressive effort in the final time trial, his fate was sealed. It was Hinault’s final Tour before retirement, and at the same time, the much younger LeMond’s victory made him the first American to win the yellow jersey.

This story is famous, partly because it has many of the same elements present in the Roglič-Pogačar conflict: a much younger rider unseating a heavily favored compatriot (in the LeMond case, from the same team rather than from the same nation) in the twilight hours of the Tour, with world-historic consequences in terms of inaugurating a specific country’s legacy within the sport. And yet, as much as the French public wanted Hinault to win, as much as Hinault wanted to win the Tour in his final effort before he threw in the towel, this story is still so much less heartbreaking than the one we experienced on Saturday, September 19th, 2020, not because of what happened but because of who was involved.

Photo credit: Chris Auld
Photo credit: Chris Auld

It’s incredibly difficult to not use sport as some kind of metaphor for one’s own life or as a synecdoche for a particular place such as one’s nation, college, or hometown and all of the experiences and identities encompassed within. It’s hard not to see oneself in the struggles of others. It’s hard not to get emotionally invested in these flawed human beings who begin to resemble so much more than just some guys on a bicycle. In many ways, Primož Roglič is such a special cyclist because his story, which is unique among professional racers, straddles many different axes of human experience including desire, failure, redemption, and resilience.

The story is well known. Roglič, born to average parents in Kisovec, a small coal mining town in the post-Communist country of Slovenia, started out as a ski jumper. By all means, he was talented: He won several Slovenian youth titles and later medals in bigger events such as the World Junior Championships. A devastating crash in 2007 marked a significant shift in his skiing career, and by the time he was 21, the young skier could not, despite years of dedicated effort after emerging as a talent early in adolescence, secure a spot at the top of the sport.

At the age of 22, he bought his first racing bike and decided to take up cycling. He won a number of small gran fondos and amateur races before reaching out to the UCI Continental team Adria Mobil, who took a chance on him. Roglič began to more publicly display his emerging talent, and after several strong performances (including winning the Tour of Slovenia in 2015), he was noticed by a recruiter who got in touch with staff at the Dutch UCI WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma. (For those of you in the know, Jumbo-Visma is the latest iteration of Rabobank, which for decades had been considered one of cycling’s strongest teams.) The rest is history.

If you watch interviews of Roglič, you will see a soft-spoken man who keeps to himself, displaying little of the self-assured cockiness natural to cyclists at the pro level. At 30, he is still somewhat early in his career compared to those of similar age, partially because he started out relatively late. Despite his four years of success as a WorldTour professional, one gets the sense that Roglič is continuously, quietly surprised by where he’s at in life. All of these things make him a unique figure in contemporary cycling, which has revolved around training a select few teenagers in intensive development schools to race grand tours by the time they are 21.

Photo credit: Chris Auld
Photo credit: Chris Auld

We want to believe in Roglič because we want to believe that one can fail—utterly, abjectly—at what one chooses to do as a young person and still go on to succeed at the highest possible level in something else, something previously unexpected. We want to believe that, despite being from humble circumstances, we too can ascend the ranks and achieve great things—that there is still a chance we can realize our deepest desires, our hidden potential. We want to believe that the greatest victories of our lives can come after we turn 30; that a lack of precociousness (whether real or as perceived by others) in our youth or adolescence—the time during which adults intervene to cultivate our talent into a budding career—does not stop us from fighting our way into the recognition we deserve. We want to believe that an outsider, completely isolated from the connections and machinations and politics of a given field, can become that field’s greatest champion.

It is a bit unfair to say that what we are talking about strictly follows the same, tired narratives of meritocracy because the victory of Tadej Pogačar better embodies that specific construct. Pogačar’s success fits a familiar meritocratic pattern of sports triumph: his talent being recognized, cultivated, after which—through sheer strength of will and despite his youth and lackluster team—he achieves his glory against all odds. The core of the emotional investment in Roglič’s story lies not in his success by way of sheer effort due to some kind of superhuman talent—but in his redemption, as a man no longer young, from failure. The desire to see Roglič win doesn’t come from wanting to see him overpower his competition in spite of a past that defies cycling’s norms (though that is a part of it), but rather from our need to believe that we live in a world that allows us the security and opportunity to do something else with our lives when what we’ve originally chosen doesn’t pan out. This is why the narrative’s emphasis is placed on Roglič’s past as a skier rather than his humble beginnings to working-class parents in a developing country.

Roglič’s loss exposes us to reality: like the myth of meritocracy, the idea that we have the opportunity in our contemporary capitalist society, with all of its entrenched racism, classism, sexism, ableism, ageism—a number of ever-depressing isms—to reach our full potential or follow our dreams at all, much less later in life, is exactly that—a myth. It especially touches on our existing anxieties about age: that the further away from youth we get, the less relevant we are, the less competent we are able to become, the less special our achievements seem.

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

The strength of his team and how they dominated the race reminds us that no matter how secure we feel—regardless of the fact that we’ve done everything right—we will never be able to fully insure against all possibilities, make the future any less frighteningly enigmatic, or, quite simply, prevent bad things from happening to us. At once, we realize that we see sport as some kind of grand narrative that allows us to believe in miracles, in romantic ideals of individual or collective triumph over the body and the mind and society; in role models whose struggles offer us the sublimation of our deepest desires and transport us—for a little while—away from the quotidian bullshit of our lives.

Even in defeat, figures like Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Thibaut Pinot, and now Primož Roglič are transformed from mortal men into literary figures, albeit of a more tragic, existential nature. This literary element in cycling has meant its history is written in captivating, fascinating ways, often focusing more on grand, poetic narratives rather than records of individual wins and losses. In a cruel irony, it still remains to be seen whether or not we will remember Tadej Pogačar 50 years from now. Indeed, one must also ask the same question of Roglič, had he won. However, it is all but inevitable that the story of Primož Roglič’s last-second abdication of the 2020 Tour de France, one of the purest examples of cycling’s taste for dramatic cruelty and poetic injustice, will never be forgotten.

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