Primož Roglič endured another roller-coaster season in 2021, crashing hard and abandoning the Tour de France, winning gold in the time trial at the Tokyo Olympics, then surviving further crashes and attacks to win his third Vuelta a España.
Yet the Jumbo-Visma rider appears to have emerged from it all stronger and happier than ever.
Crashes and defeat, as much as his victories and moments of cycling happiness have shaped Roglič's career and tempered his character. He has often seemed robotic in the way he won races but defeat and disappointment have made him more human. He is now widely admired for the way he smiles in the face of adversity, dusts himself off and then goes at it again.
He appears to be pro cycling's Terminator but he insists he is far more human behind his face of resilience.
"I'm not the cycling Terminator, that's not who I am," Roglič tells Cyclingnews in one of his first in-person interviews since the COVID-19 pandemic, in which frequent relaxed smiles and a soft voice replace the protective barriers he often erects when speaking post-race.
"I like to see difficulties in life as a challenge rather than as a problem. I think racing and life goes well when you live that way.
"What is happening in the world at the moment has reminded us all that we need to try and enjoy life. If I didn't enjoy racing, doing all the training and all the pain and suffering, I'd do something else that gives me pleasure, because I need to be happy in life.
"I'm also not the guy who speaks loudly and shows off. In our sport, you have to show what you can do out on the road, with your legs, not on television. I think people like it when you don't give up and you keep fighting. I think I'm delivering some kind of message, about not giving up, and I think people appreciate that."
A lot has happened in the two or three years
It's easy to forget that Roglič has only been racing at WorldTour level with Jumbo-Visma since 2016 and only showed his Grand Tour talents with fourth place in the 2018 Tour de France while riding alongside Tom Dumoulin.
Roglič turned his back on professional ski jumping in 2012 after a career that included a Junior world title in 2007 but also a terrible crash in Planica. He got into cycling via duathlon and then fast-tracked his cycling career.
"A lot has happened in the two or three years," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels tells Cyclingnews after being with Roglič in both successful and painful moments of his career.
"Now Primož is far more experienced at being with the best in the biggest races. When that happens it lifts your self-confidence. Maybe a few years ago, when Primož was in pain, he perhaps felt that he was the only one struggling. That's totally changed. He knows that if he's in pain, then everyone is in pain, too.
"He's physically strong but especially mentally strong. He has the ability to keep looking ahead, instead of sulking in his disappointment. He did it last year when he lost the Tour, he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Vuelta; then he did it again this year after his Tour crash.
"It's a big part of his personality. It's the way he lives his life and his career. It's something you are born with but also something you develop. Being in high-level sport is the right environment to challenge yourself, test your resilience and develop it even further. That's what Primož does time and time again."
"I think I've grown up in so many ways during the last few years," Roglič tells Cyclingnews, agreeing with Engels comments.
"My career went super fast. I was a later developer, who came to cycling from a different sport and had to learn everything super quick. You need to learn how to ride and in my case, I needed to learn how to suffer."
The highs and lows of 2021
Roglič definitely suffered during the 2021 season. He crashed on the last stage of Paris-Nice and lost any chance of overall victory. But then bounced back to win Itzulia Basque Country.
At the Tour de France, while attempting to move up the peloton, he clashed with Sonny Colbrelli and suffered a high-speed crash near the finish of stage 3 that left him battered and bruised.
He tried to race on but lost time on key stages, cracked in the Alps and eventually abandoned on the stage to Tignes. Yet he raised a beer in consolation and found a smile after his partner Lora, young son and a number of his fervent fans greeted him in the ski-resort he often calls home when training at altitude.
The Tour de France went on without him and fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogačar won again. But Roglič didn't look back, he kept moving, kept training, kept racing and won again.
"It was crazy, eh?" he said of the 2021 season with the intonation so often heard on television after races. "But it was nice, enjoyable and successful. I enjoy it.
"The season went so fast. You seem to be driving to the airport for your first race and then a couple of months later, you're going to the last one. So much happened in between, with so many ups and downs."
Roglič squeezes his memories of the Tour de France and Tokyo Olympics into one moment, his crash injuries the thread that connected them, the success of Tokyo cancelling the disappointment of the Tour de France.
"I trained super hard and was super ready for the Tour but I was missing a bit of luck and had the crashes, which eventually forced me out, there was no alternative. That made it a shit Tour," he said.
"I thought I'd recover in time for the Olympics but it was actually a very late decision to go because I just couldn't ride for a long time.
"I felt better in the final days before travelling and did some training but then in the road race, I had some problems with cramp and pain in the piriformis ass muscle from the start of the race. In Japan, before the road race, we had to leave at like 6:15 in the morning and I sat in the bus for three hours which was still painful for me. I started to feel cramps and muscle pain after just 30km. I managed to finish but had a lot of pain in the two days before the time trial. I didn't think it'd work out but on the day of the time trial I finally felt good, I was pain-free, riding my preferred discipline and so felt I finally had the hammer in my hand."
Roglič was one of only three Slovenian gold medal winners in Tokyo and understandably celebrated when he returned home. However, he kept training, kept looking forward and completed his recovery so he could again challenge at the Vuelta a España.
If the 2020 Vuelta was a close battle with Richard Carapaz, 2021 was a more controlled affair for him and Jumbo-Visma.
They let Odd Christian Eiking (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) wear the red leader's jersey for the second week and then Roglič took control in the hardest Asturian mountains and even won the final time trial to Santiago de Compostela. Enric Mas (Movistar) finished a distant 4:42, with Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) third overall at 7:40.
"I've never really planned to ride the Vuelta at the start of the season but I've always won it. That kind of tells a story," Roglič suggests.
"This year went pretty perfect. I enjoyed it from the start to the finish."
Pogacar's success sparks inspiration not desperation
Roglič married his partner Lora during the off-season and enjoyed a beach holiday to celebrate. He will soon be back in the saddle but his 2022 Grand Tour goals will probably only be finalised at Jumbo-Visma's December training camp in Spain.
He is likely to again spearhead Jumbo-Visma's Tour de France ambitions but without obsession.
"I definitely want to go back to the Tour and try to win it once but as I've learnt, if you don't win the Tour, it's not the end of the world," Roglič suggests.
"Life goes on, even if I never win the Tour and with whatever result I achieve."
While the presence of Pogačar at the Tour de France may appear threatening, it is not a problem for the now more experienced Roglič. He insists it sparks inspiration, not desperation.
"There are always a lot of guys who are super good at the Tour de France and if you want to win it, you have to beat them all," Roglič said.
"That's simply the rule of cycling and of the Tour. If it wasn't Tadej, then the big favourite would be Egan Bernal, Chris Froome or someone else."
Roglič's outlook on life and racing means he welcomes his young Slovenian rival.
"I've learnt that he's pushing me to be the best version of myself," he said wisely.
"Without him around I wouldn't be so good. He sets a challenge for me and for all of us, I'm grateful for that."
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