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The battle of the new cycling superpowers

Felix Lowe
8 Jan 2020

Just as Colombia was looking to steal Britain’s crown as top cycling nation, along comes tiny Slovenia to change the game

An Ecuadorian, a Colombian and a Slovenian walk into a bar… it could be the set-up to a good joke, except Primož Roglič doesn’t really do jokes.

Occasionally, the Slovenian may have been ‘smiling in secret places’, as he admitted to journalists after his recent victory at the 2019 Vuelta a España, but on the whole cycling’s latest Grand Tour winner is a man so laconic that if he was forced to eat his words he would die of hunger.

No, it’s no joke, but it is a reflection on the shifting Grand Tour landscape. In the dour, slurred words of Bob Dylan (Roglič is no doubt a fan), the times they are a changin’.

With three maiden winners at this year’s Giro, Tour and Vuelta, you won’t see a more definitive changing of the guard even at Buckingham Palace at 11am of a Monday morning.

Just 12 months ago us Brits were champions in Italy, France and Spain. But in 2019 the focus shifted across the Atlantic to straddle the equator.

We saw Richard Carapaz become the first Ecuadorian to win the Giro d'Italia, Egan Bernal secure Colombia’s first ever Tour de France, and then, just when we thought South America would match the British clean sweep of 2018, Roglič won a first Vuelta for Slovenia.

In what was shaping up to be a race for the Colombians – Nairo Quintana won as early as Stage 2 and Miguel Ángel López donned the red jersey three times in the opening week – Roglič even got fellow countryman Tadej Pogačar to rub their noses in it by knocking the former off the podium and snatching the white jersey from the latter. Kapow!

Seemingly out of nowhere, this small, mountainous, forested nation of two million people had emerged as pro cycling’s new superpower.

Indeed, Slovenia’s comparable size to Wales is often thrown in as an obstacle to them winning big. As if a Welshman would ever win the Tour, eh?

Slovenia's Vuelta one-two

If the seeds of Slovenian success were sown in Roglič’s emphatic time-trial victory midway through the race, the writing was on the wall of Los Machucos two days later when red jersey Rog followed Pog to the line for a Slovenian one-two.

Well before Pogačar won again on the final weekend – becoming only the third rider under 21 to win three stages on a Grand Tour debut – it was clear that Roglič’s main rival was not a diminutive Colombian or an ageing Spaniard, but his own compatriot.

And so, in Madrid, the youngest rider in the race joined the oldest, Alejandro Valverde, on the final podium.

Pogačar turned 11 the day after Valverde won his Vuelta in 2009. When he won the Tour of California in May, he couldn’t even legally celebrate with a beer.

It’s now official: Slovenia are no longer a Borut Bozič top 10, a strong Dauphiné showing for Janez Brajkovič or a Grega Bole getting in the breakaway.

Unfair? Perhaps. After all, Simon Špilak made the Tour de Suisse his own for two years and Matej Mohorič (still only 24) was the true inventor of the downhill top tube hug.

In fact, last year Slovenia had more WorldTour wins per head of population than any other nation and was the smallest country to qualify for a full complement of eight riders at the Worlds.

Slovenia’s updated tally of 14 Grand Tour stage wins still falls somewhat shy of Colombia’s 85 (the latest being Sergio Higuita’s Stage 18 win at this year’s Vuelta) but who knows what the future may bring.

One thing is certain: after Rog and Pog’s Spanish job, everyone suddenly revised their predictions that 22-year-old Bernal would win the next 10 Tours. After all, Pogačar’s first Grand Tour was far more impressive than Bernal’s last year.

Could the expected era of Colombian domination be eclipsed by Slovenian supremacy? You can almost picture Sir Jim and Sir Dave counting out the petro-millions needed to prise Pog away from his five-year contract at UAE Team Emirates.

That’s how Ineos usually deal with such threats: they did it with Bernal, then with Carapaz. Perhaps a Slovenian is the missing piece in the jigsaw.