Feature | Road Cycling

Primoz Roglic - from ski jumper to back-to-back Vuelta champion

He may not have a typical background for a top road cyclist, but the 31-year-old Slovenian has become the first man to claim consecutive red jerseys since 2005.

By ZK Goh and Rory Jiwani ·

From Planica to the Alps, Slovenia's Primoz Roglic has always had an affinity for the mountains.

But practically no one would say a background in ski jumping would lead to a successful career in road cycling.

Not even Roglic, one of the most dangerous men in the professional UCI World Tour peloton who started his sporting career that way.

The Slovenian became the first man to retain the red jersey since Roberto Heras in 2005 by completing back-to-back Vuelta a España triumphs on 8th November 2020.

That was just weeks after a heartbreaking loss in the Tour de France to compatriot Tadej Pogacar who overhauled Roglic on the decisive time trial before the race finish in Paris.

He has long been referred to as "the guy who used to be a ski jumper" by casual cycling fans and some in the media.

It's a tag Roglic embraces, with his Instagram description being "Ex ski jumper from Slovenia, now a pro cyclist".

But could things have worked out differently for the 31-year-old?

Primoz Roglic's childhood and ski jumping years

Primoz Roglic was born on 29 October 1989 in Trbovlje, then part of the former Yugoslavia which was soon to be split up into its different constituent countries.

Unlike its neighbours, Slovenia escaped the bulk of the Balkans conflict and young Roglic was able to grow up in Kisovec, an old mining village, in relative peace.

An only child, his father - a former miner - worked at a local plant while his housewife mother raised him.

Cycling was not on the radar with Slovenia far better known for ski jumping, especially the world-renowned Planica hill.

So the youngster took up ski jumping, a sport in which having a lean frame and keeping the weight off pays dividends.

He explained to VeloNews magazine, "It was like flying. I liked the feeling. It’s something everyone dreams of doing. I wanted to be the best ski jumper in the world."

Those early years – Roglic took part in his first FIS competition in 2003 aged just 13 – yielded some decent success.

He had two FIS Continental Cup wins, and also won silver as part of the Slovenian team at the 2006 Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in Kranj, before upgrading that to gold the following year at Planica.

Roglic was airlifted to hospital unconscious after crashing at Planica a few weeks after the 2007 junior worlds, but escaped serious injury and continued ski jumping until January 2011 when he took part in his last competition aged 21.

Roglic switching sports

Unable to challenge the very best on the hill, Roglic decided to call it quits.

He tried different sports in an attempt to fill the void.

Cycling won out, although it was far from a natural switch.

He said, "I felt it was time for a change. I liked cycling and thought, 'Why not? I will try to become professional.'

"When I was a ski jumper, I was not allowed to ride the bike because it would bulk you up."

While the transition from ski jumping to cycling wasn't the most straightforward, there were some areas of cross-over.

He said, "We did a lot of work with core strength, balance, flexibility and acrobatics. All that helps me on the bike."

Rapid progress for Roglic

Roglic began cycling professionally in 2013 and quickly progressed through the lower ranks.

Since joining the Netherlands-based Jumbo-Visma team in 2016, the Slovenian has quickly developed a reputation as a strong climber and time trial specialist.

He's also come to be known in the team for drinking non-alcoholic beer to rehydrate after races.

The 2016 Giro d'Italia – Roglic's first Grand Tour – proved to be pivotal in his rise to the top of his new sport.

He finished second in the time trial opener and won stage nine, another time trial.

That was his first World Tour win, and people were starting to take notice of the "guy who used to be a ski jumper".

After finishing 10th in the Rio 2016 Olympic time trial, his stock grew even more.

Victory in Serre Chevalier on stage 17 of the 2017 Tour de France – including a pass over the legendary Col du Galibier – marked him out as a threat in the mountains as well.

In doing so, Roglic became the first Slovenian to win a Tour stage.

Jovial but serious

The Slovenian brings both a joviality and a seriousness to Jumbo-Visma that his team appreciate.

"His development as a cyclist, [for] a former ski jumper, is phenomenal," Jumbo-Visma sporting director Merijn Zeeman told VeloNews after Roglic clinched his second World Tour stage race overall win at the 2018 Tour de Romandie, just three weeks after his first at the Vuelta al País Vasco. "As a person, as a cyclist, and as leader of this team, he’s a fantastic person to work with."

Jumbo-Visma have pinned their hopes on him for the big races and Grand Tours, a move which paid off at last year's Vuelta.

That triumph came in just his fifth Grand Tour, further proof of his rapid ascent to the top of road cycling.

He was then one of the favourites for the yellow jersey in the 2020 Tour de France where everything went to plan, until right at the end.

Tour de France misery

Despite the occasional struggle in the mountains, Roglic looked set to claim overall victory as he took a lead of 57 seconds into the penultimate stage, a 36km time trial.

But his nearest rival, compatriot Tadej Pogacar, had other ideas.

Roglic's time trial prowess saw him heavily fancied to retain the yellow jersey but Pogacar produced the ride of his life, winning the stage by 1:21 with Roglic 1:56 adrift in fifth.

That gave the then 21-year-old a lead of 59 seconds ahead of the processional final stage down the Champs Elysees.

A crestfallen Primoz Roglic sits on the ground after losing the lead of the 2020 Tour de France on the penultimate day

While obviously devastated, Roglic was magnanimous in defeat having admitted to crying over his dramatic collapse.

He told reporters, "I want it to be different, but I can’t change it. I just need to go on. Tadej was in a different world and he definitely deserves his win so really, congratulations to him."

The next day, he was seen on the start line offering warm congratulations to his rival who joined him in the elite club of Slovenian Grand Tour winners.

Primoz Roglic (L) and Tadej Pogacar at the start of the final stage of the 2020 Tour de France

Back on track in Spain

Beaten but unbowed, Roglic set about making amends as he defended his red jersey in La Vuelta.

With Jumbo-Visma proving their strength in the peloton once more, Roglic won the opening stage but had to withstand a fierce challenge from 2019 Giro d'Italia winner Richard Carapaz in the general classification.

But victory on Stage 13, his fourth stage win of the race, saw him take the red jersey for good despite a spirited effort from the Ecuadorian rider on the penultimate stage.

Roglic finished 24 seconds ahead of Carapaz overall to claim consecutive titles in Spain.

His initial Vuelta success put cycling firmly on the map in Slovenia, and led to him being named Slovenia's Sportsman of the Year in 2019, an accolade won four times by ski jumper Peter Prevc (2013-2016) with ice hockey ace Anze Kopitar (2012) and basketball star Luka Doncic (2018) among the recent winners.

While Pogacar's dramatic Tour de France triumph may have secured him that honour this year, the power of Jumbo-Visma means Roglic looks certain to be a strong contender again next year and perhaps even after that.