The Roglič Conundrum

The wife and I were Netflix-n’chillin’ the other night, when I proposed we start a new series. I’d watched the first couple episodes earlier in the week and thought it might be worth a shot. We sometimes struggle to agree on TV. So she watches the first hour, and at the end, she says, “That would never happen.” And she’s not wrong, and yet reality has a way of cooking up all the most implausible scenarios.

Consider Primož Roglič.

The 33-year-old Slovene has four Grand Tour wins to his credit (1 Giro, 3 Vuelta). No active rider has more. Roglič also has an absolute litany of other stage and one day race wins. He has been the top cyclist on the World Tour for long periods of time over the last 5 years. He is, arguably, already in the conversation about the sport’s all-time greats, but is still at the top of his game (that Giro win was this year).

Flash back now to Stage 8 of this year’s Vuelta, a mountain stage that Roglič won but saw his teammate and lead domestique Sepp Kuss pull on the leader’s red jersey. Kuss had won Stage 6, and so the team’s nominal hierarchy was jumbled after Stage 8. Would Roglič and Jumbo-Visma’s other GC powerhouse Jonas Vingegaard ride for Kuss or would the team attempt to reorder their top riders for the final podium?

Most close observers will recall the fallout from Stage 18, the stage on which both Vingegaard, who won the stage, AND Roglič attacked Kuss and put time into him. A swift media backlash ensued. Over the preceding ten stages, Kuss had become something of a popular cause, the faithful servant with a shot at glory. Custom also suggests a professional cyclist ought not attack a teammate when that teammate is leading the race. Both Roglič and Vingegaard were pilloried, essentially cowed by the public and likely by team management into letting Kuss win, which he did, with Vingegaard second and Roglič third.

But the damage was done, and all sorts of tales of team infighting leaked out in the press. What seems true is that both Vingegaard and Roglič like Kuss and were happy to see him win EXCEPT that both are previous Grand Tour winners and neither wanted to see another big entry in their personal palmares slip away.

The Kuss win was a great story, and it played particularly well on the west side of the Atlantic. Between Stages 18 and 21 a sense of aggrievement toward Roglič and Vingegaard blossomed, though Roglič seems to have been singled out for particular opprobrium, perhaps because he seemed to be rebelling against both Kuss AND Vingegaard, trying to assert his claim to team leadership at next year’s Tour. To naive observers, this looked like petulant selfishness.

As the more jaded type, I’ll just say that I think very few people win Grand Tours without a certain measure of petulant selfishness in their hearts. Road racing is a team sport, certainly, but it demands singular leaders, big personalities, those capable of much more than the average rider.

So here is the Roglič Conundrum (coming to a theater near you!).

First, why did Jumbo-Visma send both Roglič and Vingegaard to the Vuelta if not for one of them to win? No one seriously believes the team had promised leadership to Kuss, so it looks like they made the classic mistake of bringing two alpha riders to the party and then not having a clear plan for GC after Kuss accidentally took the red jersey on Stage 8. At no point did team make their intentions clear, either publicly, which is understandable, or apparently on the team bus.

Second, why is it unreasonable for Roglič to assume he should win the Vuelta if he can? With a CV that dwarfs Vingegaard’s (the Dane is only 26), Roglič might assume he’s the unquestioned leader on any other team in the world. The problem is that the Tour de France, which Vingegaard has won twice, just has more gravity, more prestige than it deserves. Somehow two Tours is equal or superior to one Giro and three Vueltas, despite the latter being objectively harder races than the French entry.

Third, obviously Roglič’s main ambition is to win the Tour, thereby cementing his status in the pantheon of all-time greats. Think about it. He’s complete the trifecta of Grand Tours, take his total to five, and still have a few years at the top of the sport to gild the lily. He didn’t get where he is through lack of ambition, so Jumbo-Visma’s failure to plan for, communicate about, and realize this goal for Roglič is a little hard to fathom.

Except that, at least popularly, Vingegaard is believed to be the stronger (and younger) prospect for domination in France.

So here it is, the Roglič Conundrum, a situation in which it makes sense for a team to jettison one of the best riders of the day, or any day, where that rider is left to question himself for the exact behavior he’s built his career and legacy on, where he’s been asked to sit back and let a weaker rider (I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that either Vingegaard OR Roglič could have won this race easily) take one of the sport’s most glittering prizes.

Rumor has it Primož Roglič will sign for Bora-Hansgrohe for the coming season. He’ll have unquestioned support for a tilt at the Tour. It’ll be great watching him go toe-to-toe with his former teammates. As spectators, we win, as we usually do. By then, presumably, most of the negative feelings about Primož Roglič will have subsided. Hopefully more fans will think through the Roglič Conundrum and see the impossible position he found himself in.

An 80-year-old Tom Cruise will play him in the movie.

Finally, I want to quickly address the obvious parallels between this situation and the Lemond-Hinault Paradox of yesteryear. For those unaware, basically Hinault was allowed to attack Lemond who was in yellow at the Tour, the year after Lemond dragged the Frenchman back from the brink so he could win the race, a similar confusion of leadership within in the team, a similar seeming betrayal of the loyal servant. The difference is that Hinault was in the very twilight of his career. He couldn’t win without Lemond.

Primož Roglič on the other hand, is still firmly in his prime, and not looking to anyone for favors.

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