Bowling a 300 game. Scoring a 147 break on the snooker table. A nine-dart finish on the oche. It’s the stuff of sporting dreams.
In our far more active and physical pursuit, Primož Roglič is a Vuelta a España victory away from his very own perfect game.
Triumph in Spain would make his 2023 stage race record five wins out of five. Two of those would be Grand Tours, which takes even more doing.
Roglič’s blemish-free run started off in March at Tirreno-Adriatico, thanks to winning three stages in a row in similar fashion. On uphill finishes, he outsprinted a small gaggle of rivals, stopping his computer after crossing the line.
It epitomizes his way of winning: using outstanding teammates, being one of the world’s best climbers and finishing with a powerful acceleration. Brutally effective without being showy or wasteful.
He was Remco Evenepoel’s shadow and superior at the Volta a Catalunya in an entertaining, narrow duel. At the Giro d’Italia, he hung tough and saved his best till last, winning on Monte Lussari against the clock 24 hours from the finish to dislodge Geraint Thomas from the lead.
That title was like an 800-pound gorilla off his back. Fourteen seconds in the black, even with a nerve-jangling chain drop on the race’s final climb. Fourteen precious seconds, the difference between being considered a champion of comebacks and a near-miss merchant.
After a summer of rest and rigorous training, the recent Vuelta a Burgos was like a rinse and repeat of Tirreno. His victories are developing an air of inevitability.
On the verge of history
A defeat-free season in stage races is a tantalizing prospect, with unsurprisingly few precedents. I’ve done a lot of digging and can only find one other modern example.
Remco Evenepoel won all four of his stage races in the Covid-affected 2020 season – San Juan, Algarve, Burgos and Pologne – but only the latter was WorldTour level.
The GOAT, Eddy Merckx, deserves a mention for winning his first eight-stage races in 1971. The blip was second place in his ninth and final one, A Travers Lausanne.
Such a feat is the preserve of supreme modern champions who pick and choose their races. In modern times, Tadej Pogačar (winning four out of five stage races entered in 2021), Annemiek Van Vleuten (3/4 that same year), Marianne Vos (4/5 in 2013) and Chris Froome (5/7 in 2013) have all come close.
When every stage race is its own island, entire of itself, going on such a sequence requires a laser focus, superior teammates, next-to-no downtime, illness, misfortune or fluctuation in form compared to other contenders.
It’s funny that a man who some regarded as a choker has become the sport’s unerring, stone cold killer.
That resonant image from Planche des Belles Filles in the 2020 Tour de France – the lopsided helmet, mournful expression and ghostly pallor – has faded into the ether. Over recent years, though especially this season, Roglič has made sure of that by winning reliably.
“No other sportsperson in the world has shown they’re better at managing disappointment,” Jumbo-Visma sports director Merijn Zeeman told L’Equipe in 2022.
The romantic draw of Roglič is his jeopardy, his crashes, his unshipped chain. The heartbreak makes the wins even more compelling. With his bouncebackability, he has refused to be categorized as a loser or figure of pity.
While Roglič’s consistency in 2023 could be seen as boring, it’s still impossible to take your eyes off him.
Few other cyclists have such a tempestuous relationship with Lady Luck. Something will happen to him at the Vuelta which threatens his chances of glory because something always does.
His exit from last year’s race was principally down to being too much of a gung-ho bike racer at heart. The Slovenian has a fast finish, but he had no place fighting Fred Wright and other surging sprinters before crashing, close to the line.
Meanwhile, a false rumor of a Covid positive did the rounds midrace at this year’s Giro. It seemed typical that the virus would infect Roglič, yet another sour way of tasting defeat.
No wonder Roglič turned up at his Jumbo-Visma winter training camp for his team photo resembling a grizzled soldier from a century ago: dapper, side-parted, moustachioed, battle-hardened. He’s seen things. The only things missing were a cigarette dangling from his lips and a glass of whisky in his hand.
Master of his own evolution
While Vingegaard and Pogačar scrapped for the holy grail in July, Roglič has steadily hoarded the other pieces of treasure.
A perfect game for Roglič could also mean a full house of three Grand Tours for Jumbo-Visma. No team has achieved the feat before. It would be apt for the Slovenian to do it, given his progress is a reflection of their environment, which prizes intrinsic motivation and thinking for oneself.
“He is really the master of his own career, his evolution,” Zeeman told L’Equipe. “He takes the advice we give, he’s clever and always wants to learn.”
“When he joined us at the end of 2015, he went everywhere with a notebook where he wrote down his experiences. Now, when he encounters a problem, he goes there immediately to understand how to deal with it.”
The wily older fox will need to spend a few long nights with his head in those pages. The Vuelta is a stern final examination.
There are three principal possible spanners in the works. One: teammate and bookmakers’ favourite Jonas Vingegaard. Being beaten by the Dane would seem like both cruel fratricide and a very Roglič thing to happen. Jumbo-Visma might not be big enough for the both of them. The possibility of Roglič heading elsewhere, possibly Lidl-Trek, this winter could lead to internecine drama on the Spanish roads.
Two: Being beaten by defending champion Remco Evenepoel, a year stronger and wiser. There has been precious little to choose between Roglič and Remco in their battles this season. Evenepoel already has 43 seconds on Roglič this Vuelta.
Then number three is, of course, the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune (or bad judgement). Given his track record, I wouldn’t discount a mini asteroid landing in his path on the Angliru, causing him to fall from his bike.
If Roglič does pull off the perfect 2023 stage racing game, I can imagine his understated assessment, disguising his pride, after telemarking in the maillot rojo on the podium:
“Pretty good, huh?”
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