Primoz Roglic gave up ski jumping, beat Luka Doncic in Slovenia and now leads the Tour de France

Primoz Roglic
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Primoz Roglic‘s story is summarized in a comment below a 21-second video of a 2007 ski jumping fall titled HORRIBLE CRASH.

A cycling champion was born that day.”

Roglic, 30, has worn the Tour de France yellow jersey all week. A pre-race favorite, he dons it going into a summit finish Friday, the first of five mountain stages in a six-stage stretch that could decide who stands atop the Paris podium on Sept. 20.

A cyclist from Slovenia — population similar to New Mexico and land size that would rank 48th among U.S. states — has never won the Tour de France. Neither has a world champion ski jumper. What about a man who didn’t have a bike when he turned 22?

“It was already an interesting story how he came into cycling,” David Crmelj, a journalist with Slovenia’s public broadcaster covering the Tour, wrote in an email, “and it only got bigger.”

Again, the comments under the YouTube clip published in 2016 tell the tale.

July 19, 2017: “Today he wins stage 17 of the Tour de France!”
May 11, 2019: “Today he won first stage of Giro d’Italia :)”
Sept. 15, 2019: “And now he won La Vuelta a Espana”
Three days ago: “And now this guy is wearing yellow shirt at TdF”

In the cycling world, Roglic’s bio has been pedaled for years, the image shared across social media.

But now, Roglic is not just a tour stage winner. Not just a Grand Tour champion. He’s the leader of the Tour, the one that made legends out of Eddy Merckx and Greg LeMond to the more mainstream sports fan.

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And while Roglic’s story requires many words to tell in full, the cyclist is not known as loquacious, in interviews at least.

In July 2018, the Jumbo-Visma cycling team published a 23-minute film to spread the word about its budding prospect — “The Roglic story: from Telemark to Tour Glory.”

“Sometimes, he’s a little maybe cold and distanced, but in normal life he’s different. He’s more warm and nice. He’s really relaxed,” his partner, Lora Klinc, said in the film. Klinc’s first book, “Kilometer Nic” (Kilometer Zero), emanating from when Roglic won the 2019 Vuelta a Espana, comes out next week and is available for €27.50 on Roglic’s website.

In the film, Roglic reminisced while sitting atop a Slovenian ski jump (no snow, in summertime it appears).

“My dream,” he said, “was of course to be the best in ski jumping.”

By 13, he was flying internationally on skis. At 17, he competed at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Slovenia in Planica, just across the Italian border and two hours from Roglic’s hometown.

Roglic placed fifth in the individual event, was the second-youngest in the top 10 and outranked men who later won on the World Cup, the sport’s highest senior international level.

Roglic, who also earned a gold medal in the team event at those junior worlds, was rewarded with his first World Cup entry the following week, also in Planica. It was supposed to be the start of a career that would lead to a Winter Olympics.

But on the eve of his debut, Roglic suffered the horrible training crash, a head-first thud and bloody, rag-doll slide down the steep hill. It conjured memories of Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj in ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” intro.

He was knocked unconscious and airlifted to a hospital.

“It was not actually really, really bad,” Roglic said. “I broke, I think, just my nose. But then had pretty serious brain concussions.”

He returned to ski jump the following season and into early 2011, but his ascension halted. He never competed in the Winter Games, nor on the World Cup.

“According to all tests, he had fully recovered both physically and mentally [from the crash], but he couldn’t show it on the ski jump,” ski jump coach Zvone Pograjc said in the film. “Less talented ski jumpers had better results than him.”

Roglic chose to end his skiing career at age 21, citing a lack of motivation and knee injuries.

“I had enough of everything,” he said. “I was still not like Olympic champion or world champion, so I just felt like I maybe just time that I change. I move on and I leave that behind me.”

Roglic channeled his drive into endurance sports. Specifically, duathlons, though he felt stronger running than cycling. Roglic said he never had a bike before he quit ski jumping. So he borrowed one from a neighbor for a local race.

He loved it. Soon, Roglic searched online for cycling teams. He fired off emails, convinced a domestic outfit and signed a pro contract in 2013. After early struggles, he won the 2015 Tour of Slovenia, moved to a top international team — what would become Jumbo-Visma — in 2016 and started the first Grand Tour of that year, the Giro d’Italia.

In the opening stage in the Netherlands, he finished second to Dutchman Tom Dumoulin in a six-mile time trial, one hundredth of a second behind the man who would take silver at that year’s Olympics.

“This guy has a Ferrari engine,” Jumbo-Visma sport director Frans Maassen said.

Roglic won the next time trial, nine days later.

He earned stage victories in all three Grand Tours and a world championships silver medal. He developed a signature on podiums, dipping into a telemark ski jump landing pose. Including at the September 2019 Vuelta, when he became the first Slovenian to win a Grand Tour.

“We’ve had some great cyclists in the past, but I think Primoz is the first one that really is a star also outside of the just cycling community,” said Crmelj, whose station aired a 52-minute film on Roglic after the opening stage of the ongoing Tour de France.

Of Slovenia’s 40 Summer and Winter Olympic medals since it began competing independently in 1992, 17 are in skiing disciplines (four alone from Alpine star Tina Maze).

Since 1988, four different ski jumpers earned the nation’s Sportsman of the Year, including Peter Prevc‘s four-peat from 2013-16.

In 2017, a retiring-from-international-ball Goran Dragic took the honor after leading Slovenia to a shock EuroBasket title (watched in theaters in Ljubljana) on a team with former NBAer Anthony Randolph. In 2018, the top vote-getter among Slovenian sports media was Luka Doncic, who won EuroLeague MVP and debuted in the NBA that year.

In 2019, Doncic won NBA Rookie of the Year. But Roglic won Slovenia Sportsman of the Year. And it wasn’t close.

Crmelj was asked how Roglic’s popularity related to Doncic, or the retired Maze or the NHL All-Star Anze Kopitar in their primes.

“Compared to the ones you mention, he is at least in the same position,” Crmelj said. “If Primoz or Tadej [Pogacar, a 21-year-old currently in seventh place at the Tour] win the Tour de France, this would be the greatest sporting achievements in Slovenia. Of course some wouldn’t agree with this, but let’s be fair. Cycling is very popular sport widely, and Tour de France is more than just a cycling race. It is a global product, and there aren’t many like this in the world.”

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