tour of slovenia stage 2
We start our day in the Štajerska region, weaving along the Drava river and through the lumpy hills. Round a corner and they empty us out into Ptuj, the oldest city in Slovenia. Ptuj was once the domain of the Romans during the time of Vespasian — but in these valleys, the Romans, despite their grandeur, were only ever one of many conquerers that have been survived in this country, a place whose resilience is reflected in the spirit of its people, including those who participate in our noble sport.
The start takes place at the Ptuj Castle, first built in the 12th century to defend against the Hungarians — and reinforced to stand against the Turks. After there were no more Turkish raids in Slovenia, the castle became a pet project of several generations of rich people from various nationalities. The socialists later liberated the castle from the landed classes and made it a public good, which it has remained ever since.
My favorite bit of Slovene lore from Ptuj actually has to deal with the Ptujska Gora church, though the Turks are still involved. The legend goes that a marauding Turkish pasha saw the church in the daytime and fancied it a good object for potential conquest. He gathered his forces in secret and plotted to sack the church at night, taking villages and burning houses in his wake — as vilified plunderers tend to do in legends such as this. But when the pasha and his men reached the slopes upon which their target was perched, the church suddenly turned black as the night and disappeared before their eyes. As they searched for it, a deep fog penetrated the valley and drenched everything in moisture, obfuscating the world and setting the invaders off course again and again until they were forced to relent. The story goes that the church remains black on three of its four facades until this very day.
Today itself should be a bit of a down day after yesterday’s chaotic opener. It’s a stage for the sprinters, and everyone is looking at Dylan Groenewegen, Tim Merlier, and Pascal Ackermann as the favorite fast men, with newcomer Matevž Govekar of Bahrain being another possibility to take a prize in this, his first (and home) race with the team.
Luka Mezgec, BikeExchange leadout man extraordinaire, didn’t seem too concerned about the day’s parcours. “It's pretty much straightforward. Nice wide roads, one left turn,” he says to me. “The plan is to stay in the front…me and Dylan won’t touch the wind until 7 k to go.”
Simple plan, simple stage. But few things in bike racing, as the cliche goes, are ever simple. Perhaps this is especially true in Slovenia, which has never been simple a day in its thousands of years of contested existence.
While it might be a flat stage for the sprinters, for us in the car it’s undulating hills of pure Štajerska countryside, where small villages and clusters of houses pop out from dense rolling fields of corn and grass, where everyone whose house is on enough of a hillock is able to grow a few strands of grapevines, where the churches atop monadnocks peek over the tree line in places where forts or castles usually reside, though unlike in Ptuj, there’s not much to protect here unless you’re a scarecrow.
Meanwhile in the race, our simple sprint stage has become quite complicated. Bahrain Victorious has assembled in full force at the front. That makes sense because their newest asset, Matevž Govekar is not a pure sprinter, but more of a Sonny Colbrelli figure, a sprinter who hangs on in the hills and benefits from dropping the guys who specialize on the pure flats. Bahrain pull and pull and pull — Mohorič takes a turn, then Tratnik, Sutterlein, then Mohorič again, impatient. Indeed their work pays off — Ackermann and Merlier are both dropped. A few short climbs (rollers) and Merlier is gone for good. But Ackermann is stronger than he looks and Groenewegen after a lackluster Dauphiné is keen to hang on in the wings. After all, this is Bike Exchange’s big goal for this race.
Bahrain’s plan backfires when Ackermann claws his way back. It’s going to be a bunch sprint and the big guns of bunch sprinting aren’t too tired to give it a go. They near Rogaška Slatina, cut through the road that passes the Rogaška glass factory. (If you go to Ljubljana, you can see their showroom — it’s quite lovely stuff, if a bit traditional.) Glassmaking aside, the teams pull through the final roundabout as storm clouds loom above, threatening to dump the heavens back onto earth.
But there’s a problem. Groenewegen loses Mezgec’s wheel. He’s boxed in by Bahrain who sees an opportunity to meddle. But Mezgec is too clever and too experienced. He manages to lead Groenewegen back into contention just in time for him to catch up. Using that same momentum, the Dutchman launches himself for the win, which he takes with remarkable ease. (The Belgian sprinter from Alpecin Fenix Lionel Taminiaux finishes second and Ackermann third.)
As for Mezgec’s simple plans, they didn’t turn out so simple after all:
“It was a bit hectic, like, it wasn't ideal for us,” he reports after the race. “I was expecting it to go more smooth, but we lost Dylan in the roundabout. And then after that, it was a bit stop and go. So we lost positions there. I tried to squeeze out, but got boxed in a bit there and yeah, luckily Dylan found a way out.”
The trials and tribulations of the lead-out man!
Not more than fifteen minutes later, the heavens did in fact open up over Rogaška Slatina.
A long time ago, I asked around for folks from the towns of the Tour of Slovenia starts and finishes to send me some short texts on those places and what makes them special. The best of these came from Mitja Mandić, who’s now a student of mathematics at KU Leuven. Mitja wrote this lovely bit about Rogaška Slatina, which I’ll use to close out this particular entry:
Rogaška Slatina is a small, quiet town deep in the Štajerska region; so deep, that the closest (or at least quickest to get to) big city is Zagreb, and not Maribor or Ljubljana. It is best known as a thermal spa centre and the healing benefits of the water springing there have been known since the 16th century. The town in fact even got its name after it; there is an older town of Rogatec a little further down the road, and “Rogaška” is actually a possessive (adjective? adverb?) meaning from Rogatec, and “Slatina” is a dialect word for mineral water. Thus the name could be translated to “the healing water springing close to Rogatec.”
Apart from healing and bathing in the water, it’s also bottled and drunk. It’s a big thing for “Slatinčani”, as the residents call themselves.
Most Slovenians refer to mineral water as “Radenska”, which is in fact just the brand name of the biggest company – but the people from Rogaška (myself included – I am still my father’s son) will never call it like that. It’s either, as mentioned, slatina, or more often, sour water (people all over Slovenia will most likely understand what you mean by sour water but won’t call it like that themselves). It goes without saying that the Rogaška native brand Tempel is the only legal choice of bottled mineral water in any household in town.
Spas and pools have been in the area for ages and were well known abroad – even the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph (might have been another, don’t quote me on the name) has visited facilities there. Former glory has given the town its beautiful park called “the Spa park” (Zdraviliški park) surrounded by old hotels, serving as a pathway to a little chapel on a hill above it, which was renovated by Jože Plečnik.
At the end of the park there is a little pavilion, where in summer classical music concerts happen – I have never seen one, but my grandma was always ecstatically telling about it. When we walked there as children, my sister, cousin, and I would do little performances for our parents there – you know, singing and dancing, kid stuff.
Since religion really wasn’t a Yugoslav regime’s thing, they decided to obstruct the flow through the park to the chapel by putting a massive, ugly modern glass-building right at the end of it – a health facility and hotel (I think), which the locals call “Terapija” (the Therapy). Beneath it, there’s a monument to Boris Kidrič and someone keeps putting a red carnation flower in its hand.
In recent years the town was largely living off Russian tourists, who came seeking healing benefits of the water. This was on the decline for the past 5 years as Russia was suffering economically and will probably more or less end now. To attract new tourists to town, the mayor decided to try a drastic new approach – they will build the highest observation tower in Slovenia. This monstrosity is already happening, construction should begin soon – I personally hate it.
But even before the Russian tourists started to vanish, the young from the town were moving away – it’s hard to blame them. The town is poorly connected to the rest of the country, schooling opportunities are limited, and I can imagine jobs are not in abundance.
It’s sad to see all the houses where once your grandparents’ friends lived now empty and for sale – this will probably happen to our house there as well.