fear and loathing in nova gorica
tour of slovenia stage one
I don’t know what it is about these one week races, but on the first day I always find myself in some kind of surreal and/or farcical situation (such as being in the O’Hare airport Chili’s with the Polish national ski jumping team). Here in Nova Gorica, I am in a hotel-casino at nine in the morning trying to suss out if I’m allowed to pilfer from the nice spread they’ve prepared for the entire peloton, who are also staying in the same hotel.
Nine in the morning is a bit of a grim time to be in a casino. Only the hungover and the addicted tend to hang around, though today there aren’t many of either. (Maybe this is because the hotel has been taken over by a fleet of bike racers.) The Perla casino is the nicest one in town, built (quite obviously, judging by the typefaces and vaguely neo-modern, tiger-maple saturated decor) in the early 2000s. It’s a cheesy gambling spaceship plopped smack in the middle of what is still a very visually socialist-realist town. The reason why is simple: just a few kilometers from here is Gorizia and the border with Italy. In Italy, gambling is illegal. Hence, the Slovenian casinos. It’s kind of the same thing as the altitude chamber hotel Tadej Valjavec was running in the aughts — and still runs — because altitude chambers were illegal in Italy. But less cool.
The casino is almost as out of place as I am while trying to not get thrown out by hotel staff for smuggling pastry. In this respect, I resemble a small rodent. I am then spotted by Matej Mohorič, and immediatly the jig is up. Still, the hotel staff allows me to eat my eggs in peace, albeit not in the same room as the boys. I am unsure how to communicate just how bizarre the whole atmosphere of cycling-race-socialist-town-glitzy-casino at 9 in the morning is. Consider it one of those brain breaking moments where one tries to assimilate things that don’t go together whatsoever. (I texted my comrade, the poet Muanis Sinanović, about the absolutely weird vibe to which he responded, humorously, ‘fear and loathing in nova gorica.’ Hence, the title of this entry.)
Before I go any further into the day’s account, let me set my introductory expectations. The intent of this series is to serve as short dispatches from the Tour of Slovenia in which I will dwell on the race and some of the interesting cultural and historical bits and pieces I’ve picked up from my time here. When I was in Oman, I was allowed to go in the press car every day to follow the race as it happened from the inside. This lent itself particularly well to travelogue as a format. But in this instance, such a thing is not logistically possible. It is a more standard setup of go to the start, go to the press room, go to the finish. This makes for a bit of a fractured narrativee because as I write this now, I am simply watching cycling on TV which is not exactly a romantic, artistic endeavor.
Anyway, as a famous Slovenian once said: we’ll see how it goes, huh?
But back to Nova Gorica.
Within the history of modernist architecture in Slovenia, Nova Gorica is deeply important. Its master plan was the brainchild of Edvard Ravnikar, a student of Slovenia’s most famous architectural export Jože Plečnik and also a one-time employee of none other than the arch-modernist Le Corbusier himself. Ravnikar is responsible for the best examples of Slovene modernism such as the Cankarjev Dom and Republic Square in Ljubljana. But Nova Gorica was where he Ravnikar was gifted an architect’s wet dream: carte blanche to build a Yugoslav utopia in the Corbusian vein: high rises, parks, and highly organized common spaces. (He thankfully left out the Corbusian idea of mega highways plowing through everything.)
A notable element of Ravnikar’s architecture is its scale, which is compact and humane — sometimes surprisingly so. Even his eight-to-ten story office buildings on Slovenska cesta and the residential concrete high rises in Nova Gorica feel petite and unintimidating. Perhaps he achieves this effect because the urban landscapes of Slovenia itself tend to be small, a reflection of an entire country through which one can drive in just a few hours from one end to the other. Either way, Nova Gorica is one of the rare examples of very successful modernist planning — the common spaces truly are common, lively, and full of interaction at street level, and the central square is naturally suited to events such as the Tour of Slovenia press conference and after when the Slovenian boy band Joker Out played a free concert accompanied by quite a bit of teen squealing.
When the riders pull out the following morning, there’s no time for architectural ogling. It’s packed. This is a particularly important day for several cyclists who come from near the town of Idrija, most notably Jan Tratnik and Matevž Govekar from Bahrain Victorious. (“It’s my first race on the World Tour. I’m so excited. All my friends will be there,” Govekar tells me in a brief conversation at the start.)
Tratnik is also all smiles in the morning: “It’s a great feeling. It doesn’t happen many times that a race goes through your city. Today we will pass there. These are my home climbs. My friends already prepared a fanclub corner and the whole city will be there. I can’t wait.”
The roads around Nova Gorica weave through big rolling hills, green and lush, and lurking behind them in the distance is the translucent Soča river. Hardwoods and pines trade places as the dominant foliage on these Karstic slopes.
When we arrive in Postojna,1 there’s a little bit of time before things are set up in the press room. I get out of the car to go catch a peek of the famous caves the region is known for, caves which open up into vast spaces where concerts sometimes take place. There’s not enough time sadly to get a ticket and do a tour. Still, I can get a fre sneak peek. The black slit of the cave entrance seems out of place among all that candy-colored souvenir tourism. The opening to the earth itself is almost secondary to its accompanying resort architecture both late 19th and mid-20th century.
The town of Postojna itself, outside of the cave, is all nestled in a few blocks, and even within these blocks there are still dense buildings, something these towns are not allergic to like they are in the States. Partisan statues of soldiers greet us with red letters and weapons on their shoulders but no one pays them any mind. That’s history and this is today. There’s music and dancing. Children are playing. It’s a party as much as it is a race.
When we geet to the press room, there’s still a five-man break up front. The riders pass through Tolmin, a town most notable for the visitations of Dante Alighieri (this turned into a politically complicated claim to fame in the 1930s when Dante started to become associated with Italian Fascism) and later reach Idrija itself, a small town once notable for its mercury mine, the products of which had a role in the artistic merits of Venitian glassmaking. So far, things in the bunch remain together. And there is, in fact, a Jan Tratnik corner waving flags and signs.
At the beginning of the day, no one expects much to go down with regard to the GC unless something crazy happens. On paper, it’s a day for Luka Mezgec, maybe the sprinters if they can make it over the climbs. Or Jan Tratnik if he’s on a lark. Or Mohorič. Who knows with that guy. When I asked Pogačar about the stage this morning, he had a little mischevious smile on his face, a smile that’s only mischevious in retrospect.
“Today it’s a bit tricky. Some steep climbs. Two smaller climbs in the end. Maybe it’s good for sprinters if the tempo’s not too high. But,” he added crucially, “If someone decides to go full gas, it will be more for the GC guys. Today it will either be a bunch sprint or a small group.”
Well, on the Zarog climb with 59 kilometers to go, Pogačar himself decides to be that someone. He takes off. Only his teammate Rafal Majka and Bahrain’s Domen Novak are able to go with him. The American climber Sean Bennett from China Glory Continental Cycling Team tries to tag along but he, too, is left in the dust. Tratnik and Mohorič end up chasing potatoes trying to salvage the day in what must be a sore showing for the chatty baroudour who was beaming at the press conference just yesterday. They, and the rest of the peloton don’t come back. And just like that, it becomes abundantly clear what is going to happen far sooner than anticipated.
The day before, Pogačar told me at the press conference, “Jumbo showed that they are really strong. Jonas and Primož they went really, really strong on the climbs. For sure it was some sort of statement, some reference. But I’m not surprised. It’s what’s expected. For sure they will watch also Tour of Slovenia and their competitors here.”
If Roglič and Vingegaard are watching, they might want to look away.
I would like to take a moment to thank RTV Slovenija for letting me ride in their car.