the rivalry that wasn't

rog and pog at the end of the season

When Tadej Pogačar rolled off the front of the peloton at the crest of the Passo di Ganda with thirty-some kilometers left to go, where, everyone asked, was Primož Roglič? The answer: behind. It’s not a pejorative statement towards Roglič in as much as it is a fact: he simply could not go with his younger compatriot. This begs another, inevitable question: why?

After procuring two brutalizing wins at the Giro dell’Emelia and Milano-Torino, it’s possible that Roglič just didn’t have the legs. In those earlier races, which Pogačar also rode, the differences between the two Slovenian champions could not be more stark. Roglič grabbed both races by the hair and won them with ruthless, efficient attacks in the final kilometers, as is his tradition. The others, be they Adam Yates or Remco Evenepoel, were unable to follow. Roglič did not win in as much as he destroyed, vanquished. And Pogačar? He was fourth in Milano-Torino, and in the Giro dell’Emelia, frankly, as the kids say, he couldn’t be arsed. He was spotted popping wheelies for fans instead of finishing the race, which he, wisely or childishly, depending on your view of the Boy King, wrote off.

Regardless of this earlier faffing about, at Il Lombardia, the final monument of the year, Pogačar was all business. When he launched his attack, it was surprising that no one initially went with him, that is, until a disgruntled Fausto Masnada, pressured perhaps by being on his home roads, decided to try and catch up with Pogačar on the descent, something he managed to do despite missing every single apex of every single hairpin. The Italian spent the finale of the race sitting on the Slovenian’s wheel only to be beaten quite handily (and expectedly) in the sprint. And yet, for the entirety of the day’s endgame, Pogačar (who could have dropped Masnada at any moment after the supreme effort the latter had made to bridge the gap) allowed us, the audience, to believe that Masnada could have, at the last second, won.

Unlike those secured by Roglič, Pogačar’s victories are not ruthless — they are complete and total, yes, but they are playful in nature, almost coy, sometimes ecstatic. Like it was nothing, Pogačar claimed his second monument of the season, a season that also included another absolutely dominant showing at the Tour de France. This remarkable feat — two monuments and Le Tour — puts his career on track with none other than the sport’s still-living titan, Eddy Merckx. And yet, when Roglič won in Torino, it was he who inherited the nickname of the cannibal on the behalf of Rob Hatch, who was commentating on GCN that day, because Roglič, insatiable, simply took and devoured that which he felt entitled to with no second thought whatsoever. On the shaded, winding road of the Passo di Ganda, however, the cannibal had lost his teeth. It was a disappointing fight between two giants and compatriots, yet it was also a fitting end to an uneven season of both stunning wins (for each) and a defining rivalry that more often than not became narratively frustrated.

Roglič and Pogačar, Pogačar and Roglič. When I wrote about their friendship for Procycling shortly after Itzulia Basque Country — perhaps the only electric session of combat between the two this year — the pair seemed to have maintained their camaraderie after what had happened at the Tour the previous year. They could be seen winking at each other, high-fiving, hugging, all on the video (and social media) record. But after Roglič’s victory in that race (or so it appeared) something had happened between them, and the hugging, the high-fiving, the winking, the chatting on the line, it stopped. When I was at the Tour, never once did I see them converse with one another at the starting line or in the mixed zone either before or after the stage. Each pretended that the other did not exist, and it stayed that way for the rest of the season.

I had a long conversation with Jackson about this, because ultimately, whether anything had actually transpired to split the two apart from their previous chummy, fraternizing ways, is a tenuous claim at best. Tabloid fodder. As to what could be responsible for such a schism, we do not know. Perhaps they got tired of pretending for the cameras, though I would make a claim that the friendship which defined their runs at the 2019 Vuelta and the 2020 Tour was genuine and natural, born from Roglič’s prior role as a mentor to the younger Pogačar (a role which the latter confirmed in interviews with L’Equipe and elsewhere.) When I asked Roglič back in February about Tadej, he said simply “It was right to be good to Tadej, who is younger and also Slovenian.” This quote was published in Procycling without the seemingly-trivial caveat that came afterwards: “But Tadej is his own person and we have our own goals.” It was a kind of foreshadowing.

The last time I would see Roglič this season, he was in the mixed zone in Santiago de Compostela where, in the red jersey, he joined reporters for a short session after the Vuelta a España podium ceremony.

“Do you wish that Tadej Pogačar was here?” was the question a reporter asked. It’s a classic TV camera prompt, one containing little substance but still titillating enough to get eyes on screens. Roglič looked at the reporter like he was stupid.

“Uh, no,” he said with a curt laugh. “Not really.”

The simplest answer to the question of what happened, if anything, is that the pair’s differences (and, perhaps, the bloodthirsty expectations of fans) led them to do what sportspeople often do — focus on winning at sports to the detriment of all else. Their rivalry, which seemed to be unique because of its warm friendliness, became more like the other rivalries in cycling. One could draw an easy comparison to the struggle between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, two men who have known each other for years and have great respect for one another, but who have never pretended to be intimately close in any way. Does this make their clashes less satisfying? Not at all. However, unlike the Slovenians, van Aert and van der Poel’s attitude towards the sport itself is more similar than different, which is why their fireworks, when they go off, are so splendid. For both riders, winning is the ultimate goal, though each processes this in different ways — van der Poel more externally through great bursts of emotion and a style of riding I’ve always described as romantic, and van Aert through a quiet, more internalized determination and persistence that makes him feel like an underdog even though he is often considered the favorite in any given race he’s riding.

This brings me to a broader point. After my season among the peloton — having survived two grand tours and the World Championships — I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know quite a few riders, including a handful with something like intimacy. One of the things I’ve learned during this time is that there is a fundamental division, a dichotomy into which all cyclists can be assigned: those for whom winning is everything and those for whom it is not. Respectively, Roglič and Pogačar are on opposite sides of that split. This may come as a surprise, considering how much Pogačar wins, but if you consider the sum total of their lives and their personalities, it isn’t.

Roglič does not talk about cycling in terms of love, passion, or fun — he is very upfront about the fact that when he is on the clock, he is suffering, and when he’s won something, he’ll give a recap of how it was done, but he does so with the next thing already in mind. This constant looking forward is how he manages to move on from loss (no matter how devastating) so quickly. (The rapid turnaround from his brutal crashes in the Tour to becoming an Olympic gold medalist in the time trial comes to mind.) Despite his predilection for victory, if you ask him about his favorite wins, he’ll look at you with confusion. For him, cycling is a personal, existential mission that never looks backwards, and, without question, the reason he rides a bike is because he loves the power it gives him and the direction, the structured, orienting task of unclaimed prizes.

However, this is not to say that Roglič is simple or boring or that he just wants to be the best. Everything he does, he does carrying the baggage of a complex life and an elusive, private personality. He is beloved because of his capacity for stunning feats of redemption, something we all desire in our own lives. If winning is his prize, so, too, is overcoming — overcoming strife, loss, a past that includes times of disappointment (being a washed-up junior athlete) and aimlessness (being a college dropout with nothing to lose.) These are deeply human elements which allow us mortals see to ourselves and our own stories in Roglič’s life. They explain why Roglič, a consummate working-class hero, is as cherished and feverishly supported as he is. He is, to put it concisely, an extraordinary everyman.

Tadej, however, is different — he’s a bike racer’s bike racer. He’s so young that there’s not really a past he has to answer for, and so talented that the lowest lows Roglič’s crawled back from just don’t exist for him — yet. His is a different personality — boyish, jocular, laid-back, a bit shy with the press but warm and good-humored with his many friends in the peloton, men he’s known for years, has raced against since juniors. The sport is his life and he has spent his life in service of the sport. The answer to “why does Tadej Pogačar ride a bike?” is easy: Because he loves it, because it’s a lot of fun. And, because he’s so good at it, because he enjoys it so much, he’s willing to pop wheelies when he DNFs instead of holding his face in his hands wondering what went wrong. After all, when one is only 23 years old, there is always next time.

Matej Mohorič, a close friend of Pogačar’s, once theorized to me the difference between the two rivals in a way that’s worth quoting in full:

[Pogačar] is super laid back, relaxed, just taking life one hour at a time, you know, just one moment at a time. He always just enjoys. Okay, maybe things have come a little bit easy for him so far, but he's really not feeling any pressure. He's super at taking life as it comes. Now, if he crashes, he crashes, he doesn't worry about anything, really, just tries to do his best always. So he never gives up. He's really, really persistent, also quite determined. He has no points to prove. He just enjoys bike racing, you know? He's quite different to Primož [Roglič], for example. Primož is more goal-focused, he's really working hard for a certain goal. He sacrifices a lot to be ready, to be focused. It means a lot to him, no? Of course, winning also means a lot to Tadej, but he's a lot more relaxed, a lot less goal-driven. He's just enjoying life one step at a time.

If we read Roglič’s wins in the earlier Italian hilly one-days and Pogačar’s victory in Lombardia through this lens, both make a bit more sense. As to why Roglič lost the final monument of the year,1 it’s possible to claim that the elder Slovenian succumbed to the pressure of the task at hand. (A common suspicion among journalists is that Roglič cracks mentally in decisive moments despite his ability to transcend adversity, though for anyone other than Roglič himself, whether this is true is unknowable.) Or, to reiterate an earlier point, after two barnstorming victories, Roglič had just worn himself out because for him every race is worth trying to win. As for Tadej’s Lombardia success, one could say that his devil-may-care attitude (going solo with 30k to go in a monument as one of the favorites!) combined with instincts sharpened by a childhood spent in the sport, granted him the win. Conversely, he could’ve just saved his peak in the last arc of his season for the right moment. As is often the case in cycling, how things are explained often depends on what kind of story one wants to tell. Is this a complicated psychological and interpersonal drama between two very different men, or is it a simple question of calories spent, of choosing specific days to spend them?

All this is to say: it’s not surprising that — considering these fundamental, existential differences (and the narrative circumstances in which the duo have found themselves) — Roglič and Pogačar have appeared to grow apart in the past year. It also explains why the much hyped-up rivalry between the two has been, in all honesty, a bit anticlimactic. If Roglič’s burning his candle at every race to win because that’s the point of bike racing for him and Pogačar, well, sometimes just kind of chills out, has a good time, and saves himself for the big prizes — we, as spectators, end up with a fight that can be at certain times uneven and, at others, such as Lombardia, disappointing. Another element: luck. Their much-anticipated battle at the Tour was unfortunately shortened by the awful crashes that took Roglič (and others) out of contention even before the first rest day. Coming off of a decisive victory in France, there was no reason really for Pogačar to overcook himself by challenging an in-form Roglič at the Vuelta, especially if Tadej wanted to have a go at Lombardia at the end of the season. Hence, we’re left with what we’re left with.

At the end of the day, I find both Roglič and Pogačar to be lovable and compelling characters for different reasons: Roglič for his narrative and emotional complexity and Pogačar because of the unrestrained way in which he rides and the sheer potency of his talent. It’s my hope, as we look forward to the next year, that the pair do not become bitter towards one another, if only because neither are particularly suited to having an enemy. Roglič’s psychology is burdened enough with the task of sublimating strife and Pogačar, to put it simply, is just too nice. As to whether they’ll ever become close again — and whether we’ll finally get the knock-down, drag-out fight we anticipated at the beginning of this eventful year — is up solely to them. For the rest of us, we have an entire off-season to speculate, to wind up our excitement, to wait and see.

1

The other explanation is a strategic one, a situation friends of mine call “Group 2 Syndrome” — which is what happens when a chasing group of favorites hem and haw and refuse to work (somewhat paradoxically) when another favorite goes off the front because they all think it’s the other parties’ responsibility to pull. Classic moments of Group 2 syndrome include the finale of the 2020 World Championships where everyone decided that it was van Aert’s responsibility as the favorite to chase when Alaphilippe went clear and in Stage 20 of this year’s Vuelta when Miguel Angel Lopez famously quit after being frustrated that no one else would do the work to claw back the group of favorites (including Roglič) that ended up gaining over five minutes.