MADRID (AP) — Less than a decade ago, Primoz Roglic was flying through the air on a pair of skis with no thoughts of ever being earthbound on a bike.
On Sunday the Slovenian claimed one of cycling’s biggest prizes, winning the three-week Spanish Vuelta.
Roglic only took up cycling in 2012 after he gave up on ski jumping. He quit his first love following a harrowing crash when he lost control early in a jump, slammed into the ramp and twisted and tumbled the rest of the way down.
He found that two wheels pegged to the road were a perfect match for his slim but athletic build and became one of cycling’s rising talents given his superb time trial performances and his ability to hang with the best climbers in the mountains.
Now he must be counted among its best and a contender for its biggest prize: the Tour de France.
Roglic won the Vuelta after wearing the red leader’s jersey for the final 11 days, finishing more than two minutes ahead of world champion and former winner Alejandro Valverde.
It was his first Grand Tour win after the 29-year-old was fourth in the 2018 Tour de France and third in the Giro d’Italia in June. He also won the six-day Basque Country Tour in 2018 and the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
Following custom, riders respected the leader’s lead on the 21st and last stage when the race made its traditional finish in Madrid. Roglic was flanked by yellow-clad Jumbo-Visma teammates as they arrived in the Spanish capital.
“Thanks to everyone who was involved at the end in this big result,” Roglic told the cheering crowd from the top of the podium in the city center. A small group of Slovenian fans waved their country’s flag.
He showed his toughness by never flagging through the climb-heavy Vuelta, even when Valverde’s Movistar and a strong Astana team led by Miguel Ángel López tested him again and again. Roglic was supported by a deep Jumbo-Visma team that included Steven Kruijswijk, Robert Gesink and Sepp Kuss, but he still had to prove he could do it alone when they were dropped by Movistar’s and Astana’s fiercest attacks in the mountains.
Roglic was considered the pre-race favorite, after other top riders such as Tour winners Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas and last year’s Vuelta winner Simon Yates opted not to compete in the race.
He handled that pressure and took charge of the race on Stage 10, when he dominated the individual time trial, overtaking then leader Nairo Quintana by three minutes. He established a nearly two-minute gap over Valverde that he protected with aplomb the rest of the way.
Unflappable and with an impenetrable expression, Roglic never let Valvede or López get away on their attacks, sticking to their back wheels or not losing his cool and catching up when they eventually faltered.
Finally, on Sunday’s slow jaunt to Madrid he allowed himself to relax, smiling while chatting with other cyclists.
“I have no words for this,” Roglic said. “It gives an indescribable feeling. This victory is not only my most beautiful win, but it is also the biggest win for cycling in Slovenia.”
Fabio Jakobsen of Quick Step sprinted to win the flat 106-kilometer (65-mile) ride that started in Fuenlabrada.
The 39-year-old Valverde, who won the Vuelta a decade ago, finished the race second.
Another Slovenian, Tadej Pogacar, completed the podium after a breakout race for the 20-year-old rider that included three stage wins.
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