The sign of a true champion is not just the accumulation of victories but how you bounce back from disappointment and defeat. Primoz Roglic did that admirably last year, losing the Tour de France on the penultimate day before winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Vuelta.
But the focus for the 31-year-old and his Jumbo-Visma team remains the one that got away. Roglic started his built-up to the Tour not, as in previous years, at Tirreno-Adriatico – where he would have come up against yellow jersey rivals Pogacar and Egan Bernal, the 2019 winner – but in the Race to the Sun.
It was perhaps a canny move on Roglic’s behalf to find his form and race legs away from those riders whose own condition he will not worry about until July. Before the final weekend, his debut appearance in Paris-Nice seemed to have gone perfectly.
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Victory in the individual time trial would have been nice, but Roglic came up against an inspired Stefan Bissegger of EF Education-Nippo, who pipped Remi Cavagna for the win. A day later, in Stage 4, Roglic powered clear of defending champion Max Schachmann to take his first victory of the season and move into yellow, doubling up two days later in an uphill sprint.
Then came the clinical completion of his hat-trick on Saturday, with ruthless Roglic giving no gifts as he put in a late attack to distance his GC rivals and swing past lone escapee Gino Mader with the finish line gaping.
For many it lacked class and was a merciless bridge too far: the time gains were negligible and all Roglic gained – besides the 50th victory of his career and bragging rights in a race lacking all his genuine rivals – was a potential enemy in Mader and his Bahrain-Victorious team, who may not forget that moment for a while.
To others, Roglic attacking to win was a no-brainer. It was what he was there to do; he’d shown a clinical streak that was lacking in last year’s Tour, where he failed to put the race beyond Pogacar and the others while he could; this was, after all, a bike race, not a charity ride. And wouldn’t it have been even more disrespectful to Mader had Roglic caught the Swiss youngster and then allowed him to cross the line first? No one wants a victory dished up and served to them on a platter.
On balance, it was perhaps a little bit greedy of Roglic to deny Mader in the way he did. And an attack so deep into the stage – it came with a few hundred metres remaining, with the catch happening just 25m from the line – was never going to yield any huge GC gains.
But, then again, Jumbo-Visma had worked hard all day – Roglic repaying his team-mates’ efforts with a win would have boosted morale, cemented his leadership status, strengthened the winning mentality within the ranks. Success breeds success – and it’s all about building momentum to carry through to the rest of the season. Can you blame a man for wanting to be the very best of his game? And would even a relative newcomer such as the 24-year-old Mader not be more offended by being donated a victory rather than having to fight for it.
The notion that Roglic may later rue his decision when Bahrain-Victorious called their chickens home to roost does seem, on the face of things, laughable: when did Mikel Landa’s team ever do anything of the sort, except that time they successfully managed to pulverise their own leader during approach to the Col de la Loze last year at the Tour?
But nothing is certain in bike racing – as Roglic would learn 22 hours later – and there is nothing wrong with keeping opponents onside.
It wasn’t karma which came back to bite Roglic on Sunday’s shortened final stage. Karma would have been Roglic skidding on a Bahrain bidon or being distanced in a Bahrain-induced echelon. No, it was just old-fashioned bad luck.
Barely 25km into the stage and the race leader hit the deck on a descent – only to crash again on the same descent on the following lap of the rejigged circuit-based stage. If Schachmann et al waited for the maillot jaune the first time round, the race was well and truly on by the time Roglic went down again.
It wasn’t Bahrain-Victorious who drove the pace – now that would have been karma – but the Bora-Hansgrohe and Astana-Premier Tech teams of Schachmann and Aleksandr Vlasov, whose slim chances of winning Paris-Nice (they were 52” and 1’11” down respectively entering the final stage) were suddenly rekindled.

'Deary me!' - Roglic swerves scary crash in Paris-Nice chase

Bloodied and bruised, a gutsy Roglic found himself chasing back on the twisting technical descent with the ungainly Tim Declercq of Deceuninck-QuickStep, who almost led him off the road on a tricky bend. Had he found himself with, say, a rider from Bahrain-Victorious who, a day earlier, had seen the man in yellow let their team-mate Mader win stage 7, then perhaps things could have been very different.
It is here, perhaps, where the best argument can be found in letting Mader take that win: it would have done Roglic no harm not to have won. Perhaps the precautionary principle would have been a wiser path to follow than the no-gifts mantra.
Roglic, it must be said, never gave up but crossed the line over three minutes down to drop to fifteenth on GC. Looking at him overcooking bends with blood seeping from gashes on either side of his bib shorts recalled the image of the man in a wonky helmet pedalling squares on La Planche des Belles Filles.
Once again, Roglic had gone from looking utterly sublime on a bike, to looking completely ridiculous. And once again, he was sporting the yellow garment he’d soon concede to his nearest contender – Schachmann overturning his 52-second deficit much like Pogacar pulling back his own 57-second shortfall last September.
It’s uncanny how different a rider can look, how different he can carry himself, how different the aura surrounding him can change. The Slovenian who distanced his countryman with a series of surges on the Col de la Loze last autumn was a far cry from the same rider who imploded two days later – and this battered man in yellow was indistinguishable from the man who’d romped to his hat-trick just hours earlier. He was brave, but he was beaten. Yet he showed his class in straight away congratulating Schachmann - as he had done with Pogacar six months earlier.

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In the grand scheme of things, losing Paris-Nice in these circumstances will be a mere blip in his illustrious career. When you lose the Tour the way Roglic did in 2020, it takes some beating to top those lows. He and Jumbo-Visma will take positives from the week, learn from the horrors of the final day, and take consolation from the fact that this happened in March and not July.
And yet, over the border and in the race not to the sun but between the two seas, the performances of the rider who turned last year’s Tour on its head will have been a reminder that, whatever Roglic’s condition this summer, it may well not be enough.
This year’s Tirreno-Adriatico is in a completely different league to Paris-Nice: a mere glimpse at the list of stage winners so far will tell you that.
Paris-Nice told us very little that we didn’t already know: Sam Bennett is the fastest pure sprinter in the pack, ably supported by the best lead-out man in the business in Michael Morkov; Cees Bol is no longer knocking, but actually has a foot in the door; Primoz Roglic can take wins on all terrains and is a supreme stage racer, but one prone to lapses of judgement, concentration or luck; Max Schachmann is a quality one-week stage racer; Magnus Cort, the winner of Sunday’s final stage, can combine his kick and his staying power to devastating effect.
If there were moments during the race where our pulses got going and our eyebrows were raised – some crosswind action, an all-Belgian breakaway, a delicious final ramp in the TT, Mader coming oh-so close – then the entertainment factor was nothing compared to the corresponding race in Italy.
Blessed are cycling fans who can tune into the Eurosport App and watch the likes of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe battling it out before the spring classics campaign has even got going.

'Phenomenal' - Alaphilippe grabs thrilling Stage 2 win after sprint

We’ve had Van Aert out-sprinting Caleb Ewan on day one; the world champion Alaphilippe essentially doing what Roglic did to Mader but to his own Deceuninck team-mate, Joao Almeida, in Stage 2; Van der Poel pipping old rival Van Aert to the line in Stage 3; then Pogacar taking over the race lead with victory in the Prati di Tivo summit finish in Saturday’s fourth stage.
But nothing came close to the drama dished out on Sunday – a circuit-based Classics-style stage race that was infinitely more exciting than the one going on over in France, even with all the drama that ensued from Roglic’s dual tumbles.
In abysmal conditions, Van der Poel strung out the main field with over 50km remaining as a storm tore through the pack along with the two lightning bolts powering the Dutchman’s pedals. He defied the 15% finishing ramp, the Castelfidardo wall, as he soloed clear to build up a three-minute gap before the man in the leader’s blue jersey launched his own magnificent solo pursuit.
Pogacar replicated his timed ride up La Planche des Belles Filles, coming to within 10 seconds of an exhausted Van der Poel who, “riding completely on empty”, just managed to hold on to secure a second win. It was an utterly compelling race – the winning move going from far out in a display rarely seen in today’s race-by-numbers rubric. Not only does it bode well for the classics campaign (for Van Aert battled to limit his losses), everything also looks right as rain for Pogacar’s Tour defence.

‘What an amazing rider!’ - Van der Poel holds on for solo stage win as Pogacar extends Tirreno lead

Forget the wins and the battling back – perhaps the sign of the truest of champions is knowing when to lay down one’s sword. Sure, his fight back came far earlier than his countryman’s, and Mader, for all his promise, is no match for the imperious Van der Poel, but the way he rode those final 17km suggests that Pogacar had it in him to pip the lone leader to the line. Rather than do so, and undermine the hottest property in bike racing, Pogacar perhaps chose to ease up and let the rangy Dutch champion take another superlative, and highly deserved, win.
Clinical from Pogacar? In many ways, yes. Just not the same way as his compatriot. After all, you need to pick your battles wisely – and, come July, Pogacar’s won’t be with Van der Poel. The presence of Van der Poel and his Alpecin-Fenix team at the Tour, however, may give UAE Team Emirates a chip they can cash in later on – a chip Jumbo-Visma probably won’t be getting from Bahrain-Victorious in a hurry.
We are still three-and-a-half months away from the Tour’s grand départ, but already it looks like that the smart money will be on Tadej Pogacar to defend his crown, rather than his compatriot Primoz Roglic to win the race he contrived to lose in 2020.
Of course, Tirreno-Adriatico has still yet to finish – and there’s nothing stopping Pogacar having a nightmare in the final time trial. But you sense that the 22-year-old doesn’t have it in him to lose a stage race in the same manner as his countryman. This is perhaps what separates them in their shared quest for yellow.
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