Inside Slovenia’s astonishing rise to the very top of cycling

Slovenian riders are dominating all aspects of professional cycling. In 2018, we went to find out how a nation the size of Wales became cycling’s smallest superpower

Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogacar are phenomenons. They're best of a generation or two of Slovenian riders, in 2019 Roglič became the first of his countrymen to win one of the big three-week races. In 2020, Tadej Pogacar won the Tour de France.

But they're far from the first from Slovenia to make a mark on cycling. Their run of results in some of the biggest races of the last few years raises them above the level of their peers and precedents by inches, not miles. Simon Špilak has twice won the Tour de Suisse, while Slovenian riders have been delivering in Grand Tours for years. 

2018 was an especially good season and the start of more to come: they had more WorldTour wins per head of population than any other nation; the smallest country in the history of the Tour de l’Avenir to originate a champion; two Grand Tour stage victories, from Mohoric and Roglic respectively; the smallest country, population-wise, ever to qualify for a full complement of eight riders at the World Championships. 

Related: Tadej Pogacar: from Slovenian village unicyclist to Tour de France champion

At 20,273 square km, to take the universally accepted measurement for geographical area of ‘a Wales’, Slovenia is a whisker under one Wales. It feels much larger. Slovenia’s longest border is with former Yugoslav sibling Croatia, to the south. Its western frontier, across the Julian Alps, connects it with Italy, while Austria and a small stretch of Hungary lie to the north. 

If this semi-Balkan nation of two million people has managed to fly under the cycling radar for the last few years, its team was impossible to ignore at the men’s senior road race in Innsbruck in 2018. In their distinctive green uniforms, the team’s riders spent extended periods on the front of the peloton. A crash put paid to their leader Roglič’s hopes but this young European nation, which many might struggle to locate on a map, had announced itself to the world of cycling.

It is November 2018, and Rouleur is in Ljubljana. Our aim is to work out what it is that’s enabled such a small country to punch so far above its weight in the sport. Our first meeting is with officials from Team Bahrain-Merida. Although Middle Eastern oil profits provide most of the financial backing, the team is increasingly Slovenian in character. Although officially registered and based in Bahrain, it recently opened a communications office on the outskirts of Ljubljana. From senior management to soigneurs via mechanics and chefs, the team’s staff is drawn disproportionately from Slovenia. 

We have arranged to meet the team’s head sports director, Gorazd Štangelj, at a shopping centre near Novo Mesto before accompanying him to a newly built nearby velodrome that is holding its official opening that same evening. 

As we drive south, the photographer, Jaka, points out a plaque beside the highway near Medvedjek. It marks where six Yugoslav truck drivers were killed in an air strike during the Slovenian Independence War, in June 1991. It’s also a profound reminder of the youth of this nation, barely older than most of its current crop of professional cyclists, and younger than several of them.

Related: Tadej Pogacar on winning the Tour at 22 and what the future holds

The velodrome, the first indoor track in Slovenia, will give local riders a place to train in winter, saving them from having to go abroad. Pulling up beside the impressive but simple white domed structure, I notice a sign proudly proclaiming the contribution made by the European Union towards the cost of its construction.

Keen to get to understand what it is what it is that sets Slovenian riders apart from those of other countries in the peloton, I ask what it is that appeals to Štangelj about having a core of them on his team? He initially misunderstands, taking my question to be an accusation of favouritism.

“We are not taking them in the team because we know them, or because they are privileged,” he insists. “We are taking them because we know they are good.”

Pronounced “Po-GA-char”. Team UAE Emirates Tadej Pogačar fights his way up one of the steepest slopes on stage 7 of the 2019 Vuelta a España.

In Štangelj’s view, far from being beneficiaries of any sort of positive discrimination, Slovenian riders have, for too long, paid for a privilege afforded to others. For him the homespun talent that the rest of the world has begun to pay attention to is neither new nor phenomenal – it’s always been there, in at least as much abundance as that of any other country. The difference is that it’s recently been allowed – and begun allowing itself – to come to the fore.

Pressed to name a quality that distinguishes Slovenians from other cyclists, Štangelj struggles at first to come up with something. “They are really good workers,” he offers eventually. “When we ask them to work it almost never happens that they give 60 per cent or 40 per cent. Never. They give everything.”

This exceptional ethic of endeavour and discipline, he believes, may stem from Slovenia’s having a sense of itself as an infant nation, one still with something to prove. Slovenia has nothing like the racing pedigree of Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, or even Great Britain. “We still have the feeling that we are small and need to respect others,” says Štangelj. I’m reminded of the less flattering way Jaka earlier described the national character: “We’re a nation of peasants,” he had said. “We’ve always been ruled by somebody.”

Leadership does not come naturally, it seems, even to prodigious talents like Matej Mohoric who, despite his successes, would prefer to ride in service to others. “We are still not ready to put our heads over the wall,” Štangelj says.

Photo credit: CorVos/SWPix

This perception of Slovenian riders as reliable support staff who sometimes achieve good results might be well-founded, but it’s also changing. In the past few years, a couple of riders have taken themselves to cycling’s top table. Yet just as Bahrain-Merida’s biggest name riders are not Slovenian, with the exception of Mohoric, Slovenia’s biggest names are still not riding for Bahrain-Merida.

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For Štangelj, this is evidently a sore point. “We would like to have him,” he admits of Primož Roglič. The directeur sportif believes Jumbo Visma did not give Roglič the backing they would to a comparably talented Dutch rider, or that he would be given at Bahrain-Merida. 

“In the [2018] Tour of the Basque Country, where he won the GC, he was actually racing alone. He did everything with his legs.” It’s his view that had the Dutch team put their collective capacity behind Roglič at the Tour de France, including instructing Kruijswijk to ride for him, the Slovenian rider would have finished on the podium. 

Yet Štangelj is nothing if not determined to get his man. “He’s a special guy. He’s a little like an artist in his own world… We are sure we are going to have him. I just hope it’s not after his best years.”

Did you know Primoz Roglic (not pictured) used to be a ski jumper? Planica Nordic Centre, Slovenia

Similarly, Štangelj feels that UAE-Team Emirates' Tadej Pogačar ought to – and one day will – be riding for the de facto Slovenian WorldTour team. His best explanation for riders turning down the team is that Bahrain-Merida, like Slovenian riders historically, is not taken as seriously as some established teams. “Maybe we, from the outside, don’t look very good?”

The next morning Matej Mohoric is already waiting with a coffee when we arrive at the sports bar just across the street from his team’s office. He is back for just a few days from his full-time home in Monaco. One of the reasons is to spend time in the wind tunnel to improve his TT position. The 2018 season might have been the best of his career to date, with a Giro stage, Deutschland Tour and BinckBank Tour victory, but time trialling remains a weakness.

While Štangelj was engaging and generous but somewhat serious, Mohoric is bright-eyed, bouncy and endlessly enthusiastic. The kind of person who leaps out of bed the moment his eyes open in the morning. 

When I tell him what his boss said about his indefatigable willingness to work, Mohoric agrees that it’s a fair description of him. He’s less confident that it’s a common characteristic, however. “I think that’s how I am but not how every Slovenian is,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a defect or an advantage… I’ve always been like that.” 

Defect might be doing himself a disservice, but it’s true that this enthusiasm is not always without cost. His coaches have to tell him to train less, not more. It’s apparent in races too. Sometimes, as at 2019’s Milan-Sanremo, ill-timed attacks can serve as slingshots for his rivals meaning all that effort has been for nothing. Still, better to be running into walls than walking, failing fast as they say in Silicon Valley. 

Like his sports director, Mohoric thinks that the recent bubbling to the fore of Slovenian cyclists has more to do with increased opportunities than ability. “I think there’s always been great talent here but maybe it didn’t come out as much in the past,” he says. “If you went to an Italian team they would prefer an Italian instead of a Slovenian to win.”

A virtuous circle has emerged: when Slovenian riders are able to take advantage of their chances, more are created. “So far there’s not many riders who have really disappointed the teams who have invested in them,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Success brings more.”

Our final appointments of the week take us to the operating base of the country’s other Continental cycling team, Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum, and its sister Women’s WorldTour team, BTC Ljubljana. I’ve arranged to meet Tomaž Grm, president of the Slovenian Cycling Federation, and Andrej Hauptman, head coach and head of selectors for the Slovenian national team. Hauptman was something of a pioneer himself, the first Slovenian to stand on a World Championships podium when he finished third in the men’s road race in 2001.

Unlike Mohoric, whose knowledge of the difficulties of life in pre-independence Slovenia comes mostly second-hand, both men are old enough to remember what it was like.

“In the past we had to wait on the border for hours and hours to enter another country,” Hauptman says. “Even then we had to pay a deposit so we could leave Yugoslavia. When we entered the EU [in 2004], we became a new country, a part of a big family.”

I mention the prominent signs I’d seen of EU influence throughout our travels, at Novo Mesto and elsewhere. Has the rapid rate of integration with Europe contributed to the rise of the nation’s success in cycling? “It brought many more possibilities,” Hauptmann agrees. “We feel very European.”

Just as Mohoric said “success brings more”, Hauptman can personally testify to the power of example. He links his first big victory, the Grand Prix de Fourmies, to seeing Štangelj take top spot at the Trofeo Melinda two weeks earlier: “I realized, if someone who grew up with me can win, I could too. Then in 2000, he was eleventh in the Worlds. I said wow! So it’s possible? The year after that I won a medal.”

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The mindset of Slovenians has moved by an order of magnitude even since then, he believes. “This generation now, the young riders, the young professionals, they are focussed not on top three, or first five in a stage. They have the mentality to win.

“I won a medal but if you had asked me before the start, [I’d have said] my goal was to finish the race. If you ask our professionals, they will say ‘yes, we’ll win a medal.’ They are prepared. I was not prepared. Maybe we will not win a medal this year, but we are ready. Cycling is here.” 

Grm emphatically agrees. “Now we are at a point where everything is possible. With the riders we have now, everything is possible.”

Originally published in September 2019, and update in June 2021

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