Primoz Roglic is pretty much inscrutable at the best of times; his face, like his riding style, measured, calm. When he is wearing a face mask it is well nigh impossible to tell what he is thinking.
So when the 30 year-old Tour de France champion-elect was asked in his yellow jersey press conference on Friday for his reaction to the fact that his sports director at Jumbo-Visma, Merijn Zeeman, had been thrown off the race for “intimidating” and “insulting” a UCI official who was trying to check his bike for possible mechanical doping, unsurprisingly, he did not give much away.
“Um, yeah. For sure we are not happy with it,” Roglic said matter-of-factly. “It’s not a good situation for us. I heard it yesterday [Thursday] in the evening and also for me it was a big surprise. I wasn’t there when it happened so it’s very hard to comment on any of this. But definitely it’s not nice that he cannot be here any more.”
It was consistent with Roglic's response to pretty much everything that has been thrown at him at this race, on or off the road: unflappable, unexcitable, dour even. It may help to explain why some struggle to warm to him. And why there has perhaps been less fuss made about Roglic other winners in recent years.
For that is surely what he is about to become.
Roglic will be crowned Slovenia’s first Tour champion in Paris on Sunday unless something truly disastrous befalls him in Saturday's individual time trial. Stage 19, from Bourg-en-Bresse to Champagnole, produced few fireworks in the general classification battle. Danish rider Soren Kragh Andersen ultimately claimed his second victory of the race - and Sunweb’s third - attacking brilliantly from a 12-man breakaway 16km from the finish and soloing to the line, 53 seconds ahead of Luka Mezgec [Mitchelton-Scott].
But behind him, all remained relatively calm. Jumbo-Visma’s rivals knew there was little they could do to match the strength of the Dutch superteam on what was a hot and relatively flat day. Better to save their energies for Saturday's 36.2km effort against the clock.
Not that anyone is going to catch Roglic. Only fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar [UAE Team Emirates] has any chance. But 57 seconds is a lot to give away against one of the strongest time trial riders in the peloton. And one of its best climbers. Handy when the last 6km of the time trial course heads uphill at an average gradient of more than eight per cent. So steep is the finish on La Planche des Belles Filles that many riders are contemplating switching from time trial bikes to road bikes at the foot of the climb. Roglic was giving nothing away on that score, either, saying he would decide “at the last moment”.
Either way, Slovenia is likely to supply the top two finishers at this year’s Tour, which is fairly extraordinary. Eyebrows will be raised. This is cycling after all. How does a country the size of Wales, with a population of only two million, suddenly produce the two top riders at the Tour de France? One of them is only 21 years old.
Which is not to say anything is amiss. Merely that there is lingering scepticism in cycling, which is fair. The fact is Slovenian cycling has had its share of doping scandals in recent years. Some of its riders were caught up in Operation Aderlass, the recent Austrian doping probe. And there are plenty of doubters out there, especially after a six-month Covid lockdown when out of competition testing was patchy at best. Former French rider Romain Feillu told Ouest France this week he could not believe what he was seeing. “Pas normal,” he said, adding that he did not think Slovenia as a nation “have had the same [anti-doping] education as us”. Some of the climbing times at this Tour have been eye-watering.
Questions are normal. Every Tour champion of the last few years has been asked about his credibility: Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal. Roglic will be no different. In the absence of any proof of wrongdoing, however, he deserves to be celebrated. It's not as if he has come out of nowhere. Roglic won the Vuelta a Espana last year and has finished on the podium at the Giro d'Italia as well as fourth at the Tour two years ago. His has been a gradual ascent to the summit of grand tour cycling. Plus, he has undoubtedly the strongest team around him; the likes of Tom Dumoulin, Sepp Kuss and the extraordinary Wout van Aert pulling him along every day.
No doubt Roglic will handle any questions in his usual dour, unflappable way. He has already been asked at this Tour about his credibility, and about his team’s use of a controversial ketones supplement, and did not appear bothered by either question. He was open about the latter and typically calm about the former. “They do a lot of [doping] controls,” he commented after his performance on the Grand Colombier last weekend. “I think there's nothing to hide. Looking from my side, you can definitely trust it."