How did Slovenia rise to the top of WorldTour cycling?
One of the most widespread myths in cycling is that Slovenian cycling came out of nowhere.
Whether you think it came out of nowhere when Tadej Valjavec and Janez Brajkovič were delivering the Tour de France top 10s a decade and more ago, or you think it started with the ascendancy of Primož Roglič not long afterwards, you would be wrong on both counts.
The truth is that cycling has been around in Slovenia since cycling itself has existed. A recent testimony to this fact comes in the form of an exhibition at Ljubljana City Hall titled “From the Oldest Wheel to the Top of the Cycling World”, curated by journalist Mark Koghee.
Koghee has been researching the origins of cycling and the rise of the sport in Slovenia, particularly in Ljubljana, over the past two years, and most of the information he gleaned is new to Slovenians and English speakers. . His work shows, for example, that cycling arrived in Slovenia – then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – via Austria, and that the first cycling team, the Laibacher Bicycle Club, was made up of Germans who established themselves in Ljubljana in 1885. Ivan Tavčar, who was to become one of Ljubljana’s most famous mayors, once served as the club’s president.
“The race started very early, I mean 1887,” Koghee said in an interview for The cycling podcast. “We had the first race, a small race, only four kilometres. A year later, another four kilometer race. But at the end of the century, for example, we had bigger races, like Zagreb-Celje -Ljubljana, a 200km race.
“Also at that time there was a race, Triste-Vienne, which was more than 500 km. One year it went from Trieste to Vienna, the other year from Vienna to Trieste and one of the editions was won by Josef Fischer, the winner of the first Paris-Roubaix and winner of Bordeaux-Paris.”
These landraces all but disappeared when the turmoil of the 20th century unraveled life itself. Political systems, empires, nationalities and economies have changed. Sport, including cycling, was interrupted by two devastating world wars, both of which affected the region significantly, with Slovenia leaving the Austro-Hungarian Empire in favor of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and – during World War II – undergoing occupations by the Italians and Germans before being liberated by partisan forces which later formed the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia.
However, Koghee informed me that despite all this tumult, there were still some noteworthy achievements from the interwar period: the Slovenes participated in the Summer Olympics of 1924 and 1928. And, surprisingly , the first Slovenian to take part in the Tour de France was not a rider from the 1980s, but a man named Franc Abulnar.
Abulnar was a Slovenian from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia who competed in the 1936 Tour with the Yugoslav national team. He and his teammates had crashed early in the race and, although Abulnar outlasted his compatriots, persevering for nine of the 21 days of racing, he too never finished.
The real meat of Slovenian cycling history, however, comes from socialist Yugoslavia. After the stabilization of the Yugoslav state in the aftermath of World War II, sports societies began to develop in a hurry, including in cycling.
Slovenia’s biggest club KD Rog – which is the parent club of Women’s WorldTour UAE Team ADQ, as well as youth club Tadej Pogačar Pogi Team and Ljubljana Gusto Santic, BTC Ljubljana Scott and fondo grand Maraton Franja – was founded in 1949 by a group of workers from the Rog bicycle factory. It was the supplier of most Slovenian bicycles, many of which can still be seen on the streets today.
After KD Rog, Sava Kranj (now KK Kranj) in 1956 and Novo Mesto (now Adria Mobil) in 1972. The three clubs formed and continue to form the backbone of Slovenian cycling, the vast majority of cyclists professionals originating from one of them, including the stars of the current generation. Roglič rode with Adria Mobil, Pogačar with KD Rog and Matej Mohorič with KK Kranj.
A socialist story
Under socialism, riders from these clubs were employed by the factories that made the products the riders were sponsored by, such as Rog bikes or Sava tires. Through policies implemented by workers’ self-management, they received salaries and equipment from the companies themselves – sometimes they had to work in the factory when needed, but eventually they could live comfortably in as full-time racing cyclists.
It’s a bit of a Yugoslav version of socialist sports practice, and unlike the Soviet Union, where athletes were trained and supported directly by the state, Yugoslav cyclists were instead sponsored by these companies that belonged to the state, thus giving athletes a bit more freedom.
Yet, as Dario Brentin and Dejan Zac wrote in Sport and Socialist Yugoslavia: “These (in)formal relations between sports clubs and political elites would persist until the end of socialist Yugoslavia, when in many cases , in the post-Yugoslavian space, certain continuities continue to the present day.”
These continuities in cycling were sometimes material. Runners such as Matej Mohorič and Tadej Pogačar told Cycling news that in their early days, the clubs provided everything they needed, even if the equipment was old. But now, as ex-pro Martin Hvastija pointed out in an interview with The cycling podcast, cycling suffers from a case of “negative selection” where only the wealthy are able to procure the necessary equipment for their children to become cyclists. Maybe a little socialism wasn’t so bad after all, if it gave us people like Tadej Pogačar.
Return to Yugoslavia. Back then, the races were local and amateur events with titles like the Balkan Tour, the Tour of Yugoslavia and the Alpe Adria, which later became the Tour of Slovenia after independence. Of these, the Tour of Yugoslavia was the most important, the regional equivalent of the Tour de France. Slovenes (as Yugoslavs) have won the Tour of Yugoslavia no less than ten times, and among the winners are some of the founding names of Slovenian cycling of the 20th century.
Rudi Valenčič, who won it twice in 1964 and 1968, then made an impressive appearance in the 1968 Olympic road race where he finished 16th. Primož Čerin (who won in 1983) would go on to become one of the first Slovenians to turn professional outside of Yugoslavia along with fellow countrymen Vinko Polončič and Jure Pavlič. The latter was twice winner of the Tour of Yugoslavia (in 1985 and 1986) and is best known for winning the now defunct intergiro jersey at the 1989 Giro d’Italia.
These races themselves remain in living memory today, and the people who raced and won them are still present in the current institutions of Slovenian cycling. For example, Gorazd Penko, Alpe Adria winner in 1987, is now sporting director of the UAE ADQ team, and Jure Pavlič is now assistant sporting director at Tirol-KTM, the original home of Bahrain’s latest addition. Victorious, Matevž Govekar.
While these mid-century cyclists lived a stable life in Yugoslavia, they couldn’t help but notice that outside, professional cyclists earned a lot more money and could participate in the biggest bicycle races. Unfortunately, there was a rule that professional athletes, especially footballers but also cyclists, could not work for teams outside of Yugoslavia before the age of 28, which for cycling corresponds to the end of a runner’s career.
After the death of Yugoslav Prime Minister-turned-President Josip Broz Tito in 1980, things began to liberalize and the first cyclists to turn professional found refuge in nearby Italian teams – as Slovenian cyclists had always participated in Italian amateur races. . To give an example, in 1984 Primož Čerin started with the Euromobil-Zalf-Fior (Castelfranco Veneto) team, a major amateur team in Italy, after the team noticed that Čerin had performed well there.
He was then transferred in 1986 to Malvor-Bottecchia, with whom he finished 19th in his very first Giro. Čerin ended his career at Carrera, one of the most iconic teams of the late 1980s, and a team which Pavlič would also later join. Other cyclists like Polončič followed similar paths, although their careers in foreign teams were unfortunately short due to Yugoslav age restrictions.
In the 1990s, Slovenia gained independence for the first time in its long history, and with it, cycling moved away from the Yugoslav model towards a Western sponsorship model, in which Rog and Sava, for example, become minor sponsors. However, the Rog Bicycle Company closed in the early 2000s.
Following in the footsteps of their predecessors, the new generation of Slovenian cyclists began to seek fame and fortune abroad, usually in Italy. It also didn’t hurt that the 1994 Giro d’Italia passed through Kranj, bringing one of the sport’s greatest races across Slovenia’s borders for all to see. Among these early pioneers were RTV commentator Hvastija, who rode for the Slovenian-Italian team Cantina Tollo, and later Andrej Hauptman, who notably finished third in the 2001 UCI Road World Championships when he was a member of Tacconi Sport-Vini Caldirola.
It was the greatest achievement of Slovenian road cycling at the time. To give you an idea of the kind of historical continuity we are talking about, Hvastija is also sporting director of the Slovenian national junior team and Hauptman is chairman of KD Rog and sporting director of UAE Team Emirates. Both were responsible for coaching Tadej Pogačar in his most formative years.
Indeed, Slovenian cycling follows a very simple and very long line. You can take any rider on the WorldTour and find, through their original coaches, athletic directors and clubs, your way through generations of riders dating back to the earliest practitioners of the sport.
And even within the small enclave of amateur cycling in Yugoslavia, cyclists competed at a high level comparable to that of the capitalist West. If it hadn’t been for the disruption of two world wars and the protectionism of Yugoslavia’s sports policy, it’s more than possible that a Slovenian cyclist could have reached the top echelons of sport long before Hauptman, Brajkovič , Valjavec, Roglič, Mohorič and Pogačar.
More information is being uncovered by journalists and researchers, following precedents set by Koghee, Alenka Teren in Siol and Petra Mušič in RTV (to name a few) the more we see that Slovenians have always been cyclists – great cyclists. The West just didn’t pay attention.