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Tadej Pogacar: Behind cycling's new sensation

Laura Meseguer
14 Sep 2020

The young Slovenian has a Grand Tour podium and five stage wins to his name already, and at 21 he's just getting started

Writing an article about Tadej Pogačar while the Tour de France is crossing the Massif Central on its way to the Jura Mountains means rewriting it five or six times.

After all, with each passing day the young Slovenian talent seems to be either winning the stage or taking time from his rivals. In that sense, a rest day is the only real time to do it. At least then he can't rewrite history mid-profile.

Pogačar, born in 1998 in Komenda, Slovenia, is redefining the regular script of the Tour de France in his debut year. The 21-year-old rider (he turns 22 in a week's time) is proving, to everyone's surprise, the great animator of this Tour, following years of total dominance by Team Sky/Ineos.

After fifteen stages, the Slovenian has two stage wins under his belt, and is second in the General Classification. He lost time on the seventh stage – a victim of crosswinds and the lack of able lieutenants. Perhaps it would already be a different story if he had the likes of Jumbo-Visma or Ineos Grenadiers to support him and guide him through key moments of the race.

To understand how a 21-year-old has come to dominate the world stage, we need to look at the character behind the rider, and the short career that has led him here.

 

Racing sense

In reaching his current position at the Tour – trailing only countryman Primož Roglič, and by just 40 seconds – Pogačar has proved himself to be arguably the bravest, and maybe even the strongest, of the favourites. Yet when I sat down with him a few months ago, his trajectory had seemed very different.

He would come to the Tour with no pressure, he said – ‘to learn, give my best, help my teammates and maybe try to do something. My number one goal is to gain experience,' he said at the time.

Pogačar is a natural talent, his rapid rise fueled by a mix of courage, self-confidence and the much-coveted race instinct of Grand Tour winners. ‘I think one of my strengths is to know how to read a race but I don't like to get over-excited and attack with no sense. I prefer to see what others do and just go with the flow.'

For his director in UAE Team Emirates, Neil Stephens, Pogačar is ‘a phenomenon'.

'Usually when I listen to the race radio and consider what to tell him to do, he has already taken the decision and it's the right one,’ Stephens says of his young charge.

That intuition is probably one reason to explain how in just two years since becoming a pro, Pogačar has already won five Grand Tour stages. On his debut at the Vuelta a España last year he won three, one for each week of the race, and finished third in the General Classification behind winner Roglič and the veteran Alejandro Valverde.

Close up, Pogačar is shy and polite yet with clear ideas. A few months after his debut in the WorldTour he grabbed everyone's attention by winning the overall at the Tour of California. Victory at the Volta ao Algarve and some good results in the Vuelta al País Vasco followed, then came his breakthrough at the Vuelta a España.

‘This job made me take very important decisions at a very young age, if I compare it to my friends’ lives,' he reflects. ‘You grow up faster as a necessity. You learn how to work with people, you learn how life works and you have many things to do in your daily life.’

Stephens is especially surprised by how mature Pogačar is for his age. ‘It's not normal. He's very calm, independent and reflective but he listens to what you say, follows your advice and orders, and he asks the right things without losing his initiative.’

Growing up fast

The jump from amateur level to the WorldTour is not only a seismic leap in sporting terms, but also the entrance to the adult world. ‘As an amateur I was racing with people of my age. We spoke about the things we used to do and now I come here and everyone is older than me, everyone has their own families... but I don't mind, it's still a nice experience’, Pogačar says.

After his first year with UAE Team Emirates, he moved to Monaco where he now lives with his girlfriend, Urška Žigart, also a cyclist who rides for Alé BTC Ljubljana. However, he recognises that it was more important that he first fit in with his new team.

‘At the beginning of the [2019] season I was very nervous but in the first race in Australia I already felt very comfortable. I surprised myself racing very soon for top places like I did in Algarve. I never imagined or expected so much for me. I always try to improve myself but this happened very quickly.’

His biggest wish for 2020 was to compete against 23-year-old Egan Bernal and 20-year-old Remco Evenepoel. ‘They are the best of the young field and I think it will be exciting the day we will race against each other.’

When it comes to Bernal, he has already done more than compete. The Colombian defending Tour de France champion was just seconds behind Pogačar going into yesterday's stage, but while the Slovenian was raising his arms in victory at the end of it, Bernal was still struggling on the steep slopes of the Grand Colombier. He ended up losing more than seven minutes and with it his chance of repeating last year's success.

As for the other half of Pogačar's target, he will have to wait until the 2021 season to meet Evenepoel, once the Belgian youngster has recovered from his injuries after his crash in Il Lombardia.

This generation of new talents has pushed out veterans like Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Geraint Thomas, who were automatic favourites in the Grand Tours very recently. In doing so they have ensured that the days where teams used to take care of their young talents without giving them an extensive and demanding calendar are gone.

Youngsters nowadays are ready to shine right away thanks in part to the professionalisation of the amateur field, where they train pretty much as professionals.

'In that sense, I'm also learning with Tadej,' says Stephens. ‘I'm a bit old-school, from the tradition of letting them grow little by little but with Tadej, it doesn't matter if I want to keep things calm – he sets his own rhythm. He likes to give his 100% while enjoying the race. Whether winning or not.’

In contrast with how cycling was 20 years ago, where the teams had very marked hierarchies that young riders had to abide by, Pogačar has already taken up the mantle of team leader. In an inversion of the old order, now his veteran teammates have to stand back and facilitate the performance of a younger rider.

It is a very similar situation to the one that then-unknown Óscar Freire experienced when he arrived at the all-powerful Mapei as a World Champion at 23 years old.

'In the case of Tadej, the situation has developed naturally,’ says Stephens. ‘He's good, and he knows it, but at the same time he's humble and a good teammate. Directors don't need to set the guidelines for him because he knows when he has to work for a teammate or when is his chance. This is opening his path and giving him freedom.’

On the podium of the 2019 Vuelta a España, Pogačar was emotional upon listening to the Slovenian anthem that played tribute to the winner of the race, his friend Roglič.

The country now places cycling amongst its most popular sports – alongside ski-jumping, football, basketball and handball. And no wonder: right now the Slovenians are the strongest at this Tour de France.

Pogačar will no doubt be hoping to hear his national anthem playing again in Paris on Sunday. But even if there sometimes seems to be an alliance between him and countryman Roglič on the road, Pogačar himself made it clear at the end of Stage 15 that he's ready for the next step on his remarkable journey: ‘I want to win this Tour de France.’