The weekly spin: Meet Tadej Pogacar, future Grand Tour champion

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There’s a youth movement happening in pro cycling, and the Amgen Tour of California is the proving ground.

Last year, 21-year-old Egan Bernal crowned as the youngest-ever winner of the Amgen Tour. This year, it was 20-year-old Tadej Pogacar, who is 20 months younger than Bernal.

At this rate, we’ll soon have a teenager winning the biggest race in the United States.

It’s remarkable how similar their career trajectories have been. Bernal won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2017, signed a WorldTour contract with Team Sky, won the Colombia Oro y Paz stage race in February, then came to California where he won the key climbing stage and the overall. Pogacar won the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir, signed with UAE Team Emirates, won the Volta ao Algarve stage race in February, then came to California where he won the key climbing stage and the overall.

When Pogacar won the Amgen Tour on Saturday, he was 252 days younger than Bernal, the youngest-ever WorldTour winner of a WorldTour stage race. In a nation where the minimum drinking age is 21, Pogacar was the strongest rider in a field of 133 riders, yet was not legally allowed to drink the celebratory champagne.

In fact, there is only one WorldTour rider younger than Pogacar — 19-year-old Remco Evenepoel, the only rider on a WorldTour team to have been born after January 1, 2000. Evenepoel hasn’t won a pro race yet, but it’s only a matter of time. He was third in the time trial at Vuelta a San Juan and finished fourth overall at the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey last month.

Race leader Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) prior to the start of the final stage of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California in Pasadena.

Bernal has been hailed as a future Grand Tour champion, and was set to lead Team Ineos at the in-progress Giro d’Italia before breaking his collarbone. Pogacar will clearly be a Grand Tour team leader in the years to come, and given his age and potential, he must also be viewed as a probable Grand Tour champion.

The same could be said for the runner-up in California, 21-year-old Colombian Sergio Higuita, second overall in his first WorldTour stage race after two seasons spent with Manzana Postobon. Higuita is about 14 months older than Pogacar, and six months older than Bernal. Even the third-place finisher in California, Dane Kasper Asgreen, is not old enough to rent a car in the United States; he turned 24 in February.

While Pogacar and Higuita were battling for stage honors atop Mount Baldy, older, more-established riders such as George Bennett (29), Richie Porte (34), and Tejay van Garderen (30) were left struggling.

To paraphrase Springfield news anchor Kent Brockman, I for one welcome our new GC overlords.

2019 Amgen Tour of California winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) flanked by runner-up Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) and third-placed Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep).

In road cycling, riders have historically peaked from the ages of 26 to 29 years old — that golden age where youthful physicality and hard-earned experience intersect. That age range appears to be dropping, and quickly.

In his WorldTour season debut, 24-year-old Mathieu van der Poel — who was the youngest-ever elite cyclocross world champion in 2015, just two weeks after his 20th birthday — won Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Amstel Gold Race.

Aussie Caleb Ewan, winner of the field sprint into Pesaro at the Giro d’Italia on Saturday, is also 24; he was 21 when he won his first Grand Tour stage. German Pascal Ackermann, winner of two sprint stages so far at this Giro, turned 25 in January. British rider Simon Yates took his first Grand Tour win last September just six weeks after his 26th birthday.

On the women’s side, look no further than Dutch sprinter Lorena Wiebes, 20, winner of seven races this season. It’s happening in other disciplines as well. American Kate Courtney, the 2018 world cross-country champion who swept the STXC and XCO races in Albstadt over the weekend, is just 23.

And while it might be fair to question the depth of the field that contested Pogacar’s victory in California, the numbers don’t lie — the UAE Team Emirates rider bested times set on Mount Baldy in the past by Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Robert Gesink, Julian Alaphilippe, Andrew Talansky, and Rafal Majka. Horner went on to win the Vuelta; Majka has twice been KOM at the Tour de France. That’s the level of performance we’re talking about.

A CONVERSATION WITH TADEJ POGACAR

I sat down with Pogacar in Sacramento before the Amgen Tour began, to get a read on pro cycling’s latest phenom.

What I found was a young, affable guy who seems a bit unaffected by the idea of being one of the most talented riders in the professional peloton just a few years out of secondary school. Physically, he’s actually quite unremarkable. He’s not tall, not short. He’s not rail thin, but not stocky, either. More than anything, he seemed quite relaxed, even though his travel to California had been delayed by 24 hours due to a strike by French air-traffic controllers.

But first, let’s get the pronunciation out the way — it’s Ta-day Po-got-cha. The “r” at the end of his last name is pronounced, but very subtly, and English speakers would do better to skip it than to over-enunciate it.

Pogacar comes from the small village of Komenda, a 30-minute drive from the capital city of Ljubljana and only a few hours from the Adriatic Sea. When he’s not racing, he likes to spend time with his girlfriend of 10 months, Urska Zigart, who rides with the BTC City Ljubljana Women’s WorldTour team.

“We spend as much time together as possible, because she’s also a cyclist and we need to take all the time we’ve got,” he told me. “Mostly I spend my free time with her, watching movies or cooking.”

In June, Pogacar will return to try to win the 2.HC Tour of Slovenia, the five-stage race won last year by compatriot Primoz Roglic. I asked if he knows Roglic, the current hot favorite to win the Giro d’Italia.

“Yeah, I know him,” Pogacar said. “We’re not best friends, but we’ve been [on the national team] a couple of times at a few championships, and we’ve spoken, and I must say he’s a really good guy.” He is closer with Slovenian Jan Polanc, whose father Marko served as Pogacar’s director at the Slovenian Continental team Ljubljana-Gusto.

The interview took place a few days before news broke that two other Slovenian riders, former pro Borut Bozic and current pro Kristjian Koren, had been implicated in the Operation Aderlass blood-doping scandal. Pogacar’s teammate Kristijan Durasek was also implicated, and was sent home from the Amgen Tour midway through the race.

I’d left the race by then and did not have a chance to ask Pogacar his thoughts on his compatriots, and teammate, being implicated. At a press conference, Pogacar said simply, “I know about this thing as much as you do. I’m unhappy. We actually just push away the bad thoughts. It’s not really good, but it didn’t really affect us.”

The Amgen Tour of California wasn’t Pogacar’s first time racing in the United States; he competed in the junior world championship road race in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015, just five days after his seventeenth birthday. He did not finish. His breakthrough season came in 2016, when he won a stage at the junior edition of the Peace Race, won the Giro della Lunigiana stage race, and finished third in the junior European road championship.

The win in California would prove to be the biggest in Pogacar’s career, but I also wanted to know more about his first bike race. It turns out it was 11 years ago, when he was nine years old. He came into racing by following his older brother, also a junior racer. “First my brother started, then I wanted to start cycling also because everything my brother did I had to do,” he said. “He quit, but I was still pursuing my dream.”

“I was racing with riders two years older than me,” he said. “So I was at a big disadvantage, in years. My first race was really difficult, and I finished last. Out of 40 guys, my best result in my first season was 15th. Then, in my second year, I already won one race, and that’s when I really started to enjoy cycling.”

Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia) finished third at the 2016 European road championship behind French riders Nicolas Malle (center) and Emilien Jeanniere (left).

The results continued into 2017 — he finished fifth overall at the Tour of Slovenia as an 18-year old — and last year Pogacar won the 10-day Tour de l’Avenir. Colombian climbing sensation Ivan Sosa, who was aggressively recruited by Team Sky, won a stage and finished sixth overall. Pogacar took the general classification without winning a stage. A list of notable Tour de l’Avenir winners includes Bauke Mollema, Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, Warren Barguil, Miguel Angel Lopez, Marc Soler, and Bernal.

“We had a super good team at l’Avenir,” Pogacar said. “Maybe not the best team, but when you have friends on the team it’s easier to work together. One of the best moments was the team time trial, because I didn’t expect us to take such a good placing [eighth out of 26 teams].”

By then, Pogacar, who spent 2017 and 2018 riding for Ljubljana-Gusto, had already signed a contract with UAE Team Emirates. He’d done so under the guidance of Andrej Hauptman, a former Slovenian pro who finished third at the 2001 road world championship in Lisbon behind Oscar Freire and Paolo Bettini. Though he never failed a drug test, Hauptman was prevented from starting the 2000 Tour de France due to an elevated hematocrit, one of three riders sent home from the Grand Depart after a pre-race health check.

“My coach from juniors, Andrej Hauptman, is like a cycling father to me. He has really good relationships with Lampre [the UAE team’s name from 1999 through 2016], and he managed to give Lampre really good Slovenian riders, so we were already talking with Lampre about signing after racing as a junior,” Pogacar said. “And then in my first year as a U23 rider, my spring was already super good in Croatia, so we made contact and signed a pre-contract with [UAE Team Emirates].”

In January, Pogacar made his WorldTour debut at the Santos Tour Down Under, where he finished 13th overall. In February, he went to the Volta ao Algarve as a reserve rider. Though he won the overall ahead of riders such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Wout Poels and Vuelta runner-up Enric Mas, Pogacar says his sixth overall at the Itzulia Basque Country in April was the more impressive result.

Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) won Stage 2 at the 2019 Volta ao Algarve ahead of Wout Poels (Team Sky) and Enric Mas (Deceuninck-Quick Step).

The WorldTour field in Spain was deeper, he says — he finished behind Jakob Fuglsang and Adam Yates, and ahead of Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve — and the course was much, much harder. And this was all while riding in a support role for teammate Dan Martin, who finished second behind winner Ion Izagirre.

“For me, I would say that Basque Country was even bigger than Algarve because it was such tough competition,” he said. “Every day, full gas at such a high level. I was there with the best. I think that was my best week in a long time. I was riding in support of Dan Martin, but also for my result because helping him was good for my result. When I look at the numbers from the race, the numbers we produced in the last two stages, it was impressive for me.”

Pogacar didn’t win a stage at Basque Country as he did at Algarve, but he came close, finishing second behind Max Schachmann in the four-up sprint at Arrigorriaga — and after he’d ahead of the final climbs and chased back on to the lead group.

Max Schachmann (Bora-hansgrohe) won Stage 4 of the Tour Basque Country ahead of Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).

On the final, decisive stage, Pogacar finished fifth from a five-man group behind Yates, Martin, Fuglsang, and Izagirre.

“Four of the best riders in the race went, and he didn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be there and he went with them,” UAE Team Emirates director Neil Stephens told CyclingTips. “It doesn’t frighten him. He just goes out and does it. He does everything sort of good. I think that his mentality and personality are probably his biggest strengths.”

In April, just after finishing sixth at the Tour of the Basque Country, Pogacar made his debut at the Ardennes Classics — though to be fair, almost every appearance in 2019 has been a race debut.

On a squad led by Martin and Diego Ulissi, Pogacar was there in a support role but also for experience. He chalked up poor results at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne to bad luck, but managed to finish 18th on a cold and miserable day at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He also placed 30th at Strade Bianche in March, and sixth at Gran Premio Miguel Indurain, nine seconds off the winning time.

Pogacar came to California as a bit of an unknown quantity — clearly a talented phenom, but with 24 hard days of racing in his young legs. “Maybe this week will be really good for me… I don’t know because it’s been a long season already,” he told me. “But I really want to perform well here in America.”

A week later, it’s fair to say that mission was accomplished.

On the race’s two key GC stages, Pogacar finished fourth in South Lake Tahoe and first on Mount Baldy. He also finished in the front group at the controversial finish in Morro Bay, a stage which saw the finishing times neutralized by the race jury due to a large crash with 3.4km remaining.

On the steep slopes of Mount Baldy, Pogacar matched an acceleration by Asgreen that saw race leader Tejay van Garderen shelled out the back, and he then marked attacks from Porte and Bennett. When Higuita jumped and opened up a significant gap inside the final 3km, Pogacar calmly tapped out his own rhythm and slowly reeled the Colombian back, catching him in the final kilometer. He then took a better line through the final switchback to sprint for the stage win.

“The first thing that stands out about Tadej is his ability to stay cool and calm in any situation,” the UAE Team Emirates website’s rider page states, “which is quite a rare characteristic in such a young rider.”

Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) won Stage 6 of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California ahead of Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) atop Mount Baldy.

It’s a point Neil Stephens echoed when asked to describe the young phenom’s personality.

“He’s surprisingly a really calm sort of a guy,” Stephens said. “He’s young, he’s ambitious, he knows there’s a lot to work on and improve, but he’s going about it day by day. It’s funny to see that such a young guy — he’s only a neo-pro — has slotted into the best riders in the world and he’s pretty calm about it.

“We all hope that he develops into a winner of a Grand Tour,” Stephens continued. “He’s set his own, and we’ve set objectives, and he’s achieving those. At the start of the year he rode in a support role at the Tour Down Under. He was 13th [overall] and he helped his teammates. Next race, he won a stage and he won the overall. Then he went to the Tour of the Basque Country and he rode in support and rode to sixth in GC. We’re still looking at Grand Tours, we’re discussing things. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We have to put all the steps in place.”

Unlike Bernal, who rode in support of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France last year, and had been set to lead Ineos at the Giro, there is no Grand Tour debut in Pogacar’s immediate future. Next year he’ll likely follow a similar race schedule as in 2019 — Tour Down Under, Algarve, Basque Country, Ardennes Classics, California, Slovenia — but with the Vuelta slotted in at the end of the 2020 season. He’s open to racing more one-day classics as well.

“Maybe I do better in stage races than classics, but some classics can really suit me, and I really enjoy every classic I’ve started,” he told me. “But for me, the classics are harder to win.”

Perhaps, but with a talent like Pogacar, everything is to play for. Primoz Roglic may soon become the first Slovenian Grand Tour champion, but Tadej Pogacar looks well positioned to become the second, and in just a few short years.

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