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Tadej Pogacar was supposed to be at the Vuelta al País Vasco this past week, battling with Egan Bernal and other stars in the scenic climbers’ playground that is the Basque Country.
Instead, like billions of others around the world and like the vast majority of the pro peloton, Pogacar has been stuck inside for weeks, riding on the trainer and, apparently, penning rap lyrics.
The racing calendar’s extended hiatus has delayed what should have been Pogacar’s opportunity to take a big step forward this season. Fortunately, however, Pogacar and his fans have reason to stay optimistic about what lies ahead, somewhere down the road when all of this is over. And (also fortunately) it has nothing to do with rapping.
When CyclingTips caught up with Pogacar and others in his orbit at the UAE Tour, it seemed like the perfect time to check in for a sense of where he was headed this season with a Tour de France debut on the horizon. Since then, of course, the world has been turned on its head—but even if global circumstances keep him from racing all the way until 2021, Pogacar will still be just 22 for most of next season. If big things were on the horizon for Pogacar this year, they’ll probably still be there next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.
In other words, it’s still a pretty good time to ponder what the future holds for Pogacar. And no matter who you ask, it seems pretty bright. Whenever he gets back to racing, the third-place finisher at last year’s Vuelta a España looks to be on a pretty impressive trajectory.
“We’re looking forward to a big year with Tadej,” said UAE-Team Emirates sports director Neil Stephens before bike racing all over the world was abruptly halted.
“He’s gone ahead leaps and bounds. He’s gone to confirm what we saw in California [which he won in 2019]. What we saw in the Vuelta was quite amazing. After the offseason he went into Valencia relaxed and he was able to win the two hardest stages and the GC there.”
This year marks just Pogacar’s second at the WorldTour level after a sensational debut season that saw him win the Volta ao Algarve and the Tour of California and nab three stages and a GC podium spot in his Grand Tour debut. In the wake of such an impressive start for a 20-year-old, concerns of a sophomore slump would be natural, but Pogacar wasted exactly no time in dispelling those concerns with his performance in an impressive field at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and another big week at the UAE Tour, where he won a mountaintop finish and took second overall.
All told, that’s six WorldTour victories already in 15 months as a pro. Not bad for a 21-year-old, who finds himself in the company of Egan Bernal and Remco Evenepoel as a standard bearer for new generation of bike racing stars born after NSYNC released their first single.
The unprecedented youth movement marks an intriguing trend for a sport that so often sees riders only begin to rack up big results after compiling years of experience. Sure, there have been the occasional Alberto Contadors and Peter Sagans in recent years, but Greg Van Avermaets and Geraint Thomases, taking their first Monument or Grand Tour titles after crossing the threshold of 30, have seemed more common in recent memory.
UAE-Team Emirates manager Matxin Fernández, known as one of the best talent scouts in the cycling world, sees the abundance of information that every young racer has at their fingertips as the catalyst for change.
“I think it’s very simple. It’s media,” he said. “In the past, you needed experience. Now, there’s information. Whether you have experience or not, you have so much information. You know the watts. You know about the form. You know everything.
“You don’t have to rely on feeling like you’re going to be able to win or not.”
The doorway is open for success even at such a young age for those with the talent and the appetite for learning. Pogacar has both. Having provided ample evidence that his climbing legs are already elite, Pogacar said at the UAE Tour that he is currently focused on improving his time trial and his tactical acumen, while generally taking a longer term view.
“For sure I want to improve this year, but for the Grand Tours, this year I’m going to the Tour de France and it’s quite different to the Vuelta, so it’s step-by-step,” he said before the calendar was upended by a global pandemic.
“With this team the future is bright. In a few years I think I will reach my top level.”
And sure, he may be contractually obligated to say nice things about his team, but there is also reason to believe that he’s right about developing within the UAE squad. The team has invested heavily in youth lately; after picking up Pogacar and rising sprint talent Jasper Philipsen at the end of 2018, the team signed Brandon McNulty and Mikkel Bjerg this past offseason.
Fernández says he is committed to keeping Pogacar the right environment to develop.
“I know that he could be a really elite rider,” Fernández said. “He needs to go the Tour de France first, to learn what the Tour is like. He needs to learn—and I want him to learn without pressure or obligations from the team.”
By all accounts, Pogacar is also committed to taking advantage of every opportunity to improve. Both times CyclingTips has spoken to Stephens about Pogacar (last year in California and this year in the UAE), the sports director has made a point of lauding the rising star’s approach to training and working with teammates.
“There’s no bull shit about him in life,” Stephens said. “He talks when he needs to talk, answers when he needs to answer. He’s very polite. It’s never yes or no, it’s yes, please and no, thank you.”
At the moment, of course, it is impossible to say if Pogacar’s approach will yield results any time soon. It seems likely that he’ll be spending his days on the trainer with occasional breaks to post videos to his Instagram Stories for the foreseeable future. But it’s hard to imagine that Pogacar won’t continue making big strides sooner or later. His Tour debut still looms, somewhere in the future, and considering how well things went in his Grand Tour debut last year before he was of legal drinking age in the United States, he will undoubtedly be a rider to watch.
That’s good news for cycling fans. Whenever racing does finally resume, we could be set to watch a cadre of precocious phenoms battling each other for many years to come as Pogacar, Bernal, and Evenepoel – who Pogacar said had the potential be an “almost perfect rider” – continue to flex their credentials as cycling’s new stars.
“It’s a great thing to see, new people in the top places,” Pogacar said. “It’s going to be hard in the next couple years for sure. I think we’ll have a great era of cycling in the next years.”