The losses driving Tadej Pogačar
In the wake of the 2022 Tour de France, there’s a lot to ask Tadej Pogačar. And for once, he has quite a lot to say.
In the wake of the 2022 Tour de France, there’s a lot to ask Tadej Pogačar. And for once, he has quite a lot to say.
The scene is Switzerland, in the pre-Alps just outside of Zürich. I’m in a large branded van. The brand is Plume, an internet services company, and its driver is Slovenian. He’s quizzing me on my vocabulary. Sky, nebo. Cloud, oblak. Mountain, gora. Most importantly: cow, kravica. This isn’t a bike race, but we’re trying to catch up to some cyclists, something analogous to a breakaway. When we reach them, there are a half-dozen in the same company jerseys, with one exception. The exception just happens to be Tadej Pogačar.
When we hit the day’s planned climb, our little caravan stops in a parking lot. And Pogačar says to a slight man with gray hair, (who just so happens to be Plume’s CEO, Fahri Diner) “Sorry, but now I have to work.” And he disappears up the climb so fast, it becomes apparent that the reasonable clip of the day’s pace was but a mere club ride for him.
Now, you might be wondering what Tadej Pogačar is doing with a bunch of amateur cyclists in Wi-Fi company garb in the middle of the Swiss Alps in September.
Well, right now, on the porch of a hotel, he’s eating a big plate of spaghetti in a nondescript hoodie across from his agent, Alex Carrera, who’s on his phone. It’s one of those surreal scenes of ordinary and extraordinary only cycling can bring to fruition.
Company men filter in from the day’s outing in trickles. Half are Slovenian. Plume, though based in Silicon Valley, has an office in Ljubljana. Diner tells me repeatedly that the Slovenes are very hard-working people. He also explains that the charity ride, Plume Strong, will be like a mini stage race with five days of riding, though this is the only day where Pogačar can make a guest appearance – he’s flying out from Zürich this very night to Canada, where he’ll take on (and win one of) the Canadian classics.
So for me, today is my big day of work. I get almost an hour with Tadej Pogačar in person. There’s a lot to ask him. And for once, he has quite a lot to say.
It is a strange sensation to be sitting a foot away from someone who has won the Tour de France twice. Let’s describe it as somewhere between downplayed awe and serious business. I’m not sure what I can get out of him, considering the fact that I spent half a year profiling him already. But it turns out, journalistic hubris is still hubris and in many respects, I’d gotten him all wrong.
Pogačar’s old Twitter bio used to read: “cycling is life”. And he seemed to live this slogan out to its fullest, becoming what we in the business call a cyclist’s cyclist; a cyclist whose life is cycling, a pure, undistilled passion, a love built on focus and drive. But for Pogačar, that’s not so true anymore, or perhaps it never was. (After all, Pogačar has always had a longstanding interest in rap music, for which he credits Eminem.)
Hobbies aside, much has transpired since the beginning of the year for the young champion, and he has changed, in disposition, in attitude. His world has gotten a lot bigger, and a great deal of depth has been added to what was previously a story of an infallible, indefatigable, nay Merckxian figure.
That figure is sitting in an armchair, looking down at his folded hands through his long eyelashes, Carrera sitting across the table to make sure the conversation doesn’t go off the rails. (Fortunately this doesn’t seem to hamper the discussion.) While always quiet and unflappably pleasant, when Pogačar speaks, this time he’s a tad solemn. Perhaps because the subjects we’re talking about are kind of solemn: equality, cancer, the 2022 Tour de France. The future and the rest of his career.
When I ask him why we’re here, Pogačar reiterates that Plume, his personal sponsor, is doing this for charity. The proceeds from the event (which come from auctioning off his jerseys and a replica of his 2020 Tour de France-winning bike) will go to the children of war-torn Ukraine and poverty-stricken Moldova. “Young people,” he tells me, as though he is not young himself, “need the help first. To develop, to grow up, you need something, and sometimes for adults it’s already too late.”
Of course, Plume Strong isn’t the only contribution to youth that Pogačar has made. Back home in Ljubljana, he’s spent a great deal of his own time and money strengthening his home club KD Rog into a cycling powerhouse, and his eponymous juniors squad Pogi Team into an institution raising the next generation of Slovene cyclists. In the interests of ambassadorship, gone is the shy boy who was once “just a kid from Slovenia” as he famously stammered into a camera after winning the 2020 Tour.
“I got this amazing opportunity to be at the top of my sport,” he says. “I’m really grateful that I can do things that help others and give back. It feels like I need to do something, not just to sit on my sofa and enjoy the success because that’s not the point, because not everyone gets the same chances that I get.”
I ask him what he means by that, because it isn’t as though Pogačar, born the son of a teacher and a furniture factory worker, grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth.
But wealth, he explains, is relative. “I [grew] up in a really nice family with many people around me,” he says. “They loved me. I joined [KD Rog], was doing sports, was in school. I had basically everything. I got the opportunity to show what I can do. A lot of people cannot. All I can do is try to help people so that they have the same opportunities as I had. I know that not everyone can be the same, or have the same capabilities [as me]. But there needs to be some sort of balance, some chances for everybody.”
“Some justice,” I say.
“Yeah. Some justice for all.”
I can already smell the comments section brewing. Charity work done by cyclists is a touchy subject, one that welcomes a decent amount of cynicism. With the collapse of Lance Armstrong and the many ensuing critical articles about his Livestrong charity, many fans have had a bad taste in their mouth about the topic ever since. When Pogačar and his coach, University of Colorado cancer researcher Iñigo San Millan, announced the launch of a new cancer organization, The Tadej Pogačar Foundation, during the Tour, Twitter went wild with comparisons, jokes, and accusations of using PR to get ahead of some kind of always-looming scandal.
At the time, Pogačar was also not forthcoming with the inspiration for why he started the foundation in the first place, which only threw flames on the fire. And after all, we are not entitled to the intimacies of athletes’ lives. However, the reality is deeply personal, and delicate. When I press the question, Pogačar’s not looking at me anymore, or at Carrera, whose ears visibly perk up. In the quiet room, there is a pause.
“This year, I mean these last couple of years, my fiancée Urška [Žigart]’s mother had – was fighting with cancer, two cancers, and the second one … that was it.” His hands knot together, knuckles white. “And you know, if there would be some cure, maybe it wouldn’t happen. It’s a tough, tough world and there are so many people struggling and fighting that disease, that ugly disease. We just need to find a cure.”
It’s a strange juxtaposition, for in the adjacent dining room, Plume Strong participants are laughing, celebrating after their long, completed ride. There’s the sound of glasses clinking.
Carrera gets up and closes the door.
Death changes people. It creates a vacuum in which one’s whole life, the flatness of it, comes into sharp, ugly focus. At first, the perspective of death makes our successes seem empty, our struggles seem pointless, and our desires seem entitled. It shrinks our own timespans, forces us to look at ourselves as though our own lives could be concluded at any moment. It matures us, too, makes our own narratives a little bit easier to understand, to process. While death may be the most intense trigger of this existential reevaluation, it is true of many kinds of loss. And Tadej Pogačar has to answer for another one, too.
“I cannot say that I lost the Tour,” he tells me. “Second place is pretty great. But I can say that I lost the Tour in the best possible way. I couldn’t be better. And if that means losing for some people, then I accept that.”
I wonder aloud if loss, like winning, changes a rider.
“For sure,” he answers. “When you win, it changes you. You get your confidence. But when you lose, sometimes you need that reality check … That was done to me this year. I know better what to do next year. I’m happy that I lost.”
Perhaps another indication of a change in perspective – the usually taciturn Pogačar has, in his website and in the Slovene press, tried his hand at writing, dictating to Pogi Team comms director Teja Hauptman accounts of his life.
“It feels kind of great to tell your side of the story,” he admits. “It brings the public more close to the athlete if the athlete writes about himself and expresses the feelings and the emotions of the race.” I note that it’s interesting to us journalists too, because what an athlete writes is sometimes different than what they say to us in the moment.
“Yeah. In the race, it’s always in the heat of the moment,” he continues. “You don’t think clearly. Sometimes you say something and then you think back, ‘oh, maybe it was not like this.’ It’s always a bit more true after everything settles down.”
About the Tour, Pogačar wrote in RTV an account of that fateful stage 11, Albertville to the Col du Granon:
“We started well. I felt OK, but then I ran out of energy. I wanted a lot of water on that stage, forgetting to drink the hydration drink, but on the Galibier, everything was still OK. The tactics of the whole Jumbo Visma team with Jonas [Vingegaard] and Primož [Roglič] at the head were really great. They were all 100%, they were really good at knocking me down with their attacks, especially on that flat part between Telegraphe and Galibier, and then I tried to attack myself, because it was just me and Jonas on top of Galibier.
“Jonas had an interest in waiting for his assistants in the lead group, and [Wout] Van Aert was waiting for Primož. Maybe I was a bit nervous about how and what would happen on Granon. When we started the last climb, I immediately felt that today was not such a good day.”
When I follow up on this, he laughs. “For most people [stage 11] was the most interesting stage,” he says. “For me, it just sucked, but even so I must say it was a great stage. The Galibier was incredible. But cycling is a game of nutrition, and I think I maybe miscalculated or something. There just wasn’t enough fuel for the last climb. This kind of thing shouldn’t happen in cycling, but it happens. I was fighting to the line, but I was so exhausted.”
Part of what made the stage – and the Tour – so great was that Pogačar simply never gave up. Not on stage 11 and not on the whole thing. When Roglič and Vingegaard and their domestiques began the attacks, isolating their rival, Pogačar fought back even though he was alone, even though it became clear he’d made a mistake. “I tried to win,” he says. “I didn’t succeed because Vingegaard was stronger than me. Maybe I could’ve brought home some more stages but I didn’t want that. I wanted to win. I gave it all.”
Many fans want to know what keeps a guy like that going in such a tense, miserable situation, but Pogačar isn’t one to romanticize.
“I don’t know what gives me the drive to go on. I just love cycling. I can’t complain about the life.” He shrugs. “I have great people around me and we love this, we have in our nature to race and compete, to prove to each other, to prove to yourself that you can be better.”
“You’re a cyclist’s cyclist.”
“I know, a cyclist’s cyclist. We’re stubborn.”
Part of the struggle was the pandemic. By the end of the Tour, UAE Team Emirates was knocked down to just four riders. Three, Pogačar says, if you exclude Marc Hirschi who was suffering from knee pain and had only just recovered from COVID. “This was a really big hit for the team,” he says. “You cannot compete against six, seven, eight riders.”
Pogačar tells me that if COVID was a non-factor, the results probably would have been different. “We had a really good team for the second and third week, not so much for the first week. If we had [Matteo] Trentin for the first week, it would have been better. But he was out. Then [Vegard Stake] Laengen was out. He was good this year for long climbs. So he was really our main guy to be in the front. George Bennett, he didn’t even come to his territory, the big, big climbs. To lose [Marc] Soler and [Rafał] Majka was also a huge hit … next year we need to get COVID three months before or something,” he jokes.
Still, he admits that COVID isn’t the only reason the Tour wasn’t a success.
“There’s a lot of small mistakes that I did, that the team did. In cycling you can’t do 100% to perfection.” A chortle. “Maybe only Jumbo-Visma did it perfect, but probably also not 100% perfect. Their tactic worked.
“If I could go back, yeah, I would probably do some things different. But in that moment you don’t know how your competitors are feeling and how good they are. You make mistakes in cycling.”
“And in life,” I venture.
He nods knowingly.
“In life as well.”
Carrera is looking at his watch. The dining room is getting louder, and I could use a sandwich myself. As tends to be the case with these kinds of long interviews, the time has come to ask the big, vague, bothersome questions about the future, his perspective on cycling after the Tour, his career.
“Have I changed my outlook on cycling? I don’t think so,” he shrugs. “It’s still the same. Everybody wants to win. Everybody trains as crazy as possible. The racing is getting faster and faster.”
I stop immediately. This increasing speed of cycling is a common sentiment expressed by doping-skeptical fans, statistics-armed commentators and even by some riders in the peloton, especially those from teams signed to the MPCC (Movement for a Credible Cycling) which Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates is not. It is interesting to hear the best cyclist in the world by ranking admit that yes, it’s true, cycling is getting faster.
He explains that cycling is becoming a game of marginal gains. “It’s all the details, everything counts. Food is really important. Sleep. Now you have these Whoop monitors that tell you if you sleep six hours that’s not good. We are getting this information. All the details, all the training camps.”
“Does it ever get to be too much information? Or are you just used to it?”
“No, you get used to it. It’s just like a regular job. You also get a lot of information if you work in an office every day. I like the data to improve things. I think cycling will still go farther, and we will get even faster in the next years.”
Pogačar, like me, is “not a tech guy,” so he doesn’t have much more detail to add. Besides, there’s something else I’ve always wanted to know. Cycling, to me, is all about narratives, about the stories we expect versus the ones we get. And for Tadej Pogačar, it seemed two years ago that the big conflict was going to be between him and his compatriot Primož Roglič. But that hasn’t been the case. It’s been, overwhelmingly, a battle between young (and increasingly younger) talents who can seemingly do everything.
For Pogačar, this is a good thing. He likes it. “And I hope that next year Egan [Bernal] comes back. So then we have a really big field of same-level competitors that will make a really tight battle for the Tour de France. It’s good that it’s not always about the same two guys, that the riders are changing. That it’s always different battles.”
“It’s becoming a younger and younger sport,” I agree. “Do you think that changes cycling? Is it going to change how long people’s careers last?”
“We’re gonna see,” Pogačar says, and then he admits something I did not expect:
“Maybe the careers will not be shorter on average, but maybe the top level of the competitors will be less years. We’re gonna see maybe five, seven years at the top level, maybe 10. But I’m more [expecting] the lower number. I think it’s going to have the effect that the younger riders are already racing at the top level and you just cannot—for me, I don’t see it for myself that I can do it for another 10 years at the same level I have done now for three years.”
I ask if that worries him, and it is here where everything comes together – the reflection, the writing, the charity, the perspective gained by grief, the invocation of justice, the protectionism offered to those not much younger than Pogačar himself.
“I don’t worry at all,” Pogačar smiles, almost ponderously. “I got this opportunity to be one of the best cyclists in the world. Even if it’s just for one year, and now it’s already the third, fourth, year that I’m really doing good. If it happens that my shape will go down in two years, I will not mind. I understand that you cannot be the best anymore and you need to accept that.
“I already have this in my mind and I will be ready when it comes to that. So I will just enjoy racing now, and when I’m not that good anymore I will also enjoy racing or something else.”
To be honest, I kind of can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’ve never heard any cyclist – and that includes those far closer to the end of their careers – admit anything like this. How can it be that Tadej Pogačar, the best cyclist in the world, is already thinking about the end?
“I guess,” I say, floundering, “you’ve lived some of the best memories any professional sportsperson can live.”
He turns to face me.
“Well, I was once dreaming to be on the start of the Tour de France, and yeah. Wearing white shoes, white handlebar tape, and white saddles. But never, never, did I imagine to be winning a stage or winning a whole Tour. For me, I’ve been over my expectations. Over my dreams.
“Even now, I can just enjoy this. This moment.”