Since turning professional at just 19, Matej Mohorič has matured year after year; his boyish face transforming to that of a bright-minded young man, his coat-hanger physique filling out after each Grand Tour and WorldTour season, the promise shown as a consecutive junior and under-23 world champion confirmed by an ever-prestigious palmares.
He has even abandoned the top-tube descending technique he introduced to the peloton as a teenager, preferring safety to a little extra speed. Maturity shows itself in many ways.
Mohorič celebrated his 24th birthday on October 19 after another successful season of racing in 2018. His first professional victory came on a stage of the Tour of Hainan in 2016, and he won a stage at the 2017 Vuelta a España. This year he leaped forward, winning seven races, including the overall classification at the BinckBank Tour WorldTour race and the first edition of the new-look Deutschland Tour. He confirmed his natural leadership skills and that he was ready for even greater things in what was a real coming of age: a breakthrough year after a long apprenticeship.
"I think it was my most successful season so far," Mohorič modestly tells Cyclingnews in an end-of-season interview.
"I raced well from the beginning of the year, won races early on and did well in races like Strade Bianche and the Giro d’Italia while helping others. Then I had a superb second half of the season with my victories at the BinckBank Tour and the Deutschland Tour. Now I'm looking forward to next season."
Mohorič moved from UAE Team Emirates to Bahrain-Merida for 2018. The team was built around Vincenzo Nibali for the Tour de France, giving Mohorič the opportunity to step up in the post-Tour summer stage races. After winning the Italian one-day GP Industria & Artigianato Tuscan in early March and then a stage at the Giro d’Italia in Gualdo Tadino, he trained hard in July to be ready for his test of leadership.
"The team wanted to give me an opportunity to ride as a team leader in a WorldTour stage race, and so my peak for the summer was carefully planned," Mohorič explains.
"I could choose between the Tour de Pologne and the BinckBank Tour, and I opted for the latter because I think racing in Belgium suits me better, and I'm not yet that good of a climber to compete against the best riders who come out of the Tour de France and then ride Poland. It proved to be the better option for me."
Mohorič instinctively sparked the attack on stage 3 of the BinckBank Tour to Antwerp, chasing bonus seconds in the late Golden Kilometre intermediate sprints and then giving his all to make sure the breakaway stayed clear.
He gained a minute on his overall rivals, and then controlled the race leader's green jersey with consummate ease during the final stages, including on the final stage on the Muur van Geraardsbergen, where Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and the Quick-Step team tried to dislodge him. Some riders accused Mohorič of riding over-aggressively on stage 6 after Trek-Segafredo's Jasper Stuyven and Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step) has crashed, but he denied any wrongdoing, insisting he simply raced as required on the roads of Belgium.
It was another sign of his natural leadership skills and confirmation of his potential.
"Having the potential to win and then actually winning are two different things," Mohorič suggests. "It was my first shot at leadership, and so I didn't have the best possible team to back me up, which is logical. I think in the future the team will support me even more for the races I'll target.
"I like to be a team leader," Mohorič tells Cyclingnews as if it's part of his destiny, while also explaining his proletarian view of being part of a successful team.
"I think I can be a good domestique when I'm not at my best and a leader when needed," he says. "I think it's important to have respect for your teammates and pay back your teammates if they help you win. I'm proud of that."
Precocious, talented and hungry for the cobbles
Very few riders have ever won both junior and under-23 world road race titles, and few turn professional while still in their teens. Filippo Pozzato comes to mind as a rider who successfully jumped from the junior ranks to the professional peloton, while double junior world champion Remco Evenepoel will try to fast-track his career by joining Deceuninck-Quick Step for 2019.
Despite his success and potential, the suffering of his early years as a professional mean Mohorič has stayed pleasantly humble.
"In hindsight, perhaps for physical reasons, it was perhaps not the best idea to turn professional so young. I wasn't quite ready, and was at a much lower level than the other riders at WorldTour level," he suggests.
"But now I think I've developed both mentally and physically. I've also gained a lot of experience. I've only just turned 24 but next year will be my sixth season at WorldTour level. Compared to guys who turn professional at this age, I think I have a big advantage. I’ve already ridden most of the races I want to target, and I've already ridden the Giro d'Italia three times, so that's very different to being a rookie."
Mohorič is keen to use his hard-fought leadership opportunities to steer his 2019 season. He's arguably still developing, and still a raw talent for both the Classics and stage races. However, he wants to test his ability in the cobbled Classics before focusing more on other goals next season, despite the BinckBank Tour surprisingly being his only ever taste of Flemish racing.
"So far I've only raced the Ardennes Classics, but now I want to race the cobbled Classics," he says with determination.
"I hope my race programme will change so that I'll be able to try to target Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Then if I perform well in the spring, I could be selected for what would be my Tour de France debut.
"I'm 24, so next year will be pretty important for me because it could be my first year with an important role from the start of the season. I’m looking forward to that, and I'm looking forward to demonstrating that I've developed enough to be a team leader."