Matej Mohoric is only 23, but he is already a veteran of the WorldTour about to enter his fifth season at the top level of cycling. The Slovenian joined Cannondale at the tender age of 19 after becoming U23 world champion at the 2013 Worlds in Florence, a year after taking the junior title.
The intervening four seasons have been an uphill battle for Mohoric, but he says that he would do it all over again if he was given the opportunity.
"It was quite hard for me because it was quite a big change, especially being amongst guys who were much older than me and much more experienced than me. But, somehow, I managed to get through it," Mohoric told Cyclingnews. "They were tough years and I think that I gained a lot. I would definitely make the same decision again if I had to.
"I still have some time to develop myself fully and find my own space in cycling. I think that my best years are still in front of me."
Mohoric has been determined to learn as much as he feasibly can, sometimes forsaking his own opportunities. His team manager at his new Bahrain-Merida squad, Brent Copeland, was also his team manager in his first year at Lampre-Merida [now UAE Team Emirates]. Copeland says that Mohoric was always the first to offer himself up as the team's workhorse.
"Matej is such an intelligent person. I remember working with him at Lampre. The directors would always ask if there were any riders who wanted to pull on the front first, and he would be the first to put his hand up. We would be like, 'Matej, you've just won the World Championships' and he didn't care. He wanted to learn as much as he could," explained Copeland.
While there has been little flash in Mohoric's performances, his reliability is clear when you look at his race programme, particularly this season. His race days amounted to 95, a hefty calendar for anyone, never mind someone still in his early 20s, which included two Grand Tours. When it is pointed out that there aren't many riders of 23 doing two three-week races in a season, he laughs.
"No, I don't think so. There are riders my age that are not allowed to do Grand Tours because they are too young. I've been around for four years now so I feel old," he joked. "It definitely makes you stronger. I have just started training again and I already feel that I am much stronger compared to this time last year, even though I was training more last year. I hope that it will help me in the future and it will make me stronger."
UAE Team Emirates' Matej Mohoric (Tim de Waele/TDWSport)
Strength was not the only thing he gained from his appearance at this year's Vuelta a Espana. Mohoric also came home with a stage victory, the first win of his professional career. After four years, it was a huge relief for him to finally make it to the top step of the podium.
"That changed a lot, especially in my head with the perspective and the self-confidence you get from that," said Mohoric. "You can really see that you are on the level where you can actually think about winning the race and not just helping others. It was a big change."
Mohoric won the stage in his own unique style with his characteristic pedalling while sitting on the top tube on a descent. It's perhaps not the prettiest, or even the safest, style of riding, but it is what helped him distance Louis Meintjes to win the U23 world title, and it saw him to victory on stage 7 of the Vuelta.
"I couldn't avoid it. I would if I could but I was really afraid that the guys behind would catch me so I tried to squeeze every little bit out of the parcours," Mohoric told Cyclingnews before explaining just how the unusual approach came about.
"Just from laziness, because I was always late for training rides. I live in the mountains and we always met for rides in the city below the mountains so I had to do this long road that went down. I was always late but I didn't want to finish myself before we started the ride, I wanted to pedal on the frame and save every bit of energy that I could and still have the energy for riding with the other guys."
From helper to leader
There is still a lot to learn for Mohoric but, with that first major win now in the back pocket and a string of solid results, he now has the belief in himself as a winner at WorldTour level and not only a helper.
"Towards the second part of the last season I started to feel like I have reached a certain level," he said. "It's not so hard to finish a race any more or to help the guys while you finish a race, but you can also race the race. That is different now. In the future, I can also think about my own results and not just worry about the results of the other guys that I am helping. I am still very happy to help my teammates, but it is also nice if you are strong enough to get your own results."
Mohoric's race calendar is pencilled in at the moment, as the team decide exactly who will go where in the early part of the season. A start in Abu Dhabi looks probable, followed by either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, the former seeming like the most likely. Milan-San Remo and the Volta a Catalunya are also on the cards, but there is one race on Mohoric's mind in the first part of the season.
"I have my eyes on the Giro, but we will see which team will go to the Giro and who is going to be the leader. I think I would be pretty happy if I could do it."