'What have you got to lose?' The remarkable rise of Tadej Pogacar

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tadej Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a España last year, at the age of 20, making him one of the youngest riders ever to finish on the podium of a Grand Tour. As part of their 'The kids are all right' special, Procycling magazine spoke to the Slovenian who's set to dominate the sport for years to come.

This article is taken from Procycling magazine (opens in new tab) issue 262, November 2019. 

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Cycling careers, especially those of young riders, are planned, not improvised. But nobody told Tadej Pogacar that. 

He turned 21 this autumn, but in his short professional career, which only dates back to January this year, he has raced brilliantly at events in which he wasn’t even meant to take part.

The best-known case, of course, is the 2019 Vuelta a España, where the decision by UAE Emirates to include a 20-year-old WorldTour debutant in their Spanish line-up was only taken in the summer. For the first third of the season, team management had insisted that the Slovenian’s Grand Tour debut would not be until 2020, to avoid the risk of burnout. 

But that was before he became the youngest ever winner of a WorldTour stage race in the Tour of California in May. If he was ready to win that, then maybe he was ready to compete in the Vuelta. 

The consequence? Three stage victories in Spain, the highest total for a Grand Tour racer aged 21 or under since Giuseppe Saronni in the 1978 Giro d’Italia, which is a nice coincidence since Saronni is now Pogacar's team manager. The Slovenian also finished third overall, making him one of the 10 youngest Grand Tour podium finishers ever.

Before that, there was the Volta ao Algarve in the spring which Pogacar only rode as a reserve. "One of the other riders wasn’t ready," UAE Emirates manager Allan Peiper told Cyclingnews at the time. "He looked good in training and the performance team said he had recovered from the Tour Down Under, so we decided to put him in." This time, the result was his first pro stage race victory.

The little guy

For the third example of Pogacar’s precocious ability to rip up the plan and thrive, we have to go a lot further back, 10 years in fact, to a kids’ race in Slovenia. That was not only because of how he won, but because of who was watching: former rider Andrej Hauptman, a bronze medallist for Slovenia in the 2001 World Championships road race and now the country’s national elite coach. At the time, Hauptman had a government post working with young riders.

"I turned up a bit late for the race, and the first thing I saw was a big group of teenage riders leading and a small guy, much younger, lagging 100 metres behind trying to catch up," Hauptman tells Procycling.

"I said to the organisers, we’ve got to do something to pace this little guy up to the front again, and they said, 'No, it’s not what you think. He’s in front. He’s lapped the whole field'. And that little guy was Tadej."

Unsurprisingly, Hauptman resolved to keep a close eye on the ‘little guy’, to the point where he later became his trainer and mentor. As Pogacar himself says, "Hauptman showed me the way into cycling."

Hauptman also proved to be a key influence in getting Pogacar signed with UAE Team Emirates, given his close contacts with both Saronni and the current team manager, Mauro Gianetti.

"All the riders I oversee go into this team," Hauptman, regarded by many as the modern-day father of Slovenian cycling, says. "I told Mauro and Saronni, I’ve got another one. He’s young, we will have to see how we handle him. But if you look at what he did this year, you can see it was the right time for Tadej to turn pro. It was not a moment too soon."

Pogacar claimed his first pro win on stage 2 of the 2019 Volta ao Algarve and then his first overall stage race title three days later

Pogacar claimed his first pro win on stage 2 of the 2019 Volta ao Algarve and then his first overall stage race title three days later (Image credit: Getty Images)

Without that first encounter a decade before between the trainer and the ‘little guy’, Pogacar’s life might have turned out very differently. Sitting in a hotel on the outskirts of Madrid as the rain threatens to teem down on the last morning of the Vuelta a España, his greatest triumph to date, Pogacar smiles at the memory.

"I was nine years old. I was racing with guys two years older than me, because we didn’t have a category in Slovenia for riders as young as me. It was a race with just a few laps of a three-kilometre circuit, but I got ahead and won it," he says. 

"For those two years I raced with older riders. When I turned 11, I caught up with riders my age. Technically I was way too young to be there in those races. But I had no choice."

Vuelta reveals all-or-nothing attitude

Too young and inexperienced to be there, yet succeeding even so. Does that sound familiar?

Winning a 100km stage in the Vuelta with more than 3,000m of vertical climbing in Andorra was hard to write off as beginner’s luck. But sceptics still might have pointed out Pogacar rode that beginner’s luck to an extent. Miguel Ángel López had been leading but then crashed in atrocious weather and Primož Roglic fell heavily, so there was a certain degree of fluke in everybody’s results that day. 

Launching off to stage victory number two on the steep slopes of Los Machucos a week later was no chancy result, but his attack was a relatively short one, with less than four kilometres to go. But it was the third stage win and the climbing performance that went with it that really confirmed Pogacar was setting a new bar for cycling’s current crop of brilliant young performers.

His 34km lone breakaway at the end of the third week on one of the toughest mountain stages of the race would have been a daunting challenge for the most seasoned of GC pros. But Pogacar made jumping away from the rest of the field on the first category climb of Peña Negra look easy and he then galloped over the constantly rolling, rain-soaked roads to the finish, atop the climb to Gredos, for nearly an hour without once looking in trouble.

His pace looked so effortless that one Spanish journalist asked Pogacar if he had been grinning so much because of the pleasure he was taking in crushing his rivals. But Pogacar tartly answered that he always has that expression on his face when he is in pain.

Opening up a gap of 1:32 by Gredos hurt the opposition even more. Pogacar jumped from fifth to third place overall, captured the best young rider’s jersey and scooped his third stage win. It was probably the best mountain stage win of the race.

"If he asks to be our leader in the Tour next year, he’s got a lot of reasons," says Joxean Fernández Matxín, the director who worked most closely with him in the Vuelta.

Pogacar on his long-range attack on the penultimate day of the Vuelta

Pogacar on his long-range attack on the penultimate day of the Vuelta (Image credit: Pogacar on his long-range attack on the penultimate day of the Vuelta)

It’s not just the physical strength that plays in Pogacar’s favour. He’s clearly blessed with steely self- confidence, and the courage to risk his GC position by attacking.

"My director radioed that I was going well, but advised me to stick to the wheels," Pogacar says. "But when I saw that López had attacked and made some mistakes, I went for it - all or nothing. It was a long way, there was a headwind and on a couple of the climbs I started to lose it a bit. I got through by telling myself the guys behind were really tired, too."

His attack to Gredos was a little like his career so far; he didn’t know what would happen one day to the next, even one hour to the next, so he had a go to see what might happen. Mostly, like at Gredos, it has worked.

"I felt like I was throwing a dice," he says. "What have you got to lose if you do your best? It doesn’t matter what the result is. If you go for it and your head is in the right place, there’s nothing to worry about."

Although his final and best Vuelta attack was a voyage in the dark, on one level it was familiar territory. "It was similar to a move I did in a World Cup race last year, the U23 Peace Race on the last stage "I was lying sixth overall and it was raining. The whole team went full gas on one climb, I attacked, and I did the last 30km alone. I got the stage, and the overall victory, too."

Comparisons with Bernal and Roglic

For parallels between Pogacar and other young successful racers, you don’t have to look far. In 2017, a certain Egan Bernal won the Tour de l’Avenir, signed with Sky for the following year, won the Oro y Paz race in Colombia in February 2018 then clinched the overall victory on the main mountain stage of the Tour of California. Twelve months later, Pogacar took the Tour de l’Avenir, joined UAE Emirates for 2019, won the Volta ao Algarve season opener, then triumphed in California, like Bernal, both in the overall and again on the decisive mountain stage.

Bernal’s and Pogacar’s pathways to the top then divided into the Tour and Vuelta, but prior to winning Avenir the two had little in common. Before 2018, Bernal had already raced major events like Tirreno-Adriatico with Androni Giocatelli, while Pogacar was still cutting his teeth in Hauptman’s old amateur squad, the Conti-level Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum team. Bernal also hails from a country with a venerable cycling history, whereas Slovenian cycling only began to establish itself on the international map after the breakup of the former Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But even without cycling culture to soak himself in as a youth, Pogacar’s innate talent was there. "As a junior, if you compared him with riders of his own age, let alone the bigger guys, he was smaller than most and his muscles weren’t so developed," says Hauptman. "But he made up for it by being a great racer, always in the right place at the right time, and he’ll rarely break under pressure."

Pogacar's talent was evident from a very young age

Pogacar's talent was evident from a very young age (Image credit: Getty Images)

Furthermore, while Hauptmann doesn’t reveal specific data about Pogacar’s physiological capabilities, he says, simply and plainly, "His numbers are good."

Pogacar’s background helped him nurture that talent. "I grew up in a small town, Komenda, with two sisters and a brother, and I was always into sports, football and running," he tells Procycling. "But then a family friend introduced me and my brother, Tilan, into cycling and became our coach. After that it was always my first choice."

While Pogacar now trains frequently with his girlfriend Urška Žigart, who races with the women’s team at Pogacar’s first club, BTC City Ljubljana, in his teen years he and his brother kept each other motivated. Hauptman, then a director in the same club, kept an eye on him too.

Pogacar didn’t come from an especially sporting family. His dad is a furniture designer, specialising in chairs, and his mother is a language teacher. But the brothers were very competitive. "Tilan stopped before turning junior, which is a pity," Pogacar says.

Comparisons with Primož Roglic, the most successful Slovenian rider, are inevitable, particularly as Pogacar took his breakthrough third place in the same Vuelta where Roglic took his first Grand Tour win. Pogacar handles the question politely and says he has a good relationship with the Jumbo-Visma rider, but the Slovenian media has certainly woken up to the fact that, albeit very successful at the same job, the two are very different.

Pogacar (right) on the final Vuelta podium with overall winner Primoz Roglic (centre) and second-placed Alejandro Valverde.

Pogacar (right) on the final Vuelta podium with overall winner Primoz Roglic (centre) and second-placed Alejandro Valverde. (Image credit: Getty Images)

"Recently people have been more interested in Pogacar than Roglic right now because Pogacar’s a blank piece of paper. We didn’t know what to expect," Slovenian cycling journalist Uros Gramc tells Procycling.

"We already knew that Roglic would win a Grand Tour, but Pogacar was only in the Vuelta, at first, to gain experience. Now he’s turned into a big sporting phenomenon."

To get that opportunity at the Vuelta, Pogacar had a relatively uncluttered path to team leadership. Fabio Aru’s status as leader was considerably reinforced when the 2015 Vuelta winner made it into a race-defining breakaway on stage 2, but longstanding injury issues subsequently left the Sardinian star on the sidelines. It was just coincidence that Aru was a DNS on the day that Pogacar won on Los Machucos, but the Italian quitting the race on that particular stage certainly underlined the changing of the guard.

"My initial objectives were to learn as much as I can and get as much experience as I can," Pogacar says. "But after stage 5 and the first summit finish I realised I had the chance of a top 10 in Madrid and I grabbed onto that possibility and maybe getting the white jersey as well. I was really surprised I could do so well."

'He's a real warrior'

And now what? Pogacar says he most identifies with the stage racing specialists and his best results as a pro so far are in multi-day events. But a top 15 in the junior Paris-Roubaix and 15th last year in the U23 Tour of Flanders suggest plenty of options remain on the table. Yet another factor is that he races more strongly in cold and wet weather than in the heat. Indeed, he was 18th, and the only Slovenian finisher, in the terrible conditions of the Yorkshire World Championships road race.

While uttering the usual platitudes about how he’d like to race the Tour one day, Pogacar is notably wary about revealing his ambitions for 2020, saying on the last day of the Vuelta, "I haven’t even worked out where I’m going on holiday yet, let alone 2020."

He continues: "The Tour de France is every cyclist’s dream. But there’s also the Giro d’Italia. You can’t do everything, just like that."

As for whether his star protege could one day go head to head with Bernal at the Tour, Hauptman is, understandably, equally cautious about such comparisons, tempting as they are.

"I don’t think Tadej thinks of himself as a leader yet. Even if he doesn’t bang his fist on the table when it comes to getting his way, he knows what he wants. He might be calm when he’s drinking coffee, but in a race, he’s a real warrior," Hauptman says.

"But it’s too much to compare him with Bernal - not yet. We just have to wait and see what happens. Right now, we can say it’s all very promising." 

But to judge from what Pogacar has done so far, that might well be an understatement. And who knows what he can achieve when he only does the races he’s been aiming at all year? 

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