Four years ago Matej Mohoric lined up at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec as a wide-eyed neo-pro with Cannondale. He had come through the ranks as a junior and U23 world champion, but the first baby steps at World Tour were understandably not quite as prolific.
"A lot has changed since then," he tells Cyclingnews as he sits down in the lobby of the race hotel in the centre of Québec's picturesque old town.
"It was my first year at WorldTour and I was 18. It was quite hard, that step from the under 23 ranks to the pro level. I didn't have the legs to go the distance or the intensity," he said. "Maybe I also struggled that first year with my training, and I was a bit overtrained and a bit overweight, but eventually l learnt my way and worked hard. I always believed in myself and now I find myself, years later, still in the WorldTour and I'm still only 23 but have a lot of experience. I did a lot of races in those years, and I feel like I'm able to compete with the best guys."
These days Mohoric can do more than merely compete and he comes into the Canadian WorldTour races as the in-form rider thanks to back-to-back wins in the Deutschland and BinckBank Tours. His current purple patch of form can be attributed to a number of factors, but his Bahrain Merida boss, Brent Copeland, sums up Mohoric's DNA perfectly.
"I remember, whenever we were making tactics on the bus, Matej would be the first to put his hand up. If we needed a guy in the break, if we needed someone to chase or if we needed some to just get bottles, he would always be the first to volunteer. I tell him, 'But Matej you need to be a leader,' and he would come back and say, 'But if I don't know what it's like to experience all those roles then how I am I going to know what to expect from my teammates when I need their help? I won't be able to understand what they're doing for me.' When he said that my jaw just dropped. For a such a young guy to have that amount of intelligence and level-headedness, it was exceptional," Copeland told Cyclingnews.
"I was maybe a bit too eager about that when I first started my career," Mohoric modestly says when we recount Copeland's parable.
"I always liked to work for the other guys, and I still do, but maybe that's why when my teammates work for me now they really give 110 per cent. After five years I think I've got a new perspective because of that experience. I've been one of those guys who was the first to get dropped; I've been the guy that's done the work for the leader; I've been the guy who has stuck with the GC rider on the last climb; and I've been the guy who has done lead-outs. Those experiences have taught me respect for my teammates, and I'm grateful whenever someone does that work. Cycling is all about a team. It's not an individual sport."
Matej Mohoric wins stage 3 at the Deutschland Tour (Getty Images)
While it's easy to be impressed by Mohoric's outlook and attitude, the question he and the rest of the wider cycling community is still asking remains: What rider is the Slovenian developing into and how far can he go? He was patient as he found his feet at WorldTour, but his recent wins, along with his Vuelta a Espana stage win in 2017, suggest that we are still slowly finding out.
"The races that suit me the best are the hard one-day races like the Classics. I can do well in stage races that have only a few long climbs, and I still need to work on my time trial for the next few years because I can improve there. Since the U23s I didn't give too much attention to that discipline, but in the winter it's one of my main focuses."
"This has been a hard month but I've had 10 days to recover," he says in relation to this week and his chances in Canada.
"I've good condition here, but the race will tell. We have a super strong team here and Sonny Colbrelli will be a co-leader here on Friday for the race, as it could be a sprint. Together we can achieve a good result."
Of course, the mood around the team has been hit by the news of Kanstantsin Siutsou's positive test for EPO. The news broke just before this interview took place, and probably before the team could prep their athletes with a script, but Mohoric was adamant that his former teammate must face the consequences of his actions.
"We were all really sad about what happened but for me, I have a zero-tolerance policy. So does the team. No one is happy about what happened and it's not acceptable behaviour. That's all I can say."
On Friday in Québec, and on Sunday in Montreal, Mohoric will let his legs do the talking.
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