As the podium ceremonies in Lagoa came to an end after stage 3 of the Volta ao Algarve, Tadej Pogacar dutifully joined stage winner Stefan Küng and points leader Fabio Jakobsen in uncorking the espumante and spraying the crowds below, but it was striking that the Slovenian refrained from bringing the bottle to his lips afterwards, instead holding it almost furtively by his side.
Then again, at just 20 years of age, Pogacar is not even of legal drinking age in certain jurisdictions and his youthful bearing surely means that he is still being asked for ID everywhere else. And yet, not even two months into his professional career, Pogacar is on the brink of a prestigious stage race victory against some very elite company.
After pouncing for stage victory atop a mist-strewn Alto da Fóia the previous afternoon, Pogacar began the 20.3km time trial in Lagoa on Friday in the yellow jersey of overall leader but, despite his undoubted pedigree, it would have been no surprise had he conceded the garment to the more experienced hands lined up just behind him in the overall standings.
UAE Team Emirates directeur sportif Allan Peiper evinced cautious optimism before the test, however, telling Cyclingnews that he reckoned his young charge would "do a reasonable time trial." Pogacar did that and more, mastering a variegated parcours with considerable élan. Come the first time check, it was already apparent that he would retain the yellow jersey. By day's end, he had placed a hefty deposit on final overall victory.
Pogacar finished the stage in 5th place, just 17 seconds down on Küng. Crucially, he extended his overall lead to 31 seconds over Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep), while Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) and Wout Poels (Team Sky) are 36 and 37 seconds behind, respectively.
"It feels incredible. I certainly did not expect to extend the lead," Pogacar said as he waited to mount the podium. "I did really good time trial, now I'm yellow and in the next days we as a team will protect it."
Pogacar signed off on his short amateur career at Rog Ljubljana with overall victory in the Tour de l'Avenir ahead of no less a figure than Ivan Sosa, but even the greatest underage talents tend to endure teething troubles on arriving in the paid ranks. For UAE Team Emirates staff, his success in Algarve has come rather sooner than expected.
"It was a good surprise for us as well, but we knew he was a good bike rider," Peiper said. "You don't win the Tour de l'Avenir and compete against Roglic at the Tour of Slovenia without having the ability. He definitely has a pedigree. He was 16th in the Tour of Flanders under-23 last year, which means he can handle his bike, so he has an all-round capacity to be a good bike rider. But that he could climb so well this early in his career is a surprise."
After seizing yellow atop in the Serra de Monchique on Thursday, Pogacar explained that he had been elevated to a leadership role at the Volta ao Algarve almost by chance after Fabio Aru lost time when he was held up by the mass crash on stage 1. Indeed, Pogacar's very presence in Portugal this week owes much to circumstance. The race was not initially on his programme, but when a berth unexpectedly opened up, his early-season condition earned him his ticket.
"He came to Algarve basically because one of the other riders wasn't ready," Peiper said. "He was in Australia for the Tour Down Under and we'd given him a break afterwards because the turnaround to the time change and the cold weather can take its toll on some riders when they get back.
"We weren't planning to introduce him again until the start of March, but he looked good in training and the performance team said he had recovered from Australia, so we decided to put him in here."
Striking a balance
Blooding a neo-professional is usually a delicate balance between providing robust challenges and ensuring that a youthful talent is not placed under undue strain. However the Volta ao Algarve ultimately plays out, Pogacar will not, it seems, be fast-tracked through the stages of his development.
His racing schedule in March will be relatively light, with bike testing on the track and brace of one-day races in Belgium "so he can brush up on the skills of riding in a peloton." From the start of the season, May's Tour of California was established as something of a target, and the trip to the United States remains on the agenda.
"There's a whole development process for him and building his engine for the future," Peiper said. "There was already a lot of discussion within our team about whether he should have been here at Algarve or not. We're very aware of taking things slowly. It would be only too easy just to jump in and throw him into everything because he's riding good, but the danger is that you'd push him a bit fast.
"We've worked out a good programme where we've set him some objectives and he can build towards them and recover after each one. There's a lot of things going on but in the bigger scheme of things, it's about development."
The softly-spoken Pogacar has shown no signs of being overwhelmed by the pressures of leading a 2.HC stage race, answering questions by the podium in a politely under-stated manner reminiscent of his fellow countryman Primoz Roglic. The closest he has come to betraying any signs of stress as a professional, Peiper joked, was when he misplaced his passport on his final day in Australia in January.
"We had to do some quick movements in the morning with the Slovenian embassy in Canberra and he had to stay a day longer but anyway he got home. He was nervous but he wasn't fazed," Peiper said. "He's a humble lad and he just takes things in stride."
Sunday's haul up the Alto do Malhão is the final obstacle between Pogacar and overall victory, but while Sky and Deceuninck-QuickStep will undoubtedly probe him on its slopes, he did not seem unduly fazed by the prospect on Friday afternoon.
"I am now even more confident and motivated. We will see how it goes but I hope we can keep the yellow."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.