Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) may not have the grizzled demeanor of a well-seasoned GC rider, but the 20-year-old put away some of the top riders in the world this week on his way to winning the 2019 Tour of California.
Pogacar climbed the general classification with fourth place on the high-altitude climbing leg to South Lake Tahoe on stage 2, and then weathered the storms and attacks over the next three days to set himself up for victory with a winning ride on Mt. Baldy ahead of Sergio Higuita (EF Education First), George Bennett (Jumbo Visma) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) on stage 6 on Friday.
It has been the culmination of a neo-pro season with UAE Team Emirates that saw Pogacar take both a stage and the overall victory earlier this year at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal.
"This race was my main goal this year," the well-spoken Slovenian said at the post-race press conference in Pasadena. "I knew that I was well prepared, but I surprised myself a bit that I took the overall win. I am really happy and looking forward to returning next year."
Pogacar rode a smart race throughout the week, going with the right moves on the way to Tahoe and then conserving his energy for the 'queen stage' up Mt. Baldy on the penultimate day. His tactical prowess proved itself again on the final climb of the day, when he rode within himself as attacks went up the road, and he had the confidence to wait until the right time to make his own counter attack. While more experienced riders floundered, Pogacar thrived.
His final act included snaking past Higuita in the final corner by slowing a bit going into the bend and taking the quicker inside line to the finish, seizing the win and a 10-second time bonus that added to his final buffer. Pogacar told the media he'd learned his tactics from 10 years of racing with great coaches.
"If you race like I've done for 10 years now, you learn stuff, but I still don't know everything," he said.
Pogacar picked up cycling in Slovenia by following in the footsteps of his older brother.
"First my brother started, and then I wanted to start cycling, too, because everything my brother did, I also had to do," Pogacar said. "I started, and then he quit, and I kept pushing."
Pogacar has now pushed himself into the upper echelons of the sport, although he says he doesn't plan to jump into any Grand Tours this year, and will likely only take on the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a Espana next year.
Pogacar's win also finished off a week that saw the team take the pink leader's jersey at the Giro d'Italia with Valerio Conti. On the downside for the team, the UCI provisionally suspended team rider Kristijan Durasek after he was caught up in an Austrian doping ring uncovered by police. It was a brief low for the entire team, but Pogacar said it had no effect on the California effort.
"I know about this thing as much as you do," Pogacar said when asked about it by a British reporter. "I'm unhappy. We actually just push away the bad thoughts. It's not really good, but it didn't really affect us."