Tadej Pogacar's overall victory at the UCI 2.HC Volta ao Algarve in February turned a lot of heads as the 20-year-old neo pro got the better of more-well-established riders like Wout Poels (Team Ineos), Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Soren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) and Deceuninck-QuickStep's Zdenek Stybar.
The UAE Team Emirates rider took his accomplishment up a notch this week at the Amgen Tour of California – a WorldTour-level race – riding consistently up the general classification after the stage 2 slog to South Lake Tahoe and taking a decisive win and the race lead on the stage 6 'queen stage' to Mt. Baldy.
"This feels different," the young Slovenian said at the post-stage press conference, comparing his win at Algarve to Friday's accomplishment in California.
"It's quite a bit more amazing. It's the highest level, and I hope tomorrow I can hold onto the jersey, which would then be the biggest win of my career. This is a more important win – it feels amazing – and I think it gives me more confidence for the next races."
Pogacar seized the stage win and the overall lead on the upper slopes of Mt. Baldy Road, where he left a select group behind and bridged to EF Education First's Colombain climber Sergio Higuita, who was alone up the road after a vicious attack once EF team leader Tejay van Garderen had lost pace, and with it the overall lead.
"On the last climb, I started feeling good," Pogacar said. "I followed a few attacks, and when Higuita attacked, I tried to follow, but I couldn't quite get on his wheel, so I tried my tempo.
"I just tried to do my best tempo in co-operation with [Jumbo-Visma's George] Bennett, but I dropped him and I saw Higuita in front of me, so I pushed some more and was able to catch him," Pogacar said.
Pogacar caught the tiny 21-year-old with 2km left to race, and then the pair rode together to the finish.
"Over the last few kilometres, I was really on the limit," Pogacar said. "But when I caught Higuita,, I knew that I shouldn't ride full gas because he could attack me and take the jersey from me, so I was just riding behind him or next to him. I was prepared."
Pogacar was definitely prepared. He stuck with Higuita through the final series of hairpin turns and then jumped past the Colombian in the last corner by taking the inside line, as behind them Bennett tried desperately to claw his way back to the leaders but had to settle for third.
"I'd studied the finish in advance, so I just put a lot of pressure on Higuita, and he started the sprint first and rode too fast into the last corner, and I went a bit easier, so I took the best line through the corner," Pogacar said.
"I knew that Bennett was coming back," Pogacar said, "but I knew that the last 1km was not so hard, and that George had more time behind me, so I wasn't really concerned about him."
In taking the race lead in California, Pogacar bested not only Bennett and Higuita, but also overnight leader van Garderen, Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First), Bahrain-Merida's Rohan Dennis and Gianni Moscon (Team Ineos).
Pogacar admitted getting a bit of extra motivation when competing against big-name riders – many of whom have been Grand Tour contenders.
"I'd say that when you see more experienced riders getting dropped, it gives you more motivation, and it's just really exciting when you're at the front with them racing for the win," he said.
Pogacar, who is in his first year with UAE Team Emirates after racing with a Slovenian Continental team for the past two years, won famous under-23 race the Tour de l'Avenir last August. In less than a year, he's nearly added an overall WorldTour win to his palmares, but said that his performances so far had not been expected.
"I surprise myself almost every race. I'm just happy that I'm doing well, and we'll see what happens in the future," he said.
The immediate future will be to bring home the win at the Tour of California on Saturday in Pasadena, and he'll then take on the 1.1 Gran Premio Citta di Lugano on June 9 and the 2.HC Tour of Slovenia from June 19-23.
"For sure, the Tour of Slovenia this year is really open for me," he said. "For the future, my hope is to do really well in Grand Tours."
Pogacar added that he expects to make his Grand Tour debut next year at either the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a Espana.
But before any of that, he's got to finish off the deal in California by surviving the 141km stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena. The route includes two final KOMs and 2,592 metres of elevation gain. The stage and overall race will close out with three laps around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Pogacar currently leads the general classification by 16 seconds over Higuita and by 20 seconds over stage 2 winner Kapser Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
"I wouldn't say that I've already sealed the win, because it doesn't look like a really easy stage, but we will for sure defend the jersey," he said. "We'll do everything we can."