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VN Awards: International cyclist of the year

Tadej Pogačar was unlike anyone we've seen before.

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The 2021 VeloNews Awards are running all the rest of the month for VeloNews and Outside+ members.

Cycling is a sport born from pain.

You can’t climb up hors categorie summits without feeling the burn. Some riders thrive on the sting of lactic acid, others fear it. Some of cycling’s biggest champions channeled this pain with anger, and weaponized suffering as both a physical and psychological tool to dominate and win the Tour de France.

Something is different about Tadej Pogačar. The 22-year-old Slovenian seems to be immune to pain.

Not that he doesn’t hurt or doesn’t do the work, but pain and suffering do not seem to be part of his vocabulary. And if they are, they’re certainly not viewed in the negative.

Ask Pogačar’s teammates what makes him tick, and they all agree it’s the pure joy of racing.

“In all the years I have worked with him, I have never seen him angry,” said UAE Emirate’s Vegard Stake Laengen. “I am a bit surprised he did not change after 2020, because he is still an easy guy to work with. There are never problems. He is always happy and smiling.”

The Norwegian, along with Italy’s Davide Formolo, are the only two riders who were part of Pogačar’s miracle Tour victory in 2020, and who were back for his next-level masterpiece in 2021.

“His strength is that he’s 22, carefree, and simply loves racing his bike,” Formolo said. “It all seems easy for him and so it’s a pleasure for us to ride for him. He is always very quick to thank us.”

There’s plenty to smile about in Pogačar’s world. Since joining the WorldTour in 2019, he’s won just about every race he’s started, and rattled off a growing palmarés that can only be compared to the likes of Eddy Merckx.

He signed a contract extension through 2027 that is worth an estimated 5 million euros per season. Everything is easy for Pogačar — perhaps too easy, suggest some critics — but right now, the world is his oyster.

“My dream? My dream is now,” Pogačar said after the Tour. “I am living my dream. I am doing what I love, riding my bike, and I am good at it. This is my dream.”

Of course, what’s a joy for Pogačar is quickly turning into a nightmare for the rest of the WorldTour peloton.

Who can stop this guy?

Since bursting onto the scene in 2019, Pogačar is quickly creating a league of his own. Third in the 2019 Vuelta a Espana, his grand tour debut, Pogacar followed things up with the boldest Tour victory in ages. He won a Tour de France in 2020 that no one, except those inside the UAE Emirates bus, thought he could win, by smashing the final time trial.

“We spent two and a half months preparing for this one stage,” said UAE-Emirates sport director Joxean Fernández of the final TT in the 2020 Tour. “We had the entire team behind it — mechanics, coaches, technicians, sport directors, everyone was involved. We knew it could decide the Tour.”

Fernández was right. Pogačar turned a 57-second deficit into a 59-second margin of victory over Primož Roglič. It was the most dramatic late-race comeback since Greg LeMond turned the tables on Laurent Fignon in 1989.

Yet to do it again, and deliver that all-important confirmation of a second yellow jersey — that was the big question coming into 2021.

UAE Team Emirates brought a rag-tag team to Brest, or at least it appeared that way on paper, including Tour rookie Brandon McNulty. The team would turn itself inside out for Pogačar, who is quickly emerging as the favorite in any stage race he starts.

“I have never seen a guy like this, and he is a good guy, too,” said teammate Rafal Majka, who joined in 2021. “We never have a problem with him. He is strong in the flat, in the climb, in the time trial. He was never nervous, never in trouble. He is a perfect leader. He is a human, but this guy is on another level, he is so strong.”

If there was any doubt about Pogačar in the 2021 Tour, he erased them when he blew everyone away in the first individual time trial in stage 5 in Laval. Confirmation of his strength came in stage 8 in a rain stage across the French Alps. Pogačar uncorked a savage attack and left a desperate peloton shredded in his wake. He took more than three minutes on everyone, setting the tone for what many are calling the dawn of the Pogačar Era.

“I think we’ve all watched cycling for a long time, and it’s rare you see a performance like that and all credit to him,” Ineos Grenadiers boss Dave Brailsford told reporters that day. “He’s on a different level to everybody else. He was quite brave to go where he did, and you can only stand back and admire that.”

Disruptor with a smile

So far, everything has come easy for Pogačar — no injuries, no crashes, no scandals, and no drama. It’s that blend of youthful exuberance and a generational motor matched with innate skills and 21st-century technology that is producing these magical “PoGo” moments.

How long will it last? No one knows. Many are saying he can join the “five-win” club and become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro-Tour double. Right now, anything seems possible.

Behind it all is Pogačar’s boyish smile and killer racing instinct.

“He is a complete rider, he can do anything. He could do a top-10 in a bunch sprint if he wanted to,” said teammate Mikkel Bjerg. “He is always calm. While everyone is suffering, he is racing his bike. He is just smiling and having fun with it.”

In just a few short seasons, Pogačar has completely disrupted the hierarchy of the WorldTour peloton. Ineos Grenadiers used to rule the Tour de France with money-fueled and science-backed cool efficiency, now Brailsford and everyone are on the defensive.

The problem, at least for them, is that Pogačar is on the offensive, off the front, with a grin and a grimace, having the time of his life.