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Tour de France

Tadej Pogačar: From burgeoning talent to Tour de France champion

In less than three years, Tadej Pogacar has gone from WorldTour rookie to Tour de France favorite, but he's still the same kid from Slovenia.

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Tadej Pogačar’s world changed on September 19, 2020.

The Slovenian went from a burgeoning GC talent to bona fide grand tour winner with his Primož Roglič destroying ride on the Tour de France’s final time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles. In doing so, Pogačar became the youngest Tour de France winner in 112 years.

In less than a week, Pogačar will begin the defense of his title. There will be intense scrutiny of his every action as he looks to become the youngest person to ever defend a Tour de France victory.

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With a monument victory also in his back pocket after winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this year, and a podium finish at the 2019 Vuelta a España, Pogačar is well on his way to becoming one of the defining riders of his generation.

At 22, he races with flair and aggression, and without the fear of failure that may hinder his older rivals, making him a very difficult rider to contain.

His impressive performances captured the attention of many, even those longtime cycling pundits who have seemingly seen it all in a sport that is more than a century old. Writing for French website Cyclism’Actu in April, the legendary sport director Cyrille Guimard compared young Pogačar to some of the sport’s greats.

“One of the phenomena that I noticed with Pogačar is that you always have the impression that he is just riding his bike, no matter what the race conditions are. He never fights,” Guimard wrote in Cyclism’Actu. “Even when it is full-on, he does not give the impression of putting in maximum effort, he gives an impression of fluidity and ease.

“It’s quite funny to see. There was [Bernard] Hinault, [Eddy] Merckx…is he the same caliber as these legends? Given his record, I would even say that he is above it. He is only 22 years old and he has already won the Tour, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and came third in the Vuelta at 20, in which he also won three stages.”

Praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

Pogačar’s rise to the top

Tadej Pogacar finished third in the junior road race at the 2016 European Championships
Tadej Pogacar finished third in the junior road race at the 2016 European Championships Photo: PP/Getty Images

Given his bulging palmarès already, it can be easy to forget that Pogačar has been professional for just over two years. He only made his WorldTour debut at the start of 2019 and last year’s Tour de France was just his second grand tour – after he rode the Vuelta a España the previous season.

Pogačar’s monster ride to overcome Roglič on the penultimate day of the 2020 Tour de France may have come as something of a shock, but his sharp rise to the top since turning professional should come as little surprise.

Also read: Why Tadej Pogačar could rewrite the record books

Pogačar — who can most often be heard listening to Slovenian rap music at team hotels — started racing when he was about 10 years old, following his elder brother Tilen into the sport.

“Miha Koncilija, my coach when I first started racing as a young teenager, asked my brother to join the team Radenska Rog, as they were known at that time. For me, he said that I need to wait a bit to grow up because I was too small to ride a bike. So, I started racing in a team half a year after my brother, in 2009,” Pogačar told the U23 Cycling Zone blog at the start of 2018.

He quickly dominated the races he entered.

By his late teens, he was a junior national time trial champion and was taking victories in international stage races, such as his overall success at the 2.1 race the Giro della Lunigiana.

The 2017 season was unusual in that it did not bring in any victories for Pogačar. However, his fifth place at his home Tour of Slovenia – where he rode for the local ROG-Ljubljana Continental team – among some tough WorldTour talent made it clear that he had serious pedigree.

His promise was such that UAE Team-Emirates sought to nail down his services early with a pre-contract. It wasn’t yet the final deal, but Pogačar needn’t worry about that because the 2018 season would be his best yet with a dominant win at the Tour de l’Avenir, also known as the mini-Tour de France.

The same Tadej as before

Once at the WorldTour level, there was nothing to stop Pogačar but his own ambitions. He quickly converted his promise into success with an overall win at the 2019 Volta ao Algarve before storming to three stage victories at the Vuelta a España later that year.

There was a level of curiosity about how he would do in his debut Tour de France last year, but few expected him to win so emphatically. As each major victory comes, the hype and the expectation grow ever larger.

For now, at least, the pressure of expectation doesn’t appear to have got to him. While he might struggle to walk down the street without being accosted for autographs these days, to his teammates, he is still the same Tadej that joined UAE-Team Emirates back in 2019.

“He’s a cool guy. He’s simple and he’s very nice. He’s not arrogant or something like some can be, but for now, he has stayed pretty much like he was before and I hope that he will stay the same, and I know he will,” his teammate and compatriot Jan Polanc told VeloNews.

“He’s a thankful guy and he will always say thank you for something. He shows respect for the work that you do. In the end, this is important. It’s nice when you work for somebody that says thank you at the end. He’s not somebody that just wants to win and doesn’t give a shit about anybody else. That’s not how he is. He appreciates the work that we do.

“He likes to listen to music when we’re in the hotel. I think he likes to listen to some Slovenian rap music, but in general, he likes to listen to everything. The most I hear from him in the room is Slovenian rap. It’s ok, I think. It depends on your taste.”

Pogačar heads into this year’s Tour de France as one of the overwhelming favorites for yellow. The element of surprise is gone and the young Slovenian will have to rely on his wits and his talent to double up in Paris.