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Matej Mohorič: The engineer

Mind games and engineering: Kate Wagner dissects and explains how the Slovenian rider masterminded an incredible victory in Milan-San Remo.

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For two hundred kilometers or thereabout, Jos Van Emden of Jumbo-Visma bore through the distance like a black-and-yellow weevil at the front of Milan-San Remo. The race at 293 kilometers is known for its length, and throughout most of that length, Jos Van Emden persisted, hour after hour, a reassuring constant on a day that only ever begins in the last ten minutes, often deemed the greatest ten minutes in the sport of professional cycling.

Also read: A close look the dropper post Matej Mohorič used to win Milan-San Remo

Behind our ultra-rouleur, different teams assembled. Trek Segafredo for Mads Pedersen, Ineos Grenadiers for Tom Pidcock, Elia Viviani, and Filippo Ganna, and UAE Team Emirates for the boy wonder Tadej Pogačar. They alternated, churned, and switched as the scenery transformed from inland to coastline. And still, through different ecosystems, geologies, and cross-sections of architectural history, Jos Van Emden pulled.

Somewhere during all this, a conversation happened. Matej Mohorič of Bahrain-Victorious dropped back to Davide Formolo of UAE Team Emirates and asked him, presumably in Italian, a language in which Mohorič is fluent if Formolo knew of any hospitals near the finish. A strange question, granted, but Mohorič is a bit of a strange guy. Quirky. Before this conversation took place, and even before Jos Van Emden began the pull of his life, our quirky Slovenian approached his compatriot (and in this race, rival) two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar. For color, let’s imagine them mingling before the race like bike riders tend to do, signing on, shooting the breeze as the excitement builds, that kind of thing. Then, all of a sudden, Matej, in our colorful version, turned to Tadej and said, perhaps jovially, perhaps seriously, we’ll never know: “Don’t try and follow me on the descent of the Poggio.”

Why Matej Mohorič would do something like this may seem a little perplexing, but Pogačar described it plainly to Sporza as a warning. The two men are very close friends, and Pogačar, to be blunt, is utterly fearless, a shark of a bike racer if there ever was one. One could interpret the warning as, ‘I know you’re the one who has the guts to try and go with me, but you really, really shouldn’t. Please don’t.’ This, from Mohorič, is a half-mind game, half, as we would see, genuine consideration for Pogačar’s well-being. But in telling Pogačar (and others), Mohorič also revealed his hand: I’m going to attack on the descent of the Poggio.

If you’re UAE Team Emirates, that directly translated to: ‘We have to dispose of Matej Mohorič before the crest of the Poggio by any means necessary.’ For UAE, there were three opportunities for them to do so: the Capi climbs, the Cipressa, and the Poggio itself. But these were still hours away; the made-for-TV breakaway was still seven minutes ahead, and Jos Van Emden, teeth gritted, was still on the front of the peloton.

Before Matej Mohorič became a professional cyclist, he wanted to be an engineer. Ultimately, in many ways, he became both. The oft-told anecdote is that of one of the sports directors at Cannondale, Mohorič’s first WorldTour team joked that “Matejpedia” (as he was known) was too smart to be a cyclist.

Instead of despairing at this teasing, Mohorič put those brains of his to work. He invented a new type of cyclist one could be. He combined the technical prowess and marginal gains of the time trial specialist with the daredevil antics of a descent specialist and the strategy of a baroudeur – a breakaway man. His wins are not based on the usual feats of profound physical strength or endurance or rapid recovery. They are, to put it simply, engineered. So finely engineered that in retrospect they seem almost inevitable.

Matej Mohorič’s victory in Milan-San Remo was perhaps the most well-engineered and well-executed victory in the history of that race. It was a premeditated act that was drawn up, rehearsed, and prepared for no differently than, say, the moon landing. “I was thinking about this race for the whole winter,” Mohorič said in the post-race interviews. But it went far deeper than that. Mohorič’s fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič told teammate Wout van Aert at the beginning of the day that Mohorič had “apparently been working on this race for years.” The engineer’s preoccupation spanned years – possibly an entire career.

Matej Mohorič’s Milan-San Remo win was engineered on three fronts. The first was technical, by way of using a dropper seatpost, a UCI-legal device common in mountain biking that adjusts the height of the saddle at the push of a button, similar to the hydraulic lever on an office chair. This allows for changing into a more aerodynamic position at will, and the weight increase of the dropper post is negligibly beneficial in a descent. (Mohorič was so pleased with this idea, one first used in the 2014 edition of this race by Vincenzo Nibali, that he pointed to the seatpost when he crossed the finish line. For better, or memorably, for worse, the man loves his gestures.)

Second, the win was socially engineered. Social engineering is a term borrowed from security studies describing the use of psychological or social manipulation of other people in order to persuade them to act a certain way or to divulge things like information such as passwords. Wearing a hardhat and high-viz vest in order to access a construction site, is one example, as is calling up an office and pretending to be a supervisor from some other branch of the company in order to get access to files. These are examples of social engineering for ill-gotten gains, but the term has more subtle, quasi-political applications. Like asking Davide Formolo if he knows if any hospitals are nearby, implying that one might do something a bit crazy.

Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) leads the peloton in the Cipressa
Davide Formolo led Christophe Laporte, Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar, and others at the 2022 Milan-San Remo.  (Photo: Nico Vereecken – Pool/Getty Images)

Or telling Tadej Pogačar, one of the best cyclists in the world, don’t follow me on the descent of the Poggio. This is a skill Mohorič honed as a breakaway man. In many ways, breakaways themselves are social situations prone to manipulation. This is perhaps why so many breakaway specialists, Taco Van der Hoorn, Bauke Mollema, Thomas De Gendt, and Mohorič himself are such great talkers. They’re pleasant, often very funny, and undeniably smart. They need to be, because a baroudeur needs to be able to persuade others in what is usually a larger, initial breakaway to keep working together even though the baroudeur will eventually exploit the situation and set out for home from a distance particularly advantageous for them. This is social engineering.

Mohorič’s social engineering began whenever he told Primož Roglič that he’d been working on Milan-San Remo for years. This eventually made its way to Van Aert, and thus to Jos Van Emden, on the front, who was trying to control the pace. Mohorič ran his mouth to not only Roglič, Pogačar, and Formolo, but to several riders throughout the day. He confessed to reporters in the press room afterward: “I told them, ‘don’t follow me on the descent; it’s at your own risk.’” The more people he told, the more effective the threat became, and it was one backed up by Mohorič’s reputation as an utterly fearless descender.

The hospital comment only served to sow more murmuring among the bunch. This brings us to the third type of engineering: strategy. In this case, it’s analogous to structural engineering; the building of well-laid plans, the ability to execute them, and their resistance to all sorts of stresses and strains and unpredictable complications. That story started on the Cipressa.

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By this point in the cycling season, UAE Team Emirates had figured out how to brutalize a race with or without Tadej Pogačar. They did it at UAE Tour, at Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, and in a 1-2-3 finish at Trofeo Laigueglia. When Davide Formolo took up the front for his team on the Cipressa, it was he who began to appear in need of a hospital. Through this effort, UAE dropped almost all of the pure sprinters – only FDJ’s Arnaud Démare remained. The peloton was reduced to around thirty riders. Still, the favorites remained, many with teammates. Mohorič himself had three helpers around him to shelter him from any funny business on the descent. On its slopes, even more rideres were shelled out the back, and yet another selection was made. Restlessness and frustration grew and festered.

In the main bunch, Mathieu van der Poel was weaving queasily in and out of traffic. Van der Poel was riding Milan-San Remo as a supposed “see where it goes” training ride after his long sabbatical recovering from back pain sustained in that bizarre mountain bike crash at the Tokyo Olympics. And yet, he was still there in the final kilometers. It was a classic ”van der Poelian scenario” – the Dutchman claimed he was weak, played down his odds, then defied them utterly. He was the proverbial boy who cried wolf. With van der Poel were two other men: Wout van Aert, winner of this race in 2020 and an arguable favorite, and Primož Roglič, repaying his debt to van Aert from Paris-Nice.

With all of them at the head of the race, was Tadej Pogačar, who’d just singlehandedly smothered Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico in displays of pure superiority. In the sea of these and several other frontrunners: Matej Mohorič, still hadn’t been dropped.

With Jumbo-Visma’s van Hooydonk at the front, the pack swallowed the remaining duo from the breakaway. Laporte traded with Van Hooydonk and to the left of them, Formolo exchanged with Ulissi, Pogačar in the wheel, which woke Roglič up. The elder Slovenian weaved through to help Laporte stitch things closer together. And with this, we finally glimpsed that anticipated clash of the great powers we’d been waiting for: UAE Team Emirates versus Jumbo-Visma

Into a tight corner, Pogačar practically threw himself forward as he attacked and rocketed side to side with visible violence. Van Aert closed the gap with Roglič as though to say: ‘not so fast.’ It is hypothesized that Pogačar wins not on pure wattage, but rather through an incredible ability to fire off a punchy dig, recover just as quickly, then do it again over and over, practically bludgeoning his competition to death. This was his strategy at Milan-San Remo. Unfortunately for him, the Poggio, while decisive, is not very steep. At a mere 3.6 percent gradient, men like van Aert are more than capable of bridging multiple attacks without getting dropped.

Pogačar’s second attack came not even thirty seconds later, and Ivan Garcia Cortina of Movistar went with him, followed by van Aert, van der Poel, and Roglič. Yet at the back, Mohorič struggled. Indeed, even the best-laid plans can come quite close to falling apart. But Jan Tratnik clawed him back, and just in time. A crash on a corner took out several contenders, and the selection narrowed to a fine point of around a dozen men.

Pogačar looked behind him. He had bigger problems to worry about than Matej Mohorič. He dug deep a third time, but even he didn’t have the power to pull anything apart, not when the adrenaline in the bunch bubbled into a froth, and each man’s plea for glory grew increasingly desperate. Pogačar’s success had come back to bite him: He was a marked man in a race where that mattered. What he’d gotten away with in Lombardia last year, and in Strade a few weeks ago, he couldn’t replicate at Milan-San Remo. The road beneath his tires simply wasn’t cruel enough.

Mohorič finally reappeared. Patience wore thin. Roglič punched out ahead and immediately van der Poel sucked onto the wheel. Pogačar tried a fourth and final attack, but he couldn’t even snag a meter from van Aert. The most impressive attack on the Poggio came from Team DSM’s Søren Kraugh Anderson, who almost got away. He’d tested this before in Paris-Nice, albeit unsuccessfully, and in Italy, too, the attack was neutralized. However, (much to the chagrin of the Belgian commentary) it was Anderson who eventually got the better of Primož Roglič.

Søren Kragh Andersen (Team DSM) climbing ahead of Tadej Pogacar
Søren Kragh and Tadej Pogačar attcked on the Poggio, but could not shake Wout van Aert. (Photo: Luca Bettini – Pool/Getty Images,)

Roglič went backward – the man was just tired. Tired from Paris-Nice, from his experiment on French cobbles days before, and from his attack just a moment prior. He cracked. They all did. And they were running out of Poggio: 400, 300, 200, 100 meters remained. In the end, nothing. No one succeeded in breaking the race apart on the final hill of the day. Not Pogačar. Not Roglič. Not Kraugh Andersen, not the two Vans. No one.

Just as the pack rounded the hairpin, a blur of erratic motion. A squiggle. A man crouched down, catlike on his bike. One by one, he squeezed by them. By Kraugh Anderson. By van der Poel. By van Aert. By Tadej Pogačar. It was Matej Mohorič. He was making good on his promise. It was at that moment, on a technical road flanked by greenhouses reflecting in their panes the warm, late-afternoon sun, that Milan-San Remo was won.

What transpired next was best described as “insane.”

Pogačar, a good descender in his own right, could not follow. Perhaps he was heeding Mohorič’s advice. Perhaps he was simply a normal man in that he didn’t want to try and trace the nervy lines Mohorič set for him and end up in a ditch. Perhaps, after all that social engineering, he believed what he was told. Mohorič almost led Pogačar into a gutter before bunny hopping back onto the road. That was pure strategy. It threw Pogačar off, caused him to sit up out of caution just long enough for the gap to grow. And grow it did. Mohorič, quite frankly, almost died. Many times, in fact. He almost hit a concrete planter at 58 kilometers an hour. He almost ended up in a wall. He took every imaginable, unhinged advantage. He had planned for this, trained for this, laser-focused on this one apotheosis. All that repertoire was rehearsed for the long, white-knuckled aria.

A while back, I used the term “kinetic genius” in order to explain to non-sports friends the remarkable spatial awareness basketball players need in order to not only see the court but to anticipate the motions of others based on psychology, strategy, and experience in order to make a highly physical decision, all within a fraction of a second. Matej Mohorič is a kinetic genius. He was so acutely aware of the positioning and movement of his body in space and in time that the feats that to us seem stupid, suicidal, impossible, are to him low-risk. Low-risk in the same way driving an F1 car is low-risk for Lewis Hamilton, but if I did it, I’d wreck out in 0.02 seconds.

Mohorič has what’s called in psychology an internal locus of control, meaning he sees the world as something that he’s in control of rather than as something he’s at the helpless mercy of. He explained to me in an interview once that the crashes he remembers, the ones he finds displeasure in, learns, and moves on from, were the ones where he was at fault. However, the ones that happen to him, the mere accidents, like that infamous slip in the 2021 Giro d’Italia, he just writes off, forgets about, because he is in control of the universe and his body’s movement throughout it and the randomness of chance or fate isn’t something that concerns him to the point of fear. Or, put more bluntly: “I don’t take risks,” he told me at the Tour. But others do. And they weren’t willing to on that long, wiry descent of the Poggio.

In the final meters, not even a momentarily dropped chain or a charging Anthony Turgis and Mathieu van der Poel could stop Matej Mohorič from absconding with one of the biggest heists in Milan-San Remo history. And a heist it was. From beginning to end, everything was carefully constructed with an engineer’s precision and carried out with the chutzpah and guile of an assassin. And then, as though the story itself were burning a hole in his pocket for all 293 kilometers, Matej Mohorič, the first-ever Slovenian winner of La Classicissima, sat down in front of the cameras and explained in his usual breathless, exhaustive detail, exactly how he pulled it off.