Hot off the back of a staggering Tour de France reversal last season, Pogačar won the UAE Tour at a trot last month, held it down with the hitters of the classics at Strade Bianche, and on Wednesday started his campaign to win Tirreno-Adriatico. And yet as far as Pogačar and his team are concerned, there’s a lot more to come as he builds toward a yellow jersey defense and rides into a staggering five-year contract.
“I’m getting better and better and I want to show that this season,” he said ominously ahead of the Italian race. “Here in Tirreno-Adriatico, but later also in the Tour and at the Olympic Games.”
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Pogačar’s unbridled confidence in his form is not just youthful vigor or pressroom chest-pumping. It’s backed up by the numbers and expertise of those that work to pull every last watt out of the Slovenian phenom’s legs. UAE-Team Emirates performance coordinator and coach John Wakefield says the team’s young diamond is as close to perfection as you can be, but insists there’s even more to come.
“Somebody asked me at the end of last year, ‘Is this the best Tadej we’ve ever seen?’ and for me personally I would say no. I don’t think we’ve even seen the best Tadej yet,” Wakefield told VeloNews. “I would say in the next year to three years is when we’re going to see the real Tadej, which is kind of scary to think.”
The Emirati-backed squad recently announced it was extending its contract with the Tour de France champ through to 2026, a blockbuster six-year deal that is almost unprecedented in the modern pro peloton. In that duration, Wakefield and the boffins in the UAE team are looking to squeeze the final half-percent out of its young jewel.
“There’s always room for development in any athlete whether it’s consistency, whether it’s mental growth, whether it’s racecraft,” Wakefield said in a telephone interview. “That’s what we are working on with Tadej, and we have time to do that.”
⏱️ Tadej Pogacar and Adam Yates set a new record ascent today on Jabel Hafeet today: 25 min 57 sec. Some huge numbers for February, ~6,6 w/kg and those interval attacks were also brutal. Good rehearsal for Le Tour, The Empire vs Pogi! 🚀 #UAETour https://t.co/FLUhwFEL9R pic.twitter.com/B5a9zPicID
— Mihai Simion (@faustocoppi60) February 23, 2021
Pogačar has roared into his season at full pace as he works toward a yellow jersey defense at the Tour this summer.
The whippety all-rounder mixed it up with the big motors in the front echelon of the opening stage at the UAE Tour, clocked fourth place in the time trial, and blasted Adam Yates in the first mountaintop finish. His week in the Emirates made for a swaggering GC victory that displayed Pogačar’s racecraft, poise and outright power. And just this weekend, he took seventh-place as Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe threw watt bombs at Strade Bianche.
The kid can do it all.
“I’m not saying he’s a complete cyclist, there is no such thing,” Wakefield said. “But physiologically, he’s really really kind of one of that in that top one or two percent.”
Physiologically and psychologically supreme
The South African Wakefield is charged with overseeing and monitoring the performance data of the whole UAE Team Emirates squad, and coaches a fleet of riders. Having had oversight of Pogačar throughout the Slovenian’s tenure at the squad, Wakefield believes it’s the less monitorable elements of the 22-year-old’s armory that set him apart.
“My biggest attribute to him is that he never panics, he never stresses or is in a bad mood,” Wakefield said. “He’s just always the same. He’s never stressed out even on a bad day, he’s still just like, ‘It was a bad day, we’ll make up for it tomorrow.’ I really believe that that that is one of his key elements to his performance.”
Pogačar’s poise proved crucial in his ride to the yellow jersey last summer.
Unruffled after losing over one minute on Primož Roglič after untimely mechanicals and crosswinds saw him leading in the chase group into Lavaur in the opening week, Pogačar hit back in the Pyrenees the very next day with a daring raid over the Peyresourde. The unforgettable Belles Filles time trial that saw him pull back two minutes on Roglič and rob the yellow jersey was the icing on the cake in terms of both physiological supremacy and an unbendable will.
“From a physiological point he definitely is in those top percent,” Wakefield said. “You have to be able to push the numbers, and have that endurance and the recovery capacity, but I really believe his mental approach to things is what helps him be super collected and super cool in races and going into races.”
Still room to improve
So, couple together mental maturity, raw watts, and a capacity for recovery that his personal coach Iñigo San Millán said was were “on another level,” and you’ve got all you need to win the Tour de France every year from now through to 2026, right? Maybe not yet: Wakefield says there’s always room for growth, no matter how marginal.
“Even if it’s just improving his flat time trial, that’s growth, working on, maybe, being more efficient at certain altitudes, that’s growth,” he said. “So from that side, it’s those small things that we want to work on with him, and that everyone around him will work on make Tadej grow and improve. Maybe his numbers won’t improve, but there’s still lots of ways of making him faster.”
UAE Team Emirates has five years to continue buffing out any blemishes in its Slovenian diamond. With Pogačar’s big ambition, big contract and big backing from his team, we could be witnessing the start of a new era of grand tour dominance.