Tadej Pogačar is a rider of contrasts.
Firstly between the way he comes across off the bike, and his personality on it.
Rouleur first interviewed him a little over two years ago at the base of the local continental team from which he was graduating, just outside the Slovenian capital.
That day he was polite, helpful and so softly spoken that the audio recording would require digital enhancement before it could be transcribed. On TV he seems much the same, appearing far smaller and much younger than his 176cm height and 21 years.
With his Colnago underneath him, it's a different story. No minnow of a man but a mountain. He defers to nobody, readily challenging the supremacy of riders many years his senior while beating to a pulp those his own age and (the very few that are) younger. He behaves as if he believes ability, not longevity, is the only metric that matters. If you’d told us back then that he was going to be ruthlessly stomping on another rider’s heart at the next Tour de France but one, we wouldn’t have believed you. And yet here we are.
The second disparity is between the kind of rider Pogačar was before stepping up to the WorldTour, and the one he’s become since. Simply put, there were few signs then that he would become the kind of racer that he has. And certainly not so early in his career.
In his two seasons at Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum, although he came top of the mountains and youth classifications in several stage races, even taking the overall prize at a few, he only once crossed the finish line victorious on the day. That was in stage 3 of the 2018 Czech Grand Prix Priessnitz spa, which he won by just over a minute. By way of coincidence, Marc Hirschi (spoiler: today’s Top Banana) came 6th that day, at the back of a group of 5 riders sprinting for the runners up places.
Even at the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir, the race where he first caught our attention, his approach was best characterised as consistent and cautious. His eyes were always on the bigger prize, which meant he was more inclined to follow moves than instigate them. Last man standing, the undroppable Tadej Pogačar.
Yet from the day he first pinned a number on the back of his UAE jersey, Pogačar has ridden like there’s no tomorrow. While that might be a risky strategy to adopt in most Grand Tours, it seems positively à propos in this one, because there literally might not be. Besides, it worked out pretty well for him in last year’s Vuelta.
On Saturday he was the one to go off up the road alone, halving in a flash the deficit a combination of a mechanical, crosswinds and poor positioning had cost him the stage before. Yesterday he took more time out of every other rider in the race. Winning the five-up sprint finish was the clincher, but the catalyst for that finale was the 21 year-old’s decision to ignite the GC touchpaper on the Col de Marie Blanque.
Lastly on Stage 9 there could not have been a more visible contrast than between the respective fortunes of Tadej Pogačar and his team-mate Fabio Aru. Nor, arguably between their respective futures.
Before Aru abandoned the 2020 Tour de France, he had been one of only five former Grand Tour winners in the race. He remains one of only two active Italian riders to have taken one.
As of now it is almost impossible to imagine him ever coming close again. For his young team-mate, it’s surely more a matter of how long before he claims his first, rather than if.
Even before Pogačar had travelled to his first training camp, he seemed to be looking beyond his team leader.
“[Aru]’s the guy to look up to but I don’t want to be like him,” he told us back then. “I can learn a lot from these riders but I want to be something different. Not to be like him or anybody else but to be me. I want to be the best of me.”
As remarkable a rider as he is already, the best may be still to come.