Tadej Pogačar: from Slovenian village unicyclist to Tour de France champion
Tadej Pogačar's last-gasp Tour victory in 2020 was just the beginning for this special talent. In Issue 104, we chart his remarkable path with untold stories from his parents, managers and teammates
“Tell me: how the f**k did that just happen?” UAE-Team Emirates manager Allan Peiper exclaimed. Tails between their legs, the riders went to their team leader Tadej Pogačar to apologise. A week’s worth of hard work had been undone in a mayhem-filled few minutes during stage 7 of the 2020 Tour de France.
Forty-five kilometres from the finish on the blustery Tarn roads, most of the team, including Pogačar, were caught behind a crash. They only made it back to the tail-end of the bunch as it fractured in the crosswinds. A frantic exercise in damage limitation ensued against a larger and motivated lead group containing most of their rivals, collaborating in order to eliminate his Tour threat. Pogačar himself pulled the exhausted chasing group across the finish line, 81 seconds behind the other favourites. It looked like the dream was dead.
Lightening the black mood on the team bus, their young leader piped up: “Don’t worry, I’ll attack the next day and win back some seconds.” From anyone else, it might have sounded hopelessly naive. But the mark of a champion is not just showing quality when it matters most, but reacting to adversity. It gave his team-mates added motivation and Pogačar backed up his fighting talk by gaining 40 seconds over the Col de Peyresourde the next day.
From that moment, his Tour was facing in the right direction again. He won two mountain stages, at Laruns and Le Grand Colombier, over the next week as the race turned into a Slovenian slugfest between him and Primož Roglič. There was little to split the pair; just 57 seconds separated them before the penultimate stage time-trial which will be the 2020 edition’s calling card for years to come.
The pressure was off Pogačar; sat second overall, he had outwardly exceeded all expectations. But what about his own? Resting in his hotel on the eve of the big race, he received a WhatsApp message from his agent Alex Carera: “Never give up”. Pogačar replied with one word. Never.
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Photo credit: Alen Milavec
Perhaps it’s fate that Tadej Pogačar is in his element when the road heads uphill. In Slovenia, where peaks are always on the horizon, his mother, Marjeta, hails from the village of Gora, which means mountain in their native tongue, while his father Mirko’s birthplace of Klanec, stands for hill.
The two met through Marjeta’s brother, married and settled in the town of Komenda, 20 kilometres north of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. The third of their four kids, Tadej, arrived in September 1998, often following the lead of older siblings Tilen and Barbara in their games and Lego sessions. “When he was a child and felt that something went wrong in the family, he tried to cheer us up,” Marjeta adds. “He played the clown and made us laugh. Every time he needed there to be no tension in the family. He tried to break it with singing or dancing. He’s stayed that way.” The wider cycling world hasn’t seen this side of Pogačar, apart from a brief pandemic rap last year. (Let’s just say Jay-Z has nothing to worry about.)
His childhood was spent outdoors, kicking a football around, going on long family walks in the local hills on Sundays or playing in the meadow at the back of their house. It wouldn’t be a parental chat without a few unexpected revelations either. “Tadej and Tilen were very good at unicycling,” his mother says. “Like clowns in the circus. They were famous around here, many people watched and admired when they came by.” Unfortunately, the family’s two unicycles were stolen, which put an abrupt end to life on one wheel.
That loss has been professional cycling’s gain. Following Tilen to the Rog Ljubljana club, the nine-year-old Tadej quickly proved adept on two wheels. An obsession was born, egged on by the exploits of his favourite riders, Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers. At school one day, as he stared out of the window, not paying attention, a teacher asked Pogačar what he was thinking. “The training route I’ll take this afternoon,” he replied.
The Pogačars wanted their children to have a strong work ethic and moral grounding. “We tried to teach them to be honest, hardworking and kind to other people,” Marjeta says. Their belief was that children doing activities and growing up as part of a group would become happy, well-adjusted adults. “And when they sometimes wanted to quit [a sport or pursuit] during the season, we didn’t allow them. We wanted them to finish the work they started,” Marjeta says.
This is a family with principles, as their visit to last year’s Tour de France indicates. They took up the Slovenian cycling federation’s offer of flights to Paris to see Tadej on the podium. When it transpired, 24 hours before the finish, that he was set to win the whole thing, the president of Slovenia asked them to go by private jet. Who could say no to that? The Pogačars: they had already given their word, so they boarded a low-cost Croatian Airlines flight and beamed with pride at the finish. Then they had to get back home for work: Marjeta is a school French teacher, while Mirko was head of production at a chair factory before becoming a manager of Pogačar’s former cycling team at the start of 2021.
Photo credit: Alen Milavec
The apple-faced kid doesn’t fall far from the tree. The same adjectives crop up when members of Pogačar’s inner circle assess his character: normal, calm, cheerful, patient. Decisive, too. Some bike riders can spend months looking for the right home in Monte Carlo before parting with a considerable amount of money. Within 24 hours, Pogačar had viewed five properties and decided on the right one for him and his girlfriend, BikeExchange pro cyclist Urška Žigart.
The road to UAE-Team Emirates
Before Pogačar’s first international junior race, Italy’s GP Città di Loano in March 2015, his team manager Andrej Hauptman also noticed a shift in his personality, a similar directness: “Outside the hotel lift, he stopped me and said: ‘One question – how far is the top of the climb from the finish?’ That was the only thing he wanted to know. He was a first-year junior, it was his first important race, but he knew exactly what he wanted to do – attack.”
A former Slovenian champion who finished third in the 2001 World Championship road race, Hauptman has become a guiding light for Pogačar. He managed him as an under-23 rider at Rog-Ljubljana, then joined UAE-Team Emirates as a directeur sportif in May 2019. Hauptman can vouch that Pogačar’s path to the top of the cycling world has been linear. He won the Giro della Lunigiana, a leading junior race, and finished fifth at the Tour of Slovenia against WorldTour opposition at the age of 18. When I ask about the big challenges Pogačar has faced, Hauptman racks his brain. “He’s never had one,” he replies. Nothing? No crashes? “Never a problem. Always alert, focused, in the right place at the right time.”
UAE-Team Emirates showed their interest early, tracking Pogačar for more than a year. There were also links through Hauptman: he had raced for the team in the early Noughties, when it was sponsored by Lampre, and talented Slovenians Luka Pibernik and Jan Polanc turned pro there from his Radenska team. Pogačar also signed up with Hauptman’s former agent, Alex Carera, who has worked with champions like Chris Froome, Thor Hushovd and Vincenzo Nibali.
Pogačar agreed a deal with UAE-Team Emirates before winning the Tour de l’Avenir, one of the sport’s most prestigious under-23 races. Other approaches came from Quick-Step, Sunweb and Team Sky, but they were too late. His first contract was for €70,000 a year. It wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Photo credit: Alen Milavec
Becoming a professional cyclist is a rebirth. No matter how highly-rated, new talents tend to toe the line at first, unwilling to ruffle feathers. The first year is usually about fitting in, adjusting to a new environment and a far greater calibre of racing.
Pogačar’s debut went without a hitch, finishing 13th at the Tour Down Under. However, early on the morning of the team’s departure, team manager Peiper got a phone call: Tadej had lost his passport. Worse, it was Australia Day and everything was closed. “Long story short, we got in touch with the consulate and the embassy, he had to stay another night,” Peiper says. “We left and they sent him the papers so he could fly back the next day. What struck me was okay, he was nervous, but most guys would have been panicking. And Tadej didn’t panic.
“He stayed happy, friendly and compliant because he had to do a lot – go to the police, the bank, organise some other things. And even though he had to stay a day longer, he was okay with that. I saw how relaxed he was under pressure and I think that's one of his strongest traits.”
As the 2019 season progressed, it became clear that he had a gift for stage racing to go with this preternatural calm. His contract was redrafted after he won the Tour of the Algarve. It was followed by sixth place in the Tour of the Basque Country and a first WorldTour victory in California.
Though only 20 years old, Pogačar was thrown into the mix for the Vuelta a España alongside troubled team leader Fabio Aru. The Italian was experiencing a crisis of confidence after years of injury woes, and Pogačar was the man to fill the vacuum, winning mountain stages in Andorra and the Basque Country. He was making a name for himself in the cycling world, even if a few commentators struggled to say it. (Not the easiest: ta-day, pog-at-char.)
Photo credit: Alen Milavec
Away from the racing, his humility and respect impressed room-mate Marco Marcato. “He is someone who never says something for nothing. He likes to listen to everyone and learn from them, even the last guy in the peloton,” says Marcato, a veteran who turned professional when Pogačar was only six years old. “He’s not arrogant, he asks for things with kindness. He always thanks his team-mates afterwards and that also makes a difference.” After winning the Tour de France, Pogačar gave a signed yellow, polka-dot and white jersey to every UAE-Team Emirates rider and member of staff – about 80 people in total. “He’s a signore, a gentleman,” Marcato says.
Marcato did not sense any pressure within Pogačar, even in this unprecedented scenario of competing for a place on a Grand Tour podium. In their Spanish hotel rooms, they would talk about fast cars or normal life as much as racing. When Marcato fretted about putting on the air conditioning in the sweltering Spanish conditions and risking making him sick, he didn’t mind.
He saved his best till last. On the Vuelta’s penultimate stage to Plataforma de Gredos, Pogačar attacked 39 kilometres from the finish, up and over two climbs. Given an inch by tired, hesitant rivals, he took a minute and a half alone. Had Movistar not chased hard, he would have snaffled Alejandro Valverde’s second place.
There was no fear of losing. “Many riders just fall apart when they get to a high level, they freak out,” UAE-Team Emirates head trainer Iñigo San Millán says. “With him, it seems you're talking to a 40-year-old pro who has been racing for 15 years.” With hindsight, it was a warning shot to rivals, an indication that Pogačar could thrive at the tail-end of a tough race.
Photo credit: SWPix
Physiologically, San Millán describes the Slovenian as a “diamond that needed to be polished,” when he arrived at the team. From testing, his recovery capacity on a muscular and mitochondrial level was judged to be exceptional. Blood analysis shows he’s ready to race hard again after a few days, when peers are still exhausted.
Such capacities are part-trainable, part-genetic. When I ask his parents where they think Tadej’s physical and mental abilities come from, his mother Marjeta refers to his grandparents, lifelong farmers who did football and gymnastics in their youth. The whole Pogačar family helps out in the fields when required. With no machines, it’s long hours of manual labour, harvesting tons of potatoes or caring for their cows. “I think it’s important. The children saw that you have to work to have a result,” Marjeta says.
And as the pandemic rocked the world last spring, Pogačar knuckled down to an immense training volume. He was putting out some of his best power numbers in May – three months before the rescheduled Tour de France. San Millán advised Pogačar to take a week completely off the bike and reset. Off he went on holiday for picnics in the Slovenian mountains with Urška.
Tour de France 2020
On his racing return, his form was undercooked but the racing instincts were intact. On the last day of the Critérium du Dauphiné, a key warm-up race, he was on the race radio 70 kilometres from the finish of the last stage asking Peiper where he should attack. Afterwards, the Australian called up friend and former directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel, who echoed his own thoughts: “I think Tadej can win the Tour.” It seems silly with hindsight, but it took Peiper months to convince the UAE-Emirates top brass to make Pogačar leader for the Tour de France and allow them to prepare well in advance. They were keen to take the pressure off the 21-year-old, but Peiper wanted the whole squad to be dedicated to Pogačar.
The time and confidence lost in the crosswinds into Lavaur was quickly effaced by his positive reaction. I suggest to Peiper that their leader’s relentless optimism and lack of experience at the Tour de France could have been an advantage. Sometimes, in one’s youth, you just roll with unfamiliar events without overthinking it, a kind of positive naivety. “His playfulness in his racing takes a lot of pressure off his shoulders: he likes to race, he likes to play it up without having a set scenario,” Peiper says. “I think that leaves an open mind for going into racing as fun … that positive naivety was really a blessing for him.”
On stage 9 to Laruns, he escaped and showed his finishing speed, beating former junior rival Marc Hirschi and Primož Roglič in a five-up sprint. However, over the next 48 hours, team-mates Aru and Davide Formolo abandoned, the latter breaking his collarbone in a crash that also took Pogačar down. Though unscathed, with his two strongest mountain helpers out of the race, he had little option but to follow Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma express in the mountains. Incidentally, Pogačar should not be left fending for himself so often in the future: over winter, UAE-Team Emirates brought in Hirschi, Matteo Trentin and Rafa Majka to serve as helpers.
Photo credit: Alen Milavec
Into the last week of the race, little separated Pogačar and Roglič. It was a case of anything you can do, I can do better: the younger man won on Le Grand Colombier, but Roglič put 15 seconds into him on the Col de la Loze three days later. Even after that setback, losing the Tour did not seem to be at the forefront of his mind. The first thing the panting Pogačar asked UAE-Team Emirates press officer Luke Maguire was how his girlfriend Urška had done that day at the women’s Giro d’Italia. “It was kind of surreal,” Maguire says.
Everything was set up for a showdown on the penultimate day time-trial between Lure and La Planche des Belles Filles, 30 flattish kilometres preceding a steep six-kilometre ramp. That afternoon, UAE-Team Emirates general manager Joxean “Matxin” Fernández was alone on the team bus with Pogačar. The pair watched the mechanic at work outside, preparing an all-white Colnago frame to match his best young rider’s jersey. “Why is he out there with that? Doesn’t he believe in me?” Pogačar asked, half-serious, half-joking. The implication was clear: he thought victory was on. So did the team: Matxin pulled up a photo of a yellow Colnago frame on his phone to show they were ready for that eventuality.
The team had left no stone unturned in their preparation, with Pogačar riding the time-trial route and testing gear months before the race. It left him with a clear mind: before his ride, he had a nap and wanted his team-mates on the bus around him, joking or listening to music, treating it like any other day.
Pogačar started fast, but Roglič still held 22 seconds over him at the foot of the climb. Logic suggested that the younger man would fold after putting the race leader under pressure. But instead, he found another gear, straining every sinew and adding the first lines of effort to his fresh face. Pogačar was flying and Roglič was dying, a picture of discomfort with helmet askew and elbows poking out. The last mountain of the Tour de France made all the difference.
For modern Grand Tours, which tend to play out like entrenched military campaigns with incremental gains, it doesn’t get much more dramatic. That morning, the impregnable-seeming Roglič led by 57 seconds; that evening, Pogačar was in front by 59. It was akin to the last minute of a deadlocked World Cup final in which the team in the ascendancy all match long misses an open goal, the opposition takes the ball, runs down the other end and scores.
Photo credit: Alen Milavec
“We were very happy for Tadej, but on the other hand, we saw Primož Roglič was beaten and suffering a lot,” his mother Marjeta says. “And we also realised this stolen victory had divided Slovenian fans into two parts. Tadej received some – or many, I don’t know – weird messages from Slovenian fans. It wasn’t very easy to read them… In Slovenia, perhaps nobody was aware how big this win was.”
Neither did the Tour’s youngest champion for 110 years. “I think I still haven’t quite realised what I achieved,” Tadej Pogačar tells me. “In a couple of years, I’ll look at this totally different to now. I take it slowly, but also I don’t waste too much time thinking about what it was and more about what is going to be.”
What has changed the most for him since winning? “In my head. Because preparing for every race [to win], it's quite hard. But I think I managed this and made some improvements last year. I think I’m more confident and even more motivated. I have pretty clear goals and expectations for myself. It’s quite important to not stress about everything too much.”
Just as he rarely finds himself in the wrong place in a bike race, it’s not like him to go off-message with the media either. Pogačar’s post-race interviews are full of gratitude and platitudes. Though never expansive, there is a language barrier and his clean-cut looks and warm smile go a long way. “I think the media want to see a champion on the bike and off the bike as well. It's a very, very rare combination,” team press officer Maguire says. Fair point, and there’s plenty of time for the real, more playful Tadej to come out. After all, time was when Peter Sagan didn’t appear to have much about him and now he’s the jester of the cycling court.
Of course, Pogačar’s focus is not on becoming a media darling, but winning a second Tour de France, a tougher proposition with the pressure on and everyone watching him. However, the muted aftermath to his debut victory could prove a blessing in disguise. It meant a dearth of wearying sponsor and press commitments over winter – in person, at least. “I think he's probably one of the people who's spent the most hours on Zoom over the last eight months. He has to be up there,” Maguire says.
Photo credit: SWPix
Rather than playing catch-up into spring, as most past Tour winners seem to do, Pogačar seems to be even stronger in 2021. He won the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico – incidentally, he hasn’t finished lower than fourth in a stage race for the last two years – and took a maiden Monument victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Winning has become a habit. “It creates a dynamic [around the rider and team] that is like a bulldozer and hard to stop,” Peiper says.
His colleague Matxin Fernández calls him “the perfect cyclist”, a physiological freak with the tactical knowledge, versatility, hunger, mettle and mental strength to dominate the sport. He is contracted to UAE-Team Emirates till the end of 2026, paid an alleged €5 million a year as the cornerstone of their bid to become the world’s best team. His agent Carera has seen numerous budding champions’ results be blighted by the trappings of fame. “The important thing is to last. Money is a normal consequence of good work – with victories, which are the priority, his image will grow,” he says. Carera believes he could aim for a Giro-Tour double within the next three years. We are on course for a few more Roglič versus Pogačar battle royales, no doubt.
His appetite extends to the sport’s hilly one-day Classics too; Il Lombardia and Strade Bianche are on his radar, and he was set to make his debut at the Tour of Flanders in 2020 before reneging due to fatigue. Apparently, he has even talked to team-mates about doing Paris-Roubaix. “Whether attacking or defending, I just love to race and try different things,” the 22-year-old says of his cycling philosophy.
It all leaves one big, open question: how much can Tadej Pogačar improve? “He’s right there already at the threshold of greatness. Does he even need to improve?” Allan Peiper says. “He time-trials already so well, he climbs already so well, he recuperates already so well. More or less, he’s there. It’s finding that fine balance of perpetuating what he is right now and backing up another Tour de France win ... But improving him? He’s already pretty good as he is.”
This is an article from our Tour de France edition, out now and available to buy here