You might not have heard of Tadej Pogačar because, although he won the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir, foremost prize for under-23 racers, it was with a solid rather than spectacular performance.
You might not have heard of him because the WorldTour team to snap him up was not the mighty Team Sky, but the somewhat underwhelming UAE Team Emirates.
You also might not have heard of him because it’s not immediately obvious from the spelling (to an anglophone, at least) how his name should be pronounced, and few commentators have yet had to attempt it.
Having checked with Jaka, the Slovenian photographer, and twisted my tongue around it a few times on the way to meet him I’m fairly confident – well, 70% sure – that I’m not going to cock it up. (I decide it’s probably safest to avoid it entirely if I possibly can.)
At the time of our interview the 20-year-old Slovenian is still officially a rider with his home country’s continental outfit Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum. He will, however, shortly be heading to Spain for his first training camp with his new team and the beginning of what is likely to be a successful career as a professional cyclist.
It is that aforementioned Tour de l’Avenir victory that marks him out as a future champion. Pogačar won the overall prize by taking the leader’s jersey on Stage 7 in Meribel and keeping it for the three Alpine days that followed.
The two riders who out-sprinted him on that stage, Colombian Ivan Sosa and the USA’s Brandon McNulty, were both more heavily tipped before the race. Pogačar had given himself an outside chance of a podium.
“It was my goal for the season but I didn’t expect to win [the overall race],” he says. “I was preparing well but I was aiming for maybe top 5, so it surprised me that I was in such good shape to win.”
He did not win any of the race’s ten stages but, he says, “I was better every day. Some riders weren’t good one day [whereas] every day I was with the top five guys. That was the difference between first and the top five.”
Of course, victory in the Tour de l’Avenir is not guaranteed to translate to the very highest level. Of this century’s winners only two, Nairo Quintana and Denis Menchov, have gone onto take Grand Tour titles. For some, such as Iker Flores and Moisés Dueñas, success in the race some see as the junior Tour de France stands out as a career’s crowning achievement.
Nevertheless, the honour roll from the last decade or so is mostly made up of names you know: Bauke Mollema, Esteban Chaves, Warren Barguil, Miguel Angel Lopez. All have gone to win races at the highest level of the sport. Marc Soler last year took arguably the biggest week-long prize on the calendar in Paris-Nice.
Pogačar denies that his predecessors’ successes places a burden of expectation on him to deliver fast results: “It’s not so much pressure,” he says. “It’s more motivation.”
Undeniable, however, is that he is joining one of the lesser lights of the WorldTour. Excluding national championships UAE riders won just nine races in 2018.
Presumably he had his pick of a few teams and a more obvious choice might have been the somewhat more prosperous Bahrain-Merida. With its spine of Slovenian riders and staff, and an office on the outskirts of Ljubljana, Bahrain has quickly established itself as the closest thing the small Eastern European country has to a WorldTour team.
I mention to Pogačar that when I spoke to their head Directeur Sportif, Gorazd Štangelj, a few days prior, he had expressed disappointment at having missed out on the rider’s signature.
Pogačar is quick to dismiss the suggestion that he ought to have joined Bahrain. It was, he says, simply a case of first come, first served:
“When UAE-Emirates contacted me it was two years ago. Bahrain-Merida was a fresh team and they didn’t show any interest, so… they were too late.”
Personal relationships seem to have come into it as well. Pogačar is looking forward to linking up with his friend Jan Polanc – “it’s really great because we understand each other” – who happens to be the son of Ljubljana’s sports director Marko Polanc.
Although representing and paid for by the Emirati, Team UAE Emirates’ roots are deeply Italian. The team is essentially still Lampre-Merida.
With Slovenia’s border with Italy only an hour or so away from Ljubljana there are natural ties there too. Štangelj might feel he deserves dibs on his nation’s blossoming talent, but that Lampre/Emirates squad has supported at least one Slovenian rider for each of the last thirteen seasons – starting with Štangelj himself in 2005.
Pogačar seems as young as his twenty years. He speaks softly and with great care. His English may not be as good as it will surely become, but it’s also much better than he realises. It also makes it much easier when I later come to transcribe the interview. Even if I do have to turn my recorder’s volume up to its maximum.
When I read his responses back later it’s striking how much more self-assured they seem on the page than they did in person. He isn’t afraid to set me straight when I say something he disagrees with, or my questions stray into leading (or misleading) territory. Such as when I offer Fabio Aru as the team-mate he would select to model himself upon:
“He’s the guy to look up to but I don’t want to be like him. 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.”
While both are strong climbers, temperamentally they do seem very different. Where Aru doesn’t seem to react well to defeat or poor form, Pogačar is more reflective.
“I don’t care too much if I lose,” he says. Rather than agonising over a bad beat, he takes an analytical approach, considering “in my mind, what I need to get better to win. If I don’t do good in a race it makes me want to improve myself for the next.”
This yearning for constant improvement is such a dominant part of his character that it even forms his Instagram bio, (written in English rather than his native Slovenian): “I am cyclist, I may not be the best, but that is what I strive to be. I may never get there, but i will never quit trying.”
It seems like a healthy attitude for a young cyclist to have, but Pogačar says it’s not without its downside:
“I’m always nervous because what if I stop getting better? If I get stuck in some place. That’s my fear.”
Looking to his first year on the WorldTour he will, he says, “be racing the first part of the season, one-week races, and maybe one to three Classics.”
Beginning in Australia at the Tour Down Under before going on to the Tour of Oman, he says his hopes for 2019 are “to learn from other riders that have more experience than me. To finish races, to help my team-mates.”
Modest enough, then. Yet he admits to an ambition that speaks to an underlying self-confidence: “I also want to race for my own results and maybe win some races.”
At a starrier team than the one he’s joining such opportunities might be scarce but at UAE Emirates there are few first fiddles to understudy. Don’t be surprised if you see Tadej Pogačar being protected by team-mates in one of the early races.
It’s pronounced “Ta-day Po-GA-char”, by the way. You’ll soon get used to saying it.