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Tadej Pogacar: The man who would be king

Seemingly from nowhere Tadej Pogačar has emerged as the next great force in cycling. What makes him so special? Photos: Offside

Richard Moore
4 Dec 2020

With 30km to go in the World Championships Road Race, after 225km of racing around the Imola circuit in Italy, a figure in pale yellow and blue shot out of the leading group. It was Tadej Pogačar, whose reign as Tour de France champion was only in its sixth day.

‘If he does this, he could dominate everything for the next 10 years,’ read one breathless comment on social media, perfectly capturing the thrilling, intoxicating possibility of the unknown.

It was understandable. Pogačar had done the seemingly impossible seven days earlier, turning a near one-minute deficit to Primož Roglič into a near one-minute advantage over the course of a 36.2km time-trial.

Pogačar was 21 then, turning 22 the day after the Tour finished. He was the youngest winner since 1904, the first debutant winner since Laurent Fignon in 1983 and the first winner from Slovenia.

He did it without needing his team, and his strongest performance of the race – a bit like in his Grand Tour debut at the 2019 Vuelta a España – came on the penultimate day, suggesting exceptional powers of recovery.

No one could be sure where his limits might lie, which is why when Pogačar rode away from all the favourites for the world title just as the race was heating up it was tempting to see it as inevitable that he would become the first rider since Greg LeMond in 1989 to do the Tour-Worlds double.

The most intriguing thing about Pogačar’s attack in Imola was to imagine what was going on in his brain. Was it to try to set up Roglič by way of consolation for snatching the Tour from his countryman?

Perhaps, but surely Pogačar was fuelled by a wave of belief in his own ability. He didn’t know what he couldn’t do so he could do anything.

On the day, that thrilling possibility of the unknown collided with crushing reality. When Tom Dumoulin, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe began to stir, Pogačar’s challenge melted away and he was left hanging on to the reduced group. It had been a courageous, valiant effort, but he was human after all.

Making a miracle

Still the question remains, what might Pogačar be capable of? If not yet of riding away from the best riders in the world in the closing stages of the World Championships, then what?

Already, inevitably, a mythology has built up around the 22-year-old. When he was nine and eager to join his older brother at the local Rog Ljubljana cycling club, he was tested by the club coach, Miha Koncilja.

‘Koncilja didn’t look for the best numbers but the best effort,’ says Slovenian journalist Toni Gruden. Pogačar passed the test and ‘was in the system from 10 years old’, all the time riding with older boys.

When he was 11 and racing against 14-year-olds national coach Andrej Hauptman, a former pro who rode for Italian teams Lampre and Fassa Bortolo, turned up to watch one of his races.

He was concerned to see a small boy riding alone half a lap behind the peloton. He asked why the organisers didn’t ‘put him out of his misery’ and withdraw him.

‘He’s not half a lap down, he’s half a lap up,’ Hauptman was told. Within another lap or so Pogačar had lapped the bunch.

He won the Tour de l’Avenir – the ‘Tour of the Future’ – in 2018, a year after 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal won it. But that wasn’t his only standout performance. In fact, arguably it was his results against older, senior riders that were more notable and a clearer indication of his potential.

In 2017, aged 18, he was fifth in the Tour of Slovenia behind Rafal Majka, Giovanni Visconti, Jack Haig and Gregor Mühlberger. A year later he was back to place fourth behind Roglič, Rigoberto Urán and Matej Mohorič.

A few months later, in November, he joined up with his new professional squad UAE-Team Emirates at a training camp where he was tested by coach and renowned physiologist Íñigo San Millán.

‘I realised this guy was at a whole different level in terms of his ability to clear lactate and recover,’ San Millán tells me on the phone from the United States, where he is a professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.

As well as coaching the Tour de France winner, San Millán’s day job is in clinical and research work in cellular metabolism, especially in diabetes, cardiometabolic disease and cancer.

Given the time difference between Colorado and Monaco, where Pogačar lives, the first thing San Millán does each morning is check in with his rider. That usually means logging on to TrainingPeaks, the platform to which the rider uploads his rides.

San Millán has worked with cyclists off and on for three decades but says the technology available now, and the ability to gather and study data, is ‘a game changer’.

He can make small or sometimes major adjustments to prevent his riders from overtraining. According to many coaches that’s the biggest inhibitor to performance among WorldTour riders.

Pogačar made an instant impact in his first professional season, 2019, winning the Tour of the Algarve in February, finishing sixth in the Tour of the Basque Country in April, winning the Tour of California in May, then going to his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, and ending up on the podium in third.

The most remarkable aspect of that was that he didn’t appear to weaken over the three weeks. Indeed his best performance, and the one that got him onto the podium, came on the second-to-last day when he attacked alone on the road to Plataforma de Gredos and won at the top of the climb by over a minute and a half.

It was the same a year later at the Tour. Pogačar’s strongest performance was on the penultimate day, on the now-famous time-trial to La Planche des Belles Filles.

No signs of stopping

‘He has a very, very good recovery capacity, as we observed last year,’ says San Millán. ‘If you look at the stage races he’s done he either wins them or he’s second or third. He barely ever has a bad day.

‘We saw at the Tour of California last year that he doesn’t have the same accumulated fatigue as the others. We’re developing this platform where we look at different metabolic parameters involved in multiple cellular reactions from the lead utilisation of fatty acids, glucose, amino acids, mitochondrial function, as well as recovery capacity.

And what we saw in California was, like… whoa, this guy was at a whole different level. It was kind of what we expected, but that confirmed it.

‘So when we decided to take him to the Vuelta I knew he wasn’t going to have any problems with recovery, even though he was only 20. The only question was his head. But his head is amazing. When he attacked on that second-last day, if it wasn’t for Movistar chasing he would have won the Vuelta.’

Is that ability to recover genetic? ‘In my opinion there are three things,’ says San Millán. ‘The main one is genetics – he has that recovery capacity. The second is his mentality. Three weeks in a Grand Tour can be psychologically hard for anybody but Tadej is very calm. He doesn’t feel the pressure, the stress.

‘The third thing is that we’ve been training a lot to improve his lactate clearance capacity and increase mitochondrial function, which of course is partly genetic. And what that means is that day by day he is not as tired as the others.

‘Multiple times through these last years, after a stage I would ask him, “How was it today, Tadej?” and he would say, “Pretty easy.” And you’d talk to other riders: how was it? “Oof, it was a hard stage today.”

‘The other rider already has a “dent” from that stage, which affects his recovery for the next day. Tadej doesn’t have that dent. It’s genetics, of course, but you can improve this ability with training because everything can be improved with training.’

Staying focussed

For both coaches and riders 2020 has thrown up unexpected challenges. When Covid-19 forced racing to stop in March nobody knew when or if it would resume. When it did restart there were only weeks before the biggest race of all, the Tour de France, without the usual milestones along the way.

To some extent the truncated season represented a test of how riders and coaches could improvise and prepare without the usual reference points.

‘The thing with the lockdown is that we had no idea what we were doing, right?’ says San Millán. ‘Nobody has been in a similar situation before. Back in March, April, I didn’t want to give the riders a structured programme to follow because mentally it’s not easy to follow a programme without competition for four or five months. And we didn’t know then if racing would resume at all.

‘I decided the riders should follow unstructured training until May, when we were going to start proper training with more structure. But Tadej? No, he said, “I want some structure. I don’t want to just ride my bike.”

‘He was so focussed and in mid-May his parameters were outstanding. He was putting out similar numbers to what he was doing at the Tour. I had to tell him, “I know you like to train hard, I know you like to do a structured programme, but if we continue like this I don’t think we’re going to be in top condition for the Tour.”

‘I said, “Hey, let’s take a week off. Go with your girlfriend Urška [Žigart, a pro rider with Women’s WorldTour team Alé BTC Ljubljana] and just get lost in the mountains. Have fun for a week.” That’s what they did. And then he came back and we hit the reset button.’

Clearly it worked. Pogačar rode well before the Tour but seemed to grow into the race and save his absolute best for when it really mattered.

He didn’t stop after the Tour either. There were no lucrative criteriums or laps of the celebrity circuit in Slovenia. Having memorably described himself as ‘just a kid from Slovenia’ in his Tour winner’s press conference he raced on, first at the Worlds then managing ninth at Flèche Wallonne and third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège before citing ‘tiredness’ and calling time on his season.

Still just a kid

Life will be different for Pogačar now, his coach agrees. San Millán has spoken in the past about the ‘fear of losing and the fear of winning’. There can be negative consequences to winning, and going into next year’s Tour as the champion will throw up new challenges – just ask 2019 Tour winner Egan Bernal.

‘I think mentally Tadej is very strong and he’ll be able to deal with success,’ says San Millán. ‘But he’s still a kid and he likes to live life. That’s great, but how is his mentality going to evolve over five, six years if he wins a lot of races? Will he come to a point where he says, “That’s it, I want to play golf”?

‘I know it’s not good to compare, but I compare his mentality to Miguel Indurain’s. He was special, like Tadej – calm, not nervous, not stressed.

‘I worked with many athletes over the years at a high level and many have anxiety problems,’ San Millán adds. ‘They get nervous, they get stressed. Whenever they fail it’s not their fault.

‘They hold onto whatever they can to justify why they didn’t win today. I had a rider say once that he didn’t podium at the Tour de France because of his sports drink. Are you kidding me?’

Pogačar has the physical ability and appears to have the psychological tools. He likes to race aggressively, as we saw at the Tour and in Imola. Next year’s Tour could be more difficult for him to win, especially if his team is not reinforced. But Pogačar can win other races too.

His potential might only be limited by his own desire. In other words, and as his coach suggests, he could carry on winning as long as he wants to.

Illustration: Bill McConkey

The power behind the throne

Building a world-beater is only part of the day job for Íñigo San Millán

Tadej Pogačar’s coach Íñigo San Millán combines his work with the Tour de France winner and as director of performance for UAE-Team Emirates with his clinical and research work in diabetes and cancer as a professor at the University of Colorado.

‘It’s not easy to balance it but at the same time it helps to fund my other work,’ he says. ‘We have great resources here at the University of Colorado but we are always struggling for funds, contrary to what some people might think.

‘My work with the team and with Tadej helps because it opens doors to all kinds of athletes and sports, and it can help us get a contract with a soccer team or American football team. That money can pay for a salary but it also pays for the research.’

As well as coaching Pogačar and heading up the team’s performance department, San Millán coaches another three riders, Brandon McNulty, Diego Ullisi and former World Champion Rui Costa.

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