Ten years ago, cyclist Andrej Hauptman was scouting prospects when he spotted a racer trailing the pack by 100 meters. Much younger than the rest, he was struggling to keep up.
As a Road World Championship medalist and head of selectors for the Slovenian national cycling team, Hauptman’s words carried weight when he advised the race organizers to provide support for the young man. It was then they informed him that the scrawny 13-year-old wasn’t in last place. He was, in fact, about to lap the competition. The racer was Tadej Pogačar, who went on to win the 2020 Tour de France. At the age of 22, the Slovenian cyclist who rides for UAE Team Emirates is the youngest winner of the famed race in 111 years.
“I had my dreams, my visions, but it was not quite like it happened. It is bigger now than in my dreams and fantasies,” he tells Maxim. Last year he also took home the Tour’s coveted white jersey (for best young cyclist), and the polka-dot jersey (for “King of the Mountain”).
“It was totally unexpected to win the first time I’m on the start of the Tour. I never imagined it. When I was younger, I dreamed of riding the Tour, to just be there competing in it. What happened in the Tour is still amazing to me. To win the biggest race in the world alongside the two other jerseys I won, it is just bigger than any dream.”
Pogačar caused a stir early in the race with his assault on the mountainous stage 8, including the steep and unforgiving Col du Peyresourde, where he managed to clip a whopping 45 seconds off the 17-year-old climbing record set by Alexandre Vinokourov and Iban Mayo in 2003.
The climax of the race came on the penultimate stage 20, another grueling climb up La Planche-des-Belle-Fille, in which Pogačar blew away the competition to secure the yellow jersey. “I was surprised that I beat everyone by so much time. But I wasn’t really surprised by my time on the course because I knew approximately how fast I needed to go. It was the last big effort of the Tour, so I just gave it full gas.”
Competitive enough on flat time trials, Pogačar’s secret is the hills. He opened gaps between himself and opponents on the lower slopes, including 37 seconds over Australian Richie Porte, 43 over Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, and 59 seconds over teammate Primož Roglič. Pure climbers like Spaniard Mikel Landa lost 37 seconds to him, and Colombian Miguel Ángel López, winner of the stage on the steep Col de la Loze, gave up one minute 47 seconds.
“I guess the genes helped me a lot, thanks to my parents. I train a lot in the mountains, follow the program I get from my coach, and am fully focused on what I do,” Pogačarsays of his virtuosic work on the steeps. “I wouldn’t say there is a trick, outside of spending 25 hours a week on the bike in the winter months. There are also lots of things like altitude camps where we spend long days out on the road, building up conditioning.”
Born in September 1998, just outside Komenda, north of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, Pogačar wanted to play soccer from a very young age, training with the local club. When his elder brother, Tilen, began training at the ROG Ljubljana cycling club, Pogačar decided to join him. Starting at age nine, riding his first race in 2008, he never looked back.
He made his debut as a WorldTour pro in January 2019 at Australia’s Tour Down Under. That same year he was third overall in the Vuelta a Espana, in which he led in three mountain stages and took the white jersey for best young rider. By the end of his second year as a pro, he’d racked up a total of 17 wins.
The past two Tour winners were both one-offs, but cycling enthusiasts think last year, being a pandemic year, actually helped Pogačar focus on his training. He has been leading a quiet life with girlfriend Urska Zigart, who rides for Alé BTC Ljubljana, part of the UCI Women’s WorldTour. Together, they visited family in Slovenia and vacationed in Dubai before returning to Monaco to train for this coming September, when he will defend his Tour de France crown.
“I am preparing with the same mindset and similar ambitions. So, I don’t worry too much about the future results,” he shrugs, with characteristic nonchalance—and an eye on the Olympics, but laser focus on the Tour. “I will give it my best, like I always do, and we will see what happens. I’ll aim for the Tour again, but there are other big races in the sport I would like to win also.”
This year’s course is said to feature less of the hilly terrain that he excels on, and more of the flat time trials that play to the strengths of competitors like England’s Chris “Froomey” Froome, and Dumoulin. “For sure, time trialists will have a little head start, because of two flat time trials. But I think, if I focus very well on that point, I can do a good time trial as well. I will need to spend more time on the time trial bike. But otherwise I will not change anything this year.”
If there’s a downside to winning the Tour de France, it’s doing so during a pandemic. Instead of the normal media tour and celebrations that would follow such a record-breaking win, life for Pogačar has been calm. “Yeah, it was not a normal year, but I had a great time. We celebrated with the team after the Paris stage, and after, with my girlfriend and family,” he says, recalling his brilliant year. And though it was a bit more quiet than usual, Pogačar wouldn’t have had it any other way