Feature | Road Cycling

Tadej Pogacar: The Slovenian prodigy with the winning touch 

The 21-year-old becomes the second-youngest winner of the Tour de France since its inception.

By ZK Goh ·

While many road cycling fans pinpointed Primoz Roglic as a front-runner at the Tour de France, one of his fellow Slovenians ended up grabbing the attention with incredible rides.

There is no doubt that Tadej Pogacar does not sit in his friend and rival's shadow. Pogacar is still only 21 years old, and with his win in Laruns on the Tour's ninth stage, he became the youngest man to win a stage on the Tour since 1993.

Crossing the finish line in Paris for eventual race victory, following his stunning uphill time trial on Stage 20, sees Pogacar become the second-youngest overall champion in race history.

Pogacar finished third in his Grand Tour debut at last year's Vuelta a España behind champion Roglic and Alejandro Valverde, and is now back in the headlines after this stunning win. But who is this upstart?

Football first

Born in September 1998 just outside Komenda, north of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, cycling was not Pogacar's first love.

As a child, he became enamoured with football in elementary school, and trained with the local club after displaying some talent with the ball.

Cycling appeared on the radar almost by accident. Pogacar's elder brother, Tilen, had begun training at the ROG Ljubljana club.

"I immediately wanted to imitate my brother, but unfortunately they didn't have such a small bike in the club," Pogacar writes on his website.

However, that did not stop him, and he began training later that winter aged nine. Pogacar's first cycling race took place in early 2008, and he hasn't looked back since.

He was signed by UAE Team Emirates in July 2018 – a move he admitted was overwhelming at first. "I was a bit afraid to meet so many new teammates, because I have only been on one team for 10 years," he told The National last year.

"Then you go somewhere new and it is a bit frightening. They accepted me really quickly and we are all good friends, we work together really well, and that helped me a lot to overcome all the challenges."

Today, cycling is in all aspects of his life – even his relationship. His girlfriend, Urska Zigart, rides for the Italy-based UCI Women's World Tour team Alé BTC Ljubljana.

Packed CV

Despite his young age, Pogacar has a palmarès to be envied. In addition to his national time trial championship, he is also the Slovenian cyclo-cross champion.

On the road, he won the under-23 Tour de l'Avenir – which counts two-time Grand Tour winner Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, Warren Barguil, Miguel Ángel López, and 2019 Tour de France champion Egan Bernal among its former winners – as part of the Slovenian national team just weeks after signing his deal with UAE.

Overall victories followed in his rookie year as a pro at both the Volta ao Algarve and Tour of California, before his stunning breakthrough in la Vuelta during which he won three mountainous stages. He arrived in Madrid last September wearing the race's white jersey for best young rider.

It certainly impressed the pundits, with VeloNews editor Andrew Hood commenting: "He's fast, he's dashing, and he has that rare, winning touch. Who does he remind me of? A Peter Sagan who can climb."

What sets Pogacar apart from the other climbers – and therefore Grand Tour contenders – in the peloton? A switch that's apparently permanently set to attack mode.

"If you don’t attack you cannot gain time," he pointed out after winning his first Tour stage. His climb over the Col du Peyresourde on the stage before his Laruns win was just an example of that.

Pogacar attacked thrice on the Peyresourde and smashed a 17-year-old record ascent of the col when he crested the top in 24 minutes 35 seconds, beating Olympic champion Alexander Vinokourov's 25:20 from 2003.

Heading the new generation

Pogacar is one of cycling's new breed of young talent born in the late 1990s – including Bernal, Remco Evenepoel, and Pavel Sivakov among others – that have burst onto the scene in the last two years.

"A lot of new names will be on the biggest podiums in the next five years," he said last year. "Now is the time for the next generation."

Indeed, before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the global sporting calendar, the 21-year-old had his eyes set on both finishing the Tour then riding the Olympic Games course, which is set around Mount Fuji.

"If you prepare really well for the Tour de France and you finish on a high level, I think for the Olympics, it’s okay," he said to PEZ Cycling News in December. "I like hard races," he added.

It should come as no real surprise that growing up, the Slovenian's favourite riders were three in the same attacking mould that he is now – Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg and Spain's Alberto Contador.

"I did not want to copy anybody, but you can learn from them so much," he said.

Tadej Pogacar reacts after winning Stage 9 of the 2020 Tour de France in Laruns. (Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Pool)

Future is now

Despite his early success, Pogacar would much prefer to stay out of the limelight. "I’d love to just do the race and do none of the talking," he admitted.

He doesn't mind the odd goofball moment, however, as he showed in March during lockdown when he sent a video of himself rapping while riding on his indoor trainer.

When he's done with road racing, the cyclocross circuit had better watch out. "For sure in the future, I would like to try international races, or even World Cups."

The future is bright for Pogacar. And the future also happens to be now.