Entered the Tour de France twice, won it twice, and Tadej Pogačar is barely into his twenties. The powerful UAE Team Emirates rider is the perfect combination of pace and stamina, with raw physiological power that stands out as elite, within the elite.
Despite his current dominance, he knows the value of holding your cards close to your chest, as well as soaking up discomfort in order to win…
RSNG Why are the mountain stages of multi-day Grand Tours, like the Tour de France, so important for you?
TADEJ POGAČAR “I wouldn’t say that they are the most important stages of all, but I seem to feel more comfortable than a lot of other riders on the sharp climbs.
“As well as all the sports science, there is a pain threshold you need to overcome. They do say the most successful riders are those who can block out the pain; cycling will bring you the most discomfort for a prolonged amount of time than I think probably any other sport.
“For me, when I was growing up in cycling teams I was often racing with guys two years older than me. As a result of that I kept myself to myself, and that has really been my cycling mode since. From being slightly shy, that personality has become a big advantage to me – I won’t give too much away.”
So much of Grand Tour cycling is gameplay and it’s really difficult to read someone who doesn’t give anything away
“For the same reason, when we are in the mountains, I can push really hard one day and feel I have it in me. On the next, perhaps, when we get to the start line, or even a 100km into the race, I will feed back to the team what sort of physical and mental mindset I am in. If I don’t feel like pushing on then I may make a decoy break so that my rivals still think I have something. Or, as a team, we may send someone else out in front.
“So much of Grand Tour cycling is gameplay and it’s really difficult to read someone who doesn’t give anything away.”
RSNG But so much of cycling is about raw strength and stamina?
TADEJ POGAČAR “Yes but more of cycling is about when to use that strength and stamina. You are not flat out all the time, and in the mountains it really is a tactical game.
“One good or bad move, one good or bad hour, can be the difference between cycling down the Champs-Élysées with the yellow jersey, and not.
“As they say, you can’t win the Tour de France on the mountains, but you can lose it there. This, I think, is crucial to every rider who wants to be on the podium. You push and you protect, but you never let any rival know what mode you are in. When they find out, you have problems.”
RSNG You’re known for sometimes ‘riding to feel’ rather than being a slave to power meters and other real-time performance data, but still performing extremely well. What’s the advantage of that?
TADEJ POGAČAR “I think that me just riding on instinct allows me to do different things at different times, and then there is less of a textbook way of performing, or the other teams and riders knowing what I am going to do and when.
“If a certain rider or team has a certain tactic, it’s a lot easier [to counter]. When teams lead out a sprint you know how it’s going to play out.
“In the mountains everything is unpredictable – everything. And when you’re racing against someone who doesn’t have a set time to push or typical pace increase, you can never balance out tactics against them.
“What helped me in defending my title was the extra conditioning that I had. I felt it made such a big difference, even if spending time away from the bike in training and eating more went against some of my instincts.”
RSNG I’ve read that you don’t have any particular influences in your cycling career, is this true?
TADEJ POGAČAR, TWO-TIME TOUR DE FRANCE WINNER “I started from a very early age learning in my local club back home in Ljubljana. I wasn’t thinking about dreams of becoming a cyclist in the Tour de France or anything like that. I was just happy to be out having exciting times.
“The older I got, and the more serious I became, the reality of a cycling career got closer. I went from wanting to keep on improving on my own personal bests to wanting to race against and beat others, and that was a big bridge for me to cross.”
RSNG So you didn’t follow any particular rider in the cycling tours on TV?
TADEJ POGAČAR “I wasn’t really the type of person who cared about heroes or idols. Maybe just my friends or people that I knew – they were the ones who I had respect for because I knew who they were and I could relate to that.
“My older brother, especially. All those were in the same environment as me and it was easier to compare myself to them. The people who I looked up to were also the ones that I would take the best parts from, in terms of being a good person and treating others with respect, being kind, polite and nice to everyone I met.
“So, it wasn’t always just about how good I could be as a rider, and how I could get faster, or stronger – I wanted to be a better person, as well.”
As a sportsman you live for that pressure – you’re built to withstand that and when you don’t have that release, it’s hard
RSNG What did you miss most about cycling during lockdown?
TADEJ POGAČAR “Obviously it was still possible to get out and to race for the most part. Cycling is an individual pursuit anyway so that didn’t change. I live in Monaco with my girlfriend who is also a professional cyclist.
“Actually what I missed most was the pressure. There is only so much a feeling of competitiveness you can generate by yourself, and as a sportsman you live for that pressure. You’re built to withstand that and when you don’t have that release, it’s hard.”
RSNG What are your earliest memories of riding a bike?
TADEJ POGAČAR “I would say that it was as far back as learning and being able to ride to football matches – I was confident from a very young age. I began road cycling from about nine or 10 years old and loved it from the minute I got on the road bike. The freedom on a bike is like nothing else. Plus when you also are so young it is new and exciting, and I still feel that same excitement now about going out. I hope I never lose that feeling.”
RSNG You are equally adept at both, but how do you prefer to win? A last-gasp sprint or dominating from the front?
TADEJ POGAČAR “Obviously, as long as I win, I don’t really care, to be honest. I find the sprint wins more dramatic and exciting, probably just as much as the spectators do and it’s really satisfying when you get there.
“When you are out ahead on your own you never really feel lonely. The feeling of being chased down is exhilarating and gives a sensation of survival.”
WHAT NEXT? For more road cycling content check out the RSNG guide to riding track, the fast and furious version of road racing.
Photos: Shutterstock/ REX