Who the Hell Even Are You, Tadej Pogačar?

Tadej Pogačar is only 23, yet he is already a two-time Tour de France winner, and looking good for number three. He's also a fine human.

By Kate Wagner |

Last July, on the damp, grassy slopes of Le Grand-Bornand during Stage 8 of the 2021 Tour de France, Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates embarked on a solo journey in a quest for time on his rivals. I remember that day almost photographically, because it was the day the Tour, in all seriousness, was over.

It was the first Tour de France I’d been to, my first ever bike race as a reporter. The first week had been less a bike race and more an increasingly escalating series of events. Chaotic stage design and high nerves brought day after day of carnage; every finish saw riders arrive in some way bloodied or bruised, from legs, mouths, in the vacant glances of wide eyes. By Stage 8, I’d seen Primož Roglič’s Tour run collapse. I’d seen Tony Martin get slammed by a cardboard sign, taking half the peloton down with him. I’d seen Jack Haig not roll across the finish line on Stage 3 at all. I was not emotionally prepared for any of this.

Le Grand-Bornand was draped in rain and fog. The press stood like cattle out in the media zone waiting for riders to come down the long descent, watching it all unfold on their little screens, and for a while all was calm. In the stage’s endgame, Tadej Pogačar left the peloton in search of the breakaway, fragments of which he then caught and surpassed. He disappeared and reemerged within the different time gaps in a remarkable old-school showing of pure grit, his kit soaked through, droplets rolling down his face. He’d caught all but three riders. One got the impression that if he hadn’t run out of road, Pogačar would have taken the stage win too.

Just like that, the general classification was basically decided with two weeks still to go. So easily, too. Pogačar had yanked more than five minutes over Jonas Vingegaard, the eventual second-place finisher, an unbridgeable gap. After the stage, the young Slovenian answered TV reporters’ questions freshly dressed in the maillot jaune. In that moment of transition from the white jersey of best young rider into yellow for the overall lead, he was princely and at ease, like he was born to wear that jersey. As though the Tour de France itself was made for him to conquer.

This is what Pogačar does. The 23-year-old has been steadily winning races since he was 10 years old, maintaining an unflappable calm in the face of ever-escalating expectation: local races in Slovenia, then harder and harder juniors’ races around Europe with the Slovenian National Team, culminating with the 2018 Tour de L’Avenir. When he reached the World Tour, he started chipping away there, too: Volta ao Algarve, Tour of California, three stages and third on GC in his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, all in 2019 alone.

Pogačar descends Le Grand-Bornand ahead of his GC rivals, effectively winning the 2021 Tour de France on Stage 8.The accomplishments don’t get much bigger, but the pressure never seemed to concern Pogačar. In 2020, he took the UAE Tour, Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and then the biggest prize, the one that shocked the cycling world: In the final time trial of the 2020 Tour de France, on La Planche des Belles Filles, he beat compatriot Primož Roglič of Jumbo-Visma, a man who had been in the yellow jersey for almost two weeks, a man whose home country, if not the entire world, expected him to win the race. Many words have been spilled about that fateful day, but in the end, Pogačar simply rode his bike faster. That Tour was just another entry into a remarkable statistical lineage: Every stage race Pogačar has won, he has won on debut. He is a prodigy the likes of which cycling may never see again.

That day in 2021 on Le Grand-Bornand, there was buzz in the media zone. Lots of words floated above my head. Bitter things like “I can’t believe this; this is some Lance Armstrong shit.” And others that took on a tone of resignation: “It’s over. What’s the point of staying on for two more weeks?”

In my debut Tour as a writer, hoping for an exciting battle between Slovenia’s two brightest superstars, Roglič and Pogačar, I was instead initiated to the weight of cycling’s generational trauma. In press conferences, I watched as Pogačar was subjected to the sport’s complete inability to trust and believe what we see with our own eyes.

After I got home, when I was still processing the whole thing, and for some time beyond I wondered: Who the hell even are you, Tadej Pogačar?

He has been steadily winning races since he was 10 years old, maintaining an unflappable calm in the face of ever-escalating expectation.

His rise has been both meteoric and deceptively steady. He comes across as a youthful boy wonder with big eyes, a soft voice, and an impish smile. But he is deeply invested in being a role model for the even younger cyclists in his small country. In November of 2020, shortly after that first Tour, he founded Pogi Team, a youth and junior division of KD Rog, the regional development team on which he got his start.

While reporting this story, it became clear to me that Pogačar’s success as a bike racer is primarily the result of a unique combination of nature and nurture. But such concepts have always been ambivalent in the history of cycling. For a long time, I, like many others, was left wondering if his performances are enough to take at face value. I wondered if those uncertainties supersede the rest of the story and if they can ever be separated from the simple dual spirit of Pogačar, the young genius who still has a long future in the sport—and can also envision a future that comes after him.

Pogačar climbing the Col de Portet on Stage 17 of the 2021 Tour de France, followed by Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz. He’d go on to drop the other riders in the final stretch of the climb to win the mountaintop finish.

The Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić once quipped: “The true nature, worth, and value of a man’s life on earth is determined, basically, by his geographical position…The calculation is merciless, but the results infallibly correct.”

The third of the Pogačar family’s four children, Tadej Pogačar was born in 1998 (seven years after Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia) in Komenda, a small settlement on the outskirts of the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

Komenda follows the typical pattern of a Slovenian village: an elegant yet simple church with a central steeple and copper spire, a cluster of buildings packed into compact streets, and a scattering of modest homes with dark terra-cotta roofs. Surrounding it are grassy fields that burst with dandelions in the spring. Travel a few kilometers on a gravel road and you will meet the banks of the Sava River.

“It was a small city,” Pogačar laughs over Zoom this past May from his apartment in Monaco, where he lives with his fiancé, fellow Slovenian pro cyclist Urška Žigart. “I mean a village, or a municipality with like 5 000, 6 000 people living there. So yeah, it was pretty calm. We [hung] out with friends, [did] sports and yeah. I must say it was not a bad childhood there.”

Pogačar’s parents come from backgrounds standard for the country’s post-independence working class. His mother, Marjeta, is a French teacher. His father, Mirko, worked for a factory that produced office chairs.

“Aren’t you nervous?” Hauptman asked. The gist of Pogačar’s response? “It’s just another bike ride.”

When he wasn’t working, Mirko loved to write and dabbled in poetry. “He was quite [good] with literature when he was younger,” Pogačar says. “That was his dream.”

Recently the elder Pogačar took up writing again, and in an editorial for the Slovenian newspaper Delo this past December, he urged cycling fans not to engage in bitter football-esque rivalries backing either his son or his son’s older compatriot Primož Roglič. “Supporters,” he wrote, “Let’s cheer for Slovenia, which is small enough as it is. But when you split it into two poles it gets a lot smaller still.”

Friends describe Pogačar as down-to-earth and humble and suggest that he hasn’t let success go to his head. You don’t feel like you’re “sitting next to the best cyclist in the world who has millions in his pocket,” says Matic Božič, one of Pogačar’s old cycling buddies who now works in communications with the Slovenian Cycling Federation and Pogi Team. “As long as he’s gonna have fun and ride, he will be the best.”

An anecdote: The day before that infamous time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles in 2020, Pogačar was relaxed, albeit antsy for the race to be over. He spent the evening joking with friends about things like the food he missed during the Tour. “All day I’m eating rice!” he texted a former Slovenian National Team buddy, adding a picture of salami. “I just want a piece of meat!”

Another: The following year, Teja Hauptman, the wife of UAE Sports director Andrej Hauptman, gave Pogačar a ride to the airport before the 2021 Tour. He spent the car ride playing games on his phone. “Aren’t you nervous?” Hauptman asked. The gist of Pogačar’s response? “It’s just another bike ride.”

The greats (Merckx, Hinault) had the ability to withstand endless suffering while not internalising it, the ability to read a race and be clever and bold and unafraid in acting upon their instincts—it’s half raw physical talent, and half cunning and psychological strength. Tadej Pogačar is not unique in the peloton for possessing the former, but he is perhaps stronger than most in possessing the latter.

“He performs really well under pressure,” says his personal coach, Iñigo San Millán. “When someone’s under pressure, they have fear, right? Tadej is the opposite. He transforms, he becomes an animal. And then when the race is finished, he turns it off completely. If things go well, great. If things don’t go well, it is what it is.”

San Millán believes Pogačar’s chill originates from his years training as a child and young adult, when he honed tactics and skill. “[Great athletes] read the game differently than others; they anticipate what’s next. That allows them to have that advantage of confidence and of knowing what the future is going to be like, whether it’s the next game or the next play, you know, or the next mountain.”

When someone’s under pressure, they have fear. Tadej is the opposite. He becomes an animal.

I can think of only one time when it appeared like Pogačar maybe, possibly, psychologically cracked. In the 2021 Tour, he was dropped on Mont Ventoux by Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard on a hot, humid Stage 11, during which Pogačar visibly struggled. When I asked him about that moment and what was going through his mind, the picture he painted was not one of distress, but of optimism. “On Ventoux when I bridged to Jonas, I was like, okay, he’s gonna slow down. But then he didn’t, and I said, oh shit, I went too deep here,” he recalls. “I dropped, but then I was like, yeah, there’s nothing I can do. I need to find my rhythm again, to try to get back on the horse and get to the top, and [started] counting down the minutes. If the climb is 10 kilometres long, once I get past 5K, I always say to myself, it’s less than half to go, and it’s getting less and less kilometres to the top.” Pogačar eventually rallied and caught Vingegaard before sprinting to fourth on the stage.

Pogačar in the yellow jersey during the 2021 Tour de France Stage 20 time trial.

The optimism Pogacar projects is a rather Slovenian trait, perhaps a result of the country’s particular history. As Mirko Pogačar wrote in his newspaper editorial, referring to Slovenia’s history of being administered by different European empires and subjected to fascist totalitarianism during the Second World War, “…we created myths and legends and hoped for better times. We persevered with strong will and hard work, and never bent to the will of those stronger.”

The year was 1949. In the Ljubljana valley, four years after Yugoslavia was liberated by Tito’s Partisans from its fascist occupiers, a handful of workers led by Comrade Pavle Smrekar gathered his fellow comrades into an old pig barn where they concocted the idea of starting a cycling team. With backing from the nearby Rog Bicycle Factory, Kolesarsko Društvo Rog (Cycling Team Rog) became a testing team for Rog’s equipment. The riders, like many Yugoslav cyclists, were employed by the factory. When they wanted to race, they had to ask for time off.

At that time, most sports clubs in the country relied on government funding in the form of state-run companies as sponsors, which made them beholden to the government’s policies. These policies included a prohibition on athletes playing or competing outside the country until they were in their late 20s. Not great for a sport where riders often retire in their early 30s. Hence, Slovenia had many great amateur cyclists, but none made it to the world stage until the borders were relaxed in the 1980s. If the downside to this was limited mobility until a certain age, the upside was that cyclists made comparable salaries to other workers, and unlike in Europe and the U.S., the system was financially stable for riders at the national level.

The infrastructure of that stability lingered in Slovenia, where a robust sporting culture persisted, insulated by its relative wealth and the ease of the transition after Yugoslavia fell, when Slovenia and then Croatia first seceded in 1991. It lasted through 2008, when Tadej Pogačar, an ordinary kid from Komenda, passed through the clubhouse doors of KD Rog.

“When I started, it was a totally different cycling world,” Pogačar says. “It was more easy. I never bought myself a bike or cycling shoes or a helmet. I was one of the last generations that could have that privilege.”

When he launched Pogi Team in 2020 as the youth and junior division of KD Rog, it was in part because he wanted the next generation of Slovenian cyclists to have access to the same kind of resources. To help support the club, Pogačar appears in commercials for local supermarkets and donates the money to the team. (He even has a line of Pogačar-branded sandwiches at the Tuš supermarket chain.)

Young cyclists attend a Pogi Team practice session in May 2021.

The KD Rog headquarters building just outside of Ljubljana is an odd mix of house and garage. Children and teenagers, boys and girls, linger outside at picnic tables in sweatpants or cycling kit watching TikToks on their phones. Last October, I visited and met with the man responsible for putting Pogačar on a bike in the first place, Miha Koncilija.

Upstairs in the lounge, Koncilija proudly points to three of Pogačar’s former bikes on display. There’s his Colnago from UAE Team Emirates, a gold and black Gusto bike from his time at Ljubljana Gusto Santic, and a little Kelly-green number that Pogačar rode as a 9-year-old. The top tube reads Billato, a small Italian brand. After Pogačar grew out of that bike, it was released and rented to others. It took Koncilija some time to get it back, but he told me that the current owners sold it back to him after Pogačar won the Tour in 2020 for what they’d bought it for.

KD Rog is more than just the team Pogačar came up in. The way it’s run, and the fact that it is managed almost entirely by locals—people isolated from World Tour pressures—helps explain some of Pogačar’s attitude and philosophy. Talent, as they say, is a question of nature versus nurture, and if the nature (his seemingly superhuman talent) appears inexplicable, at least the nurture is unassailable.

Koncilija is in his mid-40s and has been with KD Rog for 18 years. He rode with them in the ’90s but chose to pursue sports medicine and returned to the club as coach rather than becoming a professional rider. When he talks about Tadej, his eyes crinkle with pride.

“As a coach, you just want to have a boy like this,” he says. “Not even because he’s so successful and because he has such a good career. But no, he never, ever [complained]. Everything you gave him, everything was okay. The word was and still is, ‘thank you very much for everything.’”

Koncilija accepts that such a major success is perhaps not replicable. “[It] is not a recipe that, okay, we did this with Tadej, [so] for other ones, it would be the same,” he says.

And unlike at some of the other development teams in Slovenia, at KD Rog the purpose is not necessarily to produce the next Tour de France champions but to provide a place for young people to have fun and to stay out of trouble.

“We are not paid for how good we are, what kind of results we have,” Koncilija says. “It’s most important that the kids are raised as good boys, to teach them about fair play, and that we have people that tell them what is wrong with doping [so that] they become not just winners, but also the right person for life. This is what is important for us.”

“Cycling gave us a lot more than just sports, you know?” says Pogačar’s old friend Matic Božič. “We are like a big family that’s not blood related. And Tadej is enjoying his riding—I think he got that from KD Rog…They were just having fun.”

If you have never been to a European juniors’ race, you’d be surprised how professionalized the whole affair is. Some of the Italian teams have proper team cars, and the kids ride Pinarello Dogmas not unlike those of the Ineos Grenadiers. Some kids are even paid a salary like professional cyclists—but that comes at a cost. “The problem is that they are pushing those kids really, really hard,” says Blaž Debevec, a Pogi Team coach. Many burn out before they turn 23.

By contrast, Pogi Team, while well coordinated in their kits, rides a suite of mismatched bikes. Before races, the boys sit outside in camping chairs, pinning their numbers. They have a pep talk, discuss strategy for a handful of minutes, put on sunscreen, and line up. After the race is over, they’ll break down the lessons of the day before getting into the van to drive for pizza.

Debevec says Pogačar was a good teammate. He recalls one race in Croatia. “I was a first-year junior, and we were together in the breakaway. We made it to the finish, and I was expecting him to be first across the line because we were in the breakaway of 30 seconds, 20 seconds before the group. But he said no, Blaž, this one is yours. That was my first victory as a junior. This is one of my favourite moments with him.”

“But yeah,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter what else he will win. He’s just that chill guy from Komenda.”

After a solo attack, Pogačar climbs the Via Santa Caterina on his way to win the 2022 Strade Bianche.

There’s a common misapprehension about Tadej Pogačar that he came from out of nowhere. That he won the Tour de L’Avenir in 2018 out of nowhere. That he suddenly was third in the Vuelta in 2019, a Grand Tour, out of nowhere. That he won the Tour de France in 2020 out of nowhere. This is not the truth.

He may seem precocious, but in reality his rise has been marked by persistence, small improvements, and constant adjustments. “If I compare Tadej with other boys, no one can say at under 17 that he could win the Tour de France. We had boys in that category that [were] even better,” says Koncilija. “But the improvement Tadej made every year, step by step, it’s still something amazing.”

Martin Hvastija, who first selected Pogačar for the junior national team, corroborates this. “His first tests were nothing special compared with other riders in his generation,” Hvastija recalls. “He had five kilos more—they called him fat. He already had great numbers but they weren’t the best.” Yet as a coach, Hvastija says that he saw Pogačar improve each year, while most of his peers plateaued.

Still, that generation of junior riders was one of the strongest in Slovenian cycling history, and the strength of those riders enabled Pogačar to win races and accrue the points that earned the national team a spot at bigger competitions, like that 2018 Tour de L’Avenir. Without those teammates, themselves products of the Slovenian sporting system, Pogačar might have flown under the radar for longer than he did. By 2019, he made it to the World Tour, signing with UAE Team Emirates. He was 20.

Pogačar celebrates winning stage 20 of the 2019 Vuelta. At 20, he was the youngest rider in the race.

As a journalist, the first time I had to ask the difficult questions was atop Luz Ardiden on Stage 17 of the 2021 Tour de France. The night before, the Bahrain Victorious team was raided by the Marseilles police. I had been profiling one of their riders, Matej Mohorič, another Slovenian. We had a good rapport and could talk for hours. I even let him borrow some of my books.

But that afternoon I had to look him in the eye and ask, “Why were the police in your hotel room last night?”

Until that moment, that inflection point at which I started being a real journalist and not just a writer leeching onto people and events, I’d thought that this was stuff I wouldn’t touch. I didn’t consider myself an investigative journalist. I was there to tell stories. I had not yet grasped that this was part of the story too.

Pogačar’s body is what it is, and with time, we will either trust or distrust that body.

That 2021 Tour was soaked in suspicion. It wasn’t just that Tadej Pogačar took five minutes out on his rivals on Stage 8. That could be possibly explained by the fact that Roglič had crashed along with several other important riders, like Jack Haig, in a gnarly and violent first week of racing. No, this was a free-for-all.

A Swiss newspaper reported rumours of motor doping, which were quickly stamped out by both riders and the UCI. The raid on Bahrain Victorious started a new line of discourse. Pogačar was grilled constantly about doping, and the fact that he spun the old ‘I’ve never tested positive’ Lance-ism didn’t help. (“I think we have many controls to prove [the accusations] wrong…”)

This interrogation got to the point where, by the second rest day, Pogačar threw up his hands in a moment of uncharacteristic frustration and said, “I’m a good kid with a good education, I’m not one to take shortcuts. These are uncomfortable questions because [the sport’s] history is bad. I didn’t prepare anything for those kind of questions. I just like to ride my bike and what comes with it comes with it, I’ll deal with it.”

“[If] you are good and you succeeded, then you always have haters,” he later told me, a bit churlishly. “If you don’t have haters, then you’re not there yet.”

The best summary of the suspicion comes from Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey, who cites Pogačar’s 6.5 estimated watts per kilogram on La Planche des Belles Filles in 2020, the lack of anti-doping testing that year due to the coronavirus, and the fact that the old UAE Team Emirates under CEO Mauro Gianetti and general manager Joxean Matxin oversaw no fewer than six riders who tested positive for EPO and other drugs in the early 2000s.

An estimated 6.5 watts per kilo effort on La Planche des Belles Filles helped Pogačar win the 2020 Tour de France.Until (and if) we know for sure, this debate walks a fine line drawn with blurred ink—for cycling is a sport where the scientific explanations and the crimes of doping can both be true at once. From a science perspective, the working theory about why Pogačar wins so much comes from his repeated attacks and his ability to recover at seemingly superhuman speeds.

According to San Millán, who is also a cancer researcher at the University of Colorado (a high-stakes career one ostensibly wouldn’t want to jeopardise through, say, a doping scandal), the key to Pogačar’s fitness is metabolic efficiency: “When it comes to cycling, you need to be very good at burning fat and saving glycogen for the last part of the race. When you have very good mitochondrial capacity, the advantage that you have is that you are very, very good at burning fat, but you’re also extremely good at burning lactate, which is extra fuel, and that’s a characteristic of Tadej. So there’s less accumulation of lactate compared to other cyclists.” These claims are supported by scientific research San Millán and his colleagues have published.

But Lance Armstrong’s performance was also explained away with claims that he was genetically superior to others because he had an abnormally high VO2 max. The science of sport has come a long way since the 2000s, but the function of scientific rhetoric has stayed the same: to both partially explain phenomena we are seeing, which is the purpose of science itself, and to assuage our fears that we are about to face heartbreak again.

About these latter comments, San Millán told me something that will age either very well or very poorly: “We’re not gonna see anything in 10 years or 20 years or 30 years. Oh, he was doing this or doing that now, that’s not gonna happen, I guarantee you.”

Pogačar drops Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz in the final stretch of the Col du Portet to win Stage 17 of the 2021 Tour.Longtime cycling fans are used to these patterns. Many have become jaded and cynical. And indeed, Lindsey’s essay is painful to read. For now, Pogačar’s body is what it is, and with time, we will either trust or distrust that body. This is difficult to write and even more difficult to admit internally, but I wish it were possible to say for sure that this time it’s real. In life, in the broader sense, we trust people every day not knowing whether they will ultimately hurt us. This is the fundamental relationship between cycling fans and their favourite athletes, as it is in many other forms of love. Nothing I can say will change that.

This year, Pogačar is taking on his third Tour de France after winning the only two other editions he’s ever lined up for. It is, by all means, his era, marked by the domination of his often-impetuous long-range attacks, his steady endurance in times of difficulty, and an eternally cheerful panache. At times, when he wears the yellow jersey, when he’s on his bike alone on the path to almost certain victory, he is almost regal, totally in control, and as close to perfect as a mortal can get. When I stood in front of him that day in Le Grand-Bornand, I wondered if he and I were even made of the same human material.

It was only after talking to Pogačar that I knew: He is very much human. He isn’t some ethereal cycling god, but a young man as normal as any other. (Who remembers his coronavirus rap video?) He is both bashfully youthful and decidedly mature, making big plans and pouring his newfound wealth back into the sport. He’s friendly and, yes, very chill. He’s no cycling historian and not one to get wide-eyed over heroes. (Though he admits he did take a liking to Andy Schleck.)

It’s when he talks about the kids at Pogi Team that he brightens and gets excited, thinking about the opportunities they’ll have and the potential he sees in them. I ask him what it’s like to be a hero to a bunch of kids, some of them not much younger than Pogačar himself.

“I guess…I don’t know, honoured,” he says quietly. “I just feel happy when I see them. Some of them even come to the Tour de France to cheer and I saw them on Mont Ventoux, a group of Pogi Team riders. It felt really, really nice and touching. I don’t know how to say, but it makes me happy that they are happy.”

There’s a photo on Instagram of Pogačar with the kids from Pogi Team. He’s smiling the kind of cheesed-out smile we have at the best moments in life. He tells me he wishes he could spend even more time with them. But he’s got his own life to deal with now, a heavy, difficult one he’s brought onto himself, even though he makes it look easy.

When I ask Pogačar about the moment that changed that life forever, that made it difficult, that marked him down in the annals of history—that day on La Planche des Belles Filles—he makes a confession. “I think I could have been more happy about it and I was holding back. Which I regret. It was such a good day. It was one of the best days of my career. And in the end, I was not as happy as I should be.”

He sighs. “It is how it is.”

For the first time, he looks a little bit older.

READ MORE ON: interview long reads rider profile tadej pogacar tour de france 2022

Copyright © 2024 Hearst