Home Features Matej Mohoric: Knowledge is power

Matej Mohoric: Knowledge is power

After a few seasons in the wilderness, Slovenia’s Matej Mohorič made a stunning comeback to win two Tour stages and come second in Clásica San Sebastián. The Bahrain Victorious rider tells Procycling how he has learned the hard lessons of being a professional racer.

In 2012 Matej Mohorič, then barely 18, cleaned house. In the latter half of his last season as a junior, he won nearly everything he touched, including the Junior World Championships, plus a second place in the corresponding time trial. The following year, no longer a junior, he won the under-23 Worlds, vanquishing Louis Meintjes in a merciless finale that confirmed the Slovenian as one of the best descenders in the professional peloton all while introducing the super-tuck position to the world.

Long before the days of his contemporaries and compatriots Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič, the sport belonged to him. In 2014, he joined the WorldTour with Cannondale at a preternaturally young age, having only spent one year in Conti-level purgatory. In that time, Mohorič was touted as the next everything, his inevitable dominance awaited with bated breath.

And then, he simply disappeared.

It’s not uncommon for riders to flounder in the transition from the kiddie leagues to the big time – in fact, it’s more common than not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding one’s people. When Mohorič transferred to teams that were more proactive about developing Slovenian riders, he started to improve, snagging a stage at the Vuelta in 2017 when he was with UAE Team Emirates. However, it was only when he came to what was then Bahrain-Merida that he re-emerged, suddenly and all at once, and went on what could only be described as a rampage.

It was a blistering comeback. In 2018, he was Slovenian national champion, won a stage in the Giro, plus the Benelux Tour, and the Deutschland Tour. That’s not including all the times when he almost won, too, of which there were many. Finally, the papers said, Mohorič had come of age, into his own. It was a nice narrative, except it came prematurely. The Slovenian, in his comet-like fashion, dazzled us all before he disappeared again into whatever fabric of night he belonged to, claiming only a stage in the Tour of Poland in between that exceptional 2018 season and the 2021 Slovenian National Championships.

Still, one could sense what was coming round again when he finished fourth in last year’s Liège, or when he escaped with Thomas De Gendt in a battle of two baroudeurs in the Volta a Catalunya this year, though De Gendt got the better of Mohorič there. He finished second in two stages of the Tour of Slovenia and claimed the points jersey. After he became national champion once more in June, perhaps boosted by the confidence offered by that particular jersey, he won two stages in the Tour de France and came second in San Sebastián in, as they say, barnstorming fashion, each win coming from his preferred method: long-range breakaways.

There were many things I didn’t know about Matej Mohorič, things he was surprisingly free with sharing – things like failure, like adaptation, like finding oneself. He spoke in big, brisk paragraphs, every single R rolled to a trill. It was clear within 30 seconds of listening to him that Mohorič was sharp as a tack, that, as a life-long intellectual and the son of two teachers, he could have done anything at all with his life. And yet, he became a professional cyclist, because, in his own words, he loved it more than anything else.

Each time, in his years of disappearance, Mohorič turned his gaze inwards. He studied, with a medieval scholar’s obsession, all manner of nutrition and training, things that had changed significantly since his junior days. He became a mentor to others, a role he adopted with the seriousness of a dedicated educator. He changed jobs from shooting star to road captain, became involved in the activism that was spreading within the peloton, found all kinds of ways to busy himself in the service of his team-mates, never once with resentment, as though he knew his time would come again.

It would. It did.

When he crossed the line alone in Le Creusot on stage 7 of the Tour de France this summer, I watched him do so with tears in his eyes, and, moved by the sight, I stuck around lurking behind the Eurosport mixed zone pen to hear him speak, which he did with freedom I was not used to from professional cyclists, a cadre of people who tended to keep their cards close to their chest as though their actions were trade secrets rather than matters of public record. I made it a mission to interview him simply because I knew he had things to say, and I was right.

For the rest of the Tour, Matej Mohorič gave me an education, and every time we spoke, I came out of the conversation more informed about the nuances and intricacies of the sport than I had ever been, from the aerodynamics of a sprint to looking at an entire stage strategically, from reacting on the ground to changing conditions to the very real organisational and infrastructural constraints that keep cycling less safe than it should be. Every opportunity in which he gave me his time, I’d press record and let him wander into unexpected places as an impartial observer, in for a treat, nonetheless.

On the first Tour rest day, Mohorič turned a 20-minute phone call into an hour. He gave me enough material to make a profile three times as long as this piece, enough to stretch word counts into the nigh biographical. He spoke as though no one had ever given him the opportunity before, which of course is not true. Rather, it’s more so that the world has its editors. An avid reader, he probably knew this too.

Learning process

Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious)

Mohorič’s famous super-tuck descending position (Image credit: Getty Images)

Born in Podblica, a tiny village of 115 people on the outskirts of Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, Mohorič began cycling as a means to escape the drudgery of work on his parents’ farm, and also like most boys his age, because his friends were doing it.

It’s interesting to hear him talk about his precocious early days as a fast-improving cyclist now with all the benefit of hindsight, rattling off successes and failures alike with a photographic memory: “And I also had two bad crashes in the start of the [2013] season, but then I was quite good in the summer and, yeah, I won. I was good in the Tour de l’Avenir. I dropped out of the GC because in the first mountain stage I had back problems. I had to swap bikes two times and then I was kind of fighting to get back on. But then in the two remaining mountain stages, I was both times second, one time to Yates and one time to Alaphilippe…And then also, obviously, I won the world championships a month after that…”

It’s also interesting to hear Mohorič speak of the lost years that came after, offering hypothetical rationalisations for events that were and still are perhaps inexplicable: nutrition and training, which had evolved since his time in the juniors, mistakes he made, many of which he didn’t choose to elaborate on. Not knowing his body, not quite figuring out who he was yet, which, in a way, are very quotidian, if existential struggles all young people must face.

It’s also worth noting that the lackadaisical, too-cool American culture that permeated Cannondale at the time he rode for them wasn’t really the place for someone with Mohorič’s unabashed earnestness. One of the managers there once said that Mohorič was too smart to be a cyclist, and when I asked Mohorič about this, he laughed, owning the statement immediately.

“So, they called me in this team, my nickname, ‘Matejpedia’, because when there was a question to be asked, they always knew who to refer it to. Even when I went to school, in primary school and then in high school, I was always the guy that was the first student to raise his arm when the teacher asked a question. I still enjoy learning facts, about things that I don’t know,” he mused, before going off on an endearing tangent.

“For example, the other day, there was this fire in the Gulf of Mexico, with the pipeline, and the guys [on the team], they were asking, ‘But how can fire burn under water?’ I also didn’t know, but then that night I dug deep into it and read on Wikipedia about it because that kind of stuff is just interesting to me now.”

He quickly collected himself, returned to the topic at hand. “And yes, I guess it also transfers and relates to my racing or training. I always want to know why. Why do we do things the way we do them now? Why are you supposed to ride the way you are supposed to ride, why are you supposed to train the way you are supposed to train and why are you supposed to race the way you’re supposed to race?”

Even though couched in the language of knowledge accumulation, these were existential questions for Mohorič, who, despite all his early successes, was still learning just what kind of cyclist he was going to be. When he started, he won stage races, finished high up in time trials – it was expected of him that he would continue to do so, to rise to the highest echelons, even though the breakaway had already proved to be his most reliable win scenario. (When I asked him via Instagram DM whether he considered himself a breakaway specialist, he seemed a little annoyed at the question, as though the answer should be obvious. “Most of my wins come from breakaways,” he replied, never one to waste words.)

Then, during his first lost years, his years of disappearance, Mohorič reconfigured himself entirely, scrutinised everything that he was doing, asked all his difficult ‘why’ questions, and perhaps, early on, came to terms with the fact that some expectations could not be lived up to, that he was a little fish in a big pond and, when it came down to it, there were many who were stronger than him.

And so, he simply made himself into himself, taking his time in doing so, coming to his private understandings and realignments: “The only way to survive those races,” he said of his early WorldTour seasons, “was that I learned how to move, how to be efficient in the pack, how to save energy, how to be smart and not spend energy when it was not necessary.” In other words, as the saying goes, work smarter, not harder.

In the time since, Mohorič has put a lot of that knowledge to good use in the service of his team-mates, which is where he’s spent most of his time since that blistering 2018 season. Mohorič first few years as a pro were so fraught and disappointing (to the point where he still has to answer for them), he’s done his best to be good to others in that same situation, those who are still figuring it out. “I just see that when some of the younger guys are not immediately successful,” he said, “If they are persistent, the hard work will pay off in the future.” Or, perhaps more bluntly: “Not everyone can be a Remco Evenepoel or a Tadej Pogačar, being successful, just straight after they come up.” (It is worth noting that Pogačar and Mohorič are very close friends.)

All of this made me remember stage 6 of this year’s Giro d’Italia, wherein Mohorič bridged across to his young teammate Gino Mäder, towing along the breakaway in which they found themselves, sheltering Mäder down each descent, protecting him from the elements, burning his candle until 14 kilometres to go, after which Mäder had to make good on his own, which he did with the whole world rooting for him. I asked about this, and Mohorič’s response was genuine, touching even: “It’s like sometimes these young riders, especially the ones that are more down to earth, they don’t really believe in themselves, you know? Like Gino, I think he didn’t really trust himself that he could win that stage, but,” he said firmly, “I didn’t give him a choice.”

When Mohorič speaks about Mäder like this, he’s talking about himself too, a younger version of himself, a version that struggled and, to the best of his ability, overcame, made peace with his failures and treasured each of his successes. At 26, he’s not old, not by a long shot, but he’s already spent eight seasons as a professional, has seen the best and the worst of the sport, has lived through more than many others.  In his words, delivered with a certain weariness: “I’ve already been down that mountain.”

Dedication

LIBOURNE, FRANCE - JULY 16: Matej Mohorič of Slovenia and Team Bahrain - Victorious stage winner celebrates at arrival during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 19 a 207km stage from Mourenx to Libourne / @LeTour / #TDF2021 / on July 16, 2021 in Libourne, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Mohorič’s controversial celebration after winning stage 19 of the Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

I realise now, in retrospect, that I’d caught Mohorič at a particularly reflective time in his life. There were rumours in the Slovenian press last year that he’d retire early. He’d just had a daughter, his first child. The risks on the descents for which he became so well-known are perhaps different to him now, especially after his harrowing crash in the Giro. Did he wonder, before he won that stage in the Tour de France, if he’d ever have a win like that again? It was a legitimate question.

In a moment of introspection, he spoke of that victory with some emotion: “When you’re young,” he said, as though he were not young, “it feels easy, it feels nice to work. And then of course you go to the races, and you don’t really feel like you’ve sacrificed a lot because it’s all new to you. It’s all exciting. And it’s all fun, no?” 

He paused, considering his words. “But as you get older, it starts to be harder and harder, to stay away from the family, to stay away from home, to spend time in training camps, to spend time analysing routes. And yet, you are more and more dedicated and you see that there are, for a rider like me, not that many moments when you can enjoy big, big successes now.

“So, when it comes, it’s easier to get emotional, no?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly.

“No, really,” he pressed, “Like, all those sacrifices, all that hard work, all that time spent away from home, it all surfaces, it all comes to the fore. You remember all of it.”

At this point in our conversation, he did not know that he would win again two weeks later under similar circumstances – a resplendent solo breakaway – but also, at the same time, under very different circumstances. He did not know that in Pau, his team bus would be raided in the middle of the night, their belongings ransacked, their sleep disrupted. I didn’t know either. When I inquired in Tignes what the future looked like for him, he said simply, “I try not to compare myself with the others. I try not to pursue results or goals.” In other words: I don’t know, but I’m not worried. 

“I enjoy helping others, getting results and being useful to them, in doing that work, because I’m not always good enough to win. On many occasions, I have a team-mate that is way more capable of winning that bike race than I am. So I really enjoy then to bury myself for him and for his result, you know? That’s also important.” He smiled. “So from here, I will just continue working as I did before and just try to be the best version of myself.”

So too do we all.

In our final moment together that day, I asked him what he was reading, a question he delighted in. He laughed, bemoaned having finished the three books he’d brought with him after which he gave me a breathless, five-minute summary of the plot of Where’d You Go Bernadette? (The other two books were on education, which he was reading for the benefit of his daughter, and in the coming weeks, I’d lent him two of mine, which he also finished briskly.) 

Weeks later, when Mohorič crossed the line on Stage 19, victorious after being out there alone for a dozen or so kilometres, left only with the road and left only with the road and the vagaries of his own exhausted mind, (which, at some point had convinced him that making that zipped lips gesture was a good idea, even though he had no idea in the slightest that Lance Armstrong had done something similar back in 2004, an infamous sign of cycling’s doping omertà) he was, by all means proud, defiantly so.

He spoke passionately about the sacrifices everyone on the team had made just to be here, was indignant about the cloud of suspicion they had ended up in. To him, the rumours were not true, and so he simply did not consider them outside of his brief flashes of raucousness in those final stages of the Tour, where he proved his point with his own body, clearly on the best form it’s had in years. There’s something to be said for that. I have nothing – we have nothing to hide, he told me on Luz Ardiden. But the intensity of his bewildered anger softened as his timecard was punched for the final two stages, mere formalities for many riders.

I managed to snag him on the Champs-Élysées, where he described his feelings about the Tour as relieved. That it was over, as contentious as it had been. That he had found something within himself during its 21 stages of carnage and brutality. A few weeks later, when he came to the end of San Sebastián, second (he confessed to me that he had the wrong gear for the sprint), it became clear that he had no plans to stop, Pau raid be damned. Now, he told me, he was a protected rider once more, the first line of attack instead of a backup.

His time became a bit more precious, too, and the interviews grew shorter. If his winning streak continues, there’s a chance I’d caught him at just the right moment, at a turning point in a career that would put him squarely in the category of late bloomers; a moment wherein he could still be open and vulnerable and reflective on all that had gone either wrong or right. And so, we come to the same question again: has Matej Mohorič finally, finally come into his own?

Perhaps he’s always simply been himself, wherever it is that takes him.

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