Tadej Pogačar awoke in Paris on Monday as the 2020 Tour de France winner and also celebrated his 22nd birthday with his girlfriend and parents after a night of celebration with his UAE Team Emirates team at a small Parisen pizza restaurant. In just 48 hours Pogačar’s life has changed dramatically.
He had pulled off one of the biggest surprises in the history of the Tour de France, beating fellow Slovakian Primož Roglič after the Jumbo-Visma team dominated the race and thought they had victory assured. It was an incredible end to a race that many thought would never even reach Paris.
French sports newspaper L’Equipe describe Pogačar as ‘Jeune et Insouciant’ – Young and Carefree, in its opening headline of its Tour de France coverage, referencing the title of a biography of Laurent Fignon, who won was the last rider to win his debut Tour in 1983 when he was just 22.
Pogačar is just the 12th rider to win the yellow jersey on his debut and is the youngest winner since Henri Cornet back in 1904. He travelled to his home in Monaco on Monday afternoon, still in shock.
“Le Tour is a dream of every young cyclist and I won it yesterday!” he wrote in an Instagram post with a selection of photographs from the final stage in Paris.
“I can’t describe how thankful I am for ALL the people involved in any matter!! Standing on the top step of the podium on Champs Élysées with a legend Richie Porte and Primoz Roglic, who has been such an inspiration to me in the past few years and to all the world, Thank you EVERYONE. This is just unbelievable for me.”
“I still don’t know where I am. It’s crazy,” Pogačar admitted to L’Equipe in an exclusive interview published on Monday.
“Before the time trial, I thought I was going to finish second and I was happy with that result and the best young rider jersey. The night before, in the parking lot, I’d watched the mechanics prepare a special white bike for me to arrive on the Champs-Élysées. But then the time trial turned everything in my life upside down, and everything is still upside down inside me.
“I think the secret of my success is that I started without believing for a single moment that I could win. I was free spirit, I didn’t even have a power meter.”
Pogačar was considered a talented young rider and an outsider for the Tour de France but seemed to have succumbed to Roglič and Jumbo-Visma’s dominance. However, his friendly nature disguised his burning ambition. He was described as the Little Prince. Roglič’s younger brother and his understudy. He seemed destined to win the Tour de France one day but not in 2020.
Roglič accepted defeat gracefully, revealing his true character in defeat. Pogačar was also graceful and almost embarrassed to have snatched the yellow jersey from Roglič in the final time trial, just 24 hours before the ride into Paris. They spoke and hugged on the ride into Paris and Roglič even searched out Pogačar as they crossed the finish line on the Champs-Élysées.
“Primož was so dignified. He seemed to be taking defeat well. He was the best the whole Tour and then he just had a bad day,” Pogačar said.
“I’m sorry for him but that’s sport. We want to win, we give everything and, unfortunately, he lost the jersey and I’m the one who has it, even though he’s one of the greatest riders of the last three years.
“When Primož joined Jumbo-Visma, I was seventeen and I admired him. I’ve since had the chance to train with him from time to time and then to race against him. And now I’ve beat him … I beat him in the greatest race that exists. It seems so weird.
“Of course, we will continue to ride together sometimes but I imagine it will be very difficult for him to get over. The Jumbo-Visma team had done everything to win the Tour. It’ll be hard for them to accept defeat but Primož is a champion, he will pick himself up and set himself a new challenge.”
Pogačar suggested that Roglič and Jumbo-Visma perhaps underestimated him, especially after he lost 1:21 in the crosswind attacks during stage 7 to Lavaur.
“When I lost time in the echelons, I think the Jumbo-Visma stopped focusing on me and so I was able to attack and regain time in the Pyrenees. But absolutely everyone was convinced that 57 seconds before the time trial would be enough for Primož Roglič to win,” he said
Pogacar’s aggression in the Pyrenees and his refusal to accept defeat helped him overcome his time losses. He pulled back 40 seconds on stage 8 to Loudenvielle and also picked up 33 bonus seconds during the vital mountain stages.
He also attacked the final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, racing on instinct after his bike change, rather than reading his power data. Pogačar has always had to attack if he wanted to be bigger and better rivals.
“Until I was a junior I was much smaller than my opponents because I developed late. The races were short and intense and so to have a chance of winning, I had to go on the attack all the time. But I almost always failed!” he explained.
“I didn’t have enough strength for the sprints. It was frustrating but I know now that it gave me a lot of mental strength. I never think of giving up, I insist until it works out. That has helped me a lot and it also developed my mental focus and concentration.
“I love to race that way. For me it’s the best way to win.”
L’Equipe profiled the group of UAE Team Emirates managers and directeur sportif that worked with him at the Tour de France, recalling the doping cases at Saunier Duval when team manager Mauro Gianetti and directeur sportif Joxean Matxin were involved in the team that include Riccardo Ricco’.
Pogačar was discovered by Andrej Hauptman, who raced with Vini Caldirola, Tacconi, Lampre and Fassa Bortolo between 1999 and 2005. He is now the Slovenian national coach as well as as directeur sportif at UAE Team Emirates.
When asked about their past, Pogačar insisted his conscience is clear.
“I’m too young to remember that time, I was ten in 2008, and it seems bizarre to me to talk about it because it goes against everything I believe in,” Pogačar said.
“I know that doping puts athletes’ health in danger, I’ve always been aware of this. I’d say that we’ve nothing to hide and I think that cycling, despite this climate of suspicion, is a sport that does a lot against doping. It saddens me that people might doubt my performances. My only defense is to have a clear conscience.”
Many have predicted Pogačar’s life will never be the same again, even if he appears grounded and intelligent despite his young age.
He is not expected to ride another Grand Tour this season but will target the Classics in October, including the Tour of Flanders.
Before a trip to Belgium for a taste of Flemish racing, he will travel to Imola in Italy this week for the World Championships, riding Sunday’s road race.
A week of celebrations may affect his form but just like at the Tour de France, he should not be ignored.
“I don’t know the parcours yet but they say it’s going to be really hard and I like this kind of parcours. It’s also going to be long, so it will be a really hard race for sure. I hope for the best,” he said, confirming his presence in Imola.
“We’ve got a really strong team with Slovenian, so we’ll see what our chances will be in this tough race.”