8:10 AM, June 21, 2022
On Saturday’s 80th kilometer of the 4th stage of the Tour of Slovenia, Tadej Pogacar found himself in conquered territory. The village of Komenda, with 6000 inhabitants huddled at the foot of the Kamnic Alps, was crossed in a few pedal strokes. Here the future champion rode his first racing bike at the age of 9. On the way to Cerklje, one can see the round peak of Krvavec, at 1,850 meters above sea level. “The first time I accompanied him with his brother Tilan, but they went too fast”, laughs Marjeta Pogacar. A few days earlier, the mother of the double yellow jersey had given us an appointment at the roundabout near the high lime tree. requested “around the world”she had accepted an exception to tell her Tadej in French, the language she teaches in high school.
“That we doubt your child, that is terrible”
She soon tackled the annoying topic herself: doping. Marjeta Pogacar felt “offended” due to the aggressive questions posed to her son after his coup in the Planche des Belles Filles, the day before the arrival of the Tour de France 2020. Sitting in a dark room in the town hall, she relives her emotions from then: “That people doubt your child is terrible. We raised him fairly. Doping is the opposite of our upbringing. I’m sure Tadej will never take a banned product. †
But she is afraid that a trap will be set for her. At Rog Ljubljana, Tadej’s first club, young practitioners sign an anti-doping charter every year. One day, the budding cyclist needed a cream to soothe an allergy. “He said to me: ‘Ask the pharmacist if the product is approved’ says his mother. She answered me with a smile that he would reach the heights. † Aware of the limits, the teen was also alert to everything he ingested.
Sadder for Roglic than euphoric for Pogacar
Primoz Roglic doubted this honesty after Pogacar stole the yellow jersey from him two years ago. ” I can not believe “, the fallen leader had implied in a documentary by the Dutch channel NOS. The whole country was affected by the scenario. “Even for us it was quite incomprehensible”, confesses Marjeta Pogacar. This time of 36.2 kilometers where the novice took 1’56” from one of the best riders in the world, the parents watched it at home. Before hopping on a plane on Sunday morning to witness the most stunning triumph since that of Greg LeMond at the expense of Laurent Fignon in 1989. A few hours later, Komenda celebrated in turn “biggest event” of its recent history, remembers the mayor, Stanislav Poglajen.
A dozen witnesses assured us: the Slovenians were more sad for Roglic than euphoric for Pogacar. It was the Jumbo-Visma leader who made cycling popular. He who won the first big round of a Slovenian rider in 2019, the Vuelta. Above all, he has become one of the figures of a sport that he only discovered at the age of 23 after a ski jumping accident. The relationship between the two rivals would be quieted. They may even share a workout or dinner in Monaco, where they live. “We are all good friends”plays Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious), who also lives in the Principality.
This downhill specialist is the third Slovenian cycling champion. At the age of 27, he makes the link between Roglic, five years older, and Pogacar, four younger. Anyway, he opened the way in 2012 with his junior road world title. However, Mohoric does not pose as a rival. Despite two stage wins and a triumph in Milan-Sanremo in March, he always knew he was inferior. “Tadej was really underdeveloped, even smaller and lighter than me, he refunds. However, we soon understood that he would stand out thanks to his climbing skills. † Finding validated in 2018: At the Tour de l’Avenir, a must for future leaders, Pogacar crushes the competition. Dizzying progress as he had been overtaken on the podium at the European Junior Championships two years earlier by two Frenchmen who have been sidelined ever since.
Tadej didn’t skip any steps. We started to see the result after putting all the pieces together, like a puzzle
The man who guided this route works near the Sava River, northwest of Ljubljana. In a messy room after a weekend of racing, Miha Koncilija opens isotonic drinks, takes out two chairs and rolls out: “Tadej didn’t skip a single step. We started to see the result after we put all the pieces together, like a puzzle. † The trainer lists: endurance, speed of recovery, relaxation, “there’s no secret to success, rather a million little reasons”†
In Yugoslavia Slovenians were “water carriers”
On Tuesday in Nova Gorica, during the presentation of the Tour of Slovenia, a man did not take his eyes off Pogacar. We approached, he lowered his dark glasses, not his guard. Andrej Hauptman is the Slovenian national coach. As well as the champion’s mentor since the signing of the first professional contract with UAE Emirates. He would have seen it when he was 12 years old. He’d rather talk about third place in senior junior year, “one week after the end of the school year”† A sign, he said. We won’t learn much more. Runner, Hauptman was deprived of the 2000 Tour de France for an abnormal hematocrit. Behind its champions, Slovenian cycling lives another dark reality: several riders and supervisors were suspended in Operation Aderlass, a doping scandal that came to light in 2019.
The first time she met Hauptman, Marjeta Pogacar had told her that her 15-year-old son would stop cycling. “Because of doping she remembers. We talked a lot about it then. † Finally he has found his way. Just like other top athletes, from NBA superstar Luka Doncic to Olympic climbing champion Janja Garnbret. “There is a system behind it”, explains Mojca Doupona, director of sports at the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport. On the one hand, three physical activities per week for primary and secondary school children; on the other hand, specific training for managers. “Our children are very motivated, because in a population of 2 million, the chance of reaching a national team is greater than elsewhere”, says the official.
For a long time, cycling lacked practitioners. “I visited dozens of schools, offered the kids tests, called the parents of the most promising ones, but that wasn’t enough,” rewinds coach Miha Koncilija. The victories of “Pogastar” changed the game. With 150 children from 7 years old, his school is the first in the country. The Bicycle Federation claims 150,000 licensees and the trend is on the rise. Thanks in part to the pandemic, which has limited the practice of indoor sports. “It’s a good time to recruit”, he continues. For two years, Pogacar and his sponsors financially supported the club, renamed “Pogi team”. Koncilija, twenty years of experience, has a different theory: at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then of Yugoslavia, the Slovenians were “water carriers”† The generations that took up the sport after the war could have done better individually.
“His humility is not feigned”
As a little “cannibal”, Pogacar has already swallowed two cycling monuments (Tour de Lombardie, Liège-Bastogne-Liège). But his relatives assure him: he doesn’t see himself as the boss. “His humility is not feigned”, swears Pavel Mardonovic, the president of the Federation. Its popularity with fans is proof. As a personal photographer, no one observes Pogacar better than Alen Milavec. In March, on the Strade Bianche, he saw the tifosi “crazy about him”like the Belgians, who welcomed him in the Tour of Flanders “as if he were one of them”. In France, where there has been a strong culture of mistrust since Lance Armstrong, the charm doesn’t quite work.
Back to Comenda. Mirko Pogacar sits to the right of his wife and is a man of few words. To express how he feels about his champion son, he started writing a book. “It would be easier to write about someone else”, he says in a thin voice. He grew up “in modesty” from a farm, used to “Let the others lead the way”. The use of superlatives that fuel sports stories does not come naturally to him. But he has been asked so much about Tadej’s childhood that he finds it helpful to describe the family situation. The text will end with the first major victories. Because from the first yellow jersey he almost apologizes, “everyone knows the story practically better than we do”†