‘I didn’t ex­pect it, no­body did, but I kept sur­pris­ing my­self ev­ery race’

Tadej Po­gacar tells Jon Turner about his stun­ning sea­son at UAE Team Emi­rates

The National - News - - SPORT -

When Tadej Po­gacar signed for UAE Team Emi­rates in Au­gust last year, he was billed as one for the fu­ture. A young cy­clist with tremen­dous po­ten­tial, he had proved his abil­ity at Un­der-23 level and on the sec­ond-tier UCI Con­ti­nen­tal Cir­cuit.

The step up to the UCI World Tour to com­pete against the finest cy­clists in the tough­est races was sup­posed to pro­vide a unique set of chal­lenges which would, un­der­stand­ably, re­quire a pe­riod of ad­just­ment.

In­stead, Po­gacar, who turned 21 in Septem­ber, quickly proved he be­longed at elite level. In Fe­bru­ary, the Slove­nian won his first gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion ti­tle in just his sec­ond start – at the Volta ao Al­garve – and six weeks later claimed his sec­ond youth clas­si­fi­ca­tion ti­tle at the Tour of the Basque Coun­try.

In May, Po­gacar won the Tour of Cal­i­for­nia – a pre-cur­sor to the Tour de France – and he con­tin­ued his re­lent­less form when he was crowned na­tional cham­pion in the in­di­vid­ual time trial in his next race. He then re­turned to his home­land two weeks later to win an­other youth clas­si­fi­ca­tion at the Tour of Slove­nia.

At this stage UAE Team Emi­rates, recog­nis­ing that they had unearthed a star, swiftly moved to tie Po­gacar down to a new four-year con­tract.

Yet, all of Po­gacar’s de­but sea­son achieve­ments pale in com­par­i­son to his first Grand Tour. En­trusted with one of the seats at the Vuelta a Es­pana, Po­gacar de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions to fin­ish third; he won three stages – in­clud­ing a her­culean ef­fort in Stage 20 – and col­lected his fifth youth clas­si­fi­ca­tion award of the year.

To gauge just how im­pres­sive this re­sult is, only the top-and third-ranked cy­clists in the world, Pri­moz Roglic and Ale­jan­dro Valverde, fin­ished ahead of him.

“I did not ex­pect it – I don’t think any­body ex­pected it. I sur­prised my­self al­most ev­ery race,” Po­gacar said when asked to eval­u­ate his sea­son. “It re­ally was amaz­ing, the year I had and the team as well. I hope next year we can have a sim­i­lar year or even bet­ter.”

At the start of the sea­son, Po­gacar didn’t even ex­pect to be in con­tention for a place at one of the grand tours – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta – but ended the year with a podium fin­ish in Spain, while climb­ing 40 places in the world rank­ings to No 13. His re­sults have also helped cat­a­pult UAE Team Emi­rates up nine places to the sixth-best team in the world.

“When I went to the Vuelta I was re­laxed, but then I saw that I was do­ing well after the first week and I can keep up with the best,” he said. “Then in An­dorra, I won the stage and it was a big sur­prise. At that point, I thought I could go for it.

“I just wanted to fin­ish the race in the top places. In Stage 20, there was quite a big move and it moved me in to third place. It was pretty crazy.” Po­gacar at­tributes his im­me­di­ate suc­cess on the World Tour to how quickly he was able to fit in to the UAE Team Emi­rates setup.

For a young man who had raced on the same team his en­tire life, it was more daunt­ing than star­ing down cy­cling’s big­gest stars.

“I was a bit afraid to meet so many new team­mates, be­cause I have only been on one team for 10 years,” he said. “Then you go some­where new and it is a bit fright­en­ing.

“But they ac­cepted me re­ally quickly and we are all good friends, we work to­gether re­ally well, and that helped me a lot to over­come all the chal­lenges. But it was a big step from Un­der-23 rac­ing to be here now.”

It is a big step Po­go­car has taken in his stride, and while he is en­joy­ing some down­time, in­clud­ing a visit to Al Rabeeh School in Abu Dhabi where he helped out at a youth academy on Sun­day, it will soon be time to eval­u­ate op­tions for 2020.

“Next sea­son is quite heavy be­cause of the Olympics, the Euro­pean Games, and the World Cham­pi­onships,” he said. “Ev­ery race on pro­file suits me, so I will need to de­cide which races to com­pete in.”

What­ever the new sea­son has in store, Po­gacar be­lieves a new era for cy­cling is un­der­way, led by an ex­cit­ing crop of young tal­ent, in­clud­ing Tour de France cham­pion Egan Ber­nal.

“A lot of new names will be on the big­gest podi­ums in the next five years,” Po­gacar said. “Now is the time for the next gen­er­a­tion.”

UAE Team Emi­rates; AFP

Tadej Po­gacar cel­e­brates after win­ning Stage 9 at this year’s Vuelta a Es­pagna while, be­low, sec­ond right, pic­tured yes­ter­day along­side his UAE Team Emi­rates team­mates at Al Rabeeh School in Abu Dhabi

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.