Tadej Pogacar has been front and centre for the meteoric rise of UAE Team Emirates.
When the Slovenian joined the UCI World Tour outfit as a hopeful 20-year-old in 2019, UAE Team Emirates had only been in existence for two years and was still finding its feet on the professional cycling circuit. There had been some moderate success that showed the team trending in the right direction but they were yet to be serious contenders at the biggest races.
From the outset, however, the ambitions were clear and bold: to win Grand Tour titles and become the best team in the world.
The team, led by president Matar Suhail Al Yabhouni Al Dhaheri and CEO Mauro Gianetti, placed an emphasis on recruiting exciting young talent to build for a long-term and sustainable future. One of those young riders was Pogacar. It was talent spotting of the highest order.
Pogacar, now 25, is far and away the best road cyclist in the world. Despite having to settle for runner-up at the Tour de France for a second straight year, it has been another historic individual season with a stunning 17 victories, including record-setting results in the prestigious Classic and Monument races.
Beyond the personal highlights though, Pogacar has significantly contributed to helping UAE Team Emirates achieve two major goals: after completing the Grand Tour target with Pogacar's Tour de France triumphs in 2020 and 2021, UAE Team Emirates ended the 2023 UCI World Tour season at the top of the rankings for the first time.
In all, the team claimed 57 victories this year, plus another 138 podium places, to usurp Team Jumbo Visma as the No 1-ranked team in road cycling.
"When I came five years ago, we were sitting in one conference room in a hotel and the bosses were saying, ‘We want to be the best team’, and at that time, I thought it was impossible," Pogacar told The National at a ceremony at Abu Dhabi Sports Council headquarters to celebrate the team's achievement.
"But they believed we could do it. We worked towards this goal and achieved it quite early. I’m really proud to be part of it and I saw such an improvement from year to year.
"They invested in younger riders and I was one of them. They saw potential in me and straight away, the first year, we started winning. We made a plan to build the team around those results and to grow in this direction."
Pogacar may be responsible for his fair share of the wins and points that led UAE Team Emirates to top the standings, but the team's success has unquestionably been collective. Among the many highlights, there were the five victories by Adam Yates in his debut season, including the opening stage of the Tour de France en route to a podium finish; Joao Almeida's heroics at the Giro d'Italia, where he earned the white jersey for leading young rider; and National Championship titles for Brandon McNulty (USA), Marc Hirschi (Portugal), Ivo Oliveira (Portugal), Almeida (Portugal), and, of course, Pogacar (Slovenia).
"I think this year was the hardest year to achieve the No 1 ranking in the World Tour because there were still some doubts that maybe it was too soon," Pogacar said. "Now we achieved it, next year we can focus more on staying No 1, because we already know how to achieve it, and we know that we are capable of doing it."
While UAE Team Emirates are getting used to being at the top of the rankings, it's become customary for Pogacar, who topped the individual standings for a third straight season.
Much of the focus from casual cycling fans may be on his heartbreaking near miss at the Tour de France, which came after an untimely wrist injury six weeks before the race – "a big setback", Pogacar said – but over the course of the year, he proved himself once again head and shoulders above the competition.
Still, like the ambitions of UAE Team Emirates, Pogacar is in no mood to stand still as he chases more titles and records.
"Based on the records and the results I would say it was one of the greatest seasons, but it’s not always the best season if you have the most wins – it’s how you manage to get through the season," he said.
"This season had some ups and downs, and also some injury. It was one of the toughest seasons I had so far but I still managed to achieve some great results. Now I am planning to have an even better season next year."