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.”