This has been one of the best weeks of my life and I still can’t quite believe it! I won a stage at the Vuelta a Espana - wearing UAE colours - and I am still buzzing.
This time a year ago everything was so different. I was still racing with the Under-23s and my biggest achievement had been winning the Tour de l’Avenir – a 10-day stage race for U23 riders.
The race is always seen as a good indicator of a rider’s potential. In 2017, Egan Bernal stood on the top step, and over the years the title has been claimed by riders who have gone on to become true legends – guys like Miguel Indurain, Laurent Fignon and Greg Lamond. So I guess by winning it I was in good company.
Looking back, I think that result was the first time the wider cycling community and the media had really noticed me, or at least started talking about me as being a future talent on the World Tour. However UAE Team Emirates had spotted me much earlier in my career.
I am Slovenian and where I come from, football is the No 1 sport. Cycling is not so big. I got into road racing through my older brother, Tilen, when I was about 10. I was a typical younger brother, always wanting to do what he did. Always wanting to beat him! On my first race I thought I might, but I came 40th out of 40 people. Not such a good start!
A lot of kids might have quit then and there, but not me. I was too determined and 12 months later I found myself on the podium after coming second in a junior race that finished under Tivoli Castle in Slovenia.
That was a turning point for me. I managed to catch the eye of Andrej Hauptmann, a Slovenian ex-pro, who agreed to become my team manager when I was a rookie. I also met Marko Polanc, who is [UAE teammate] Jan Polanc’s father and was Jan’s sports director, too, when he was in the youth category.
Over time Jan and I became really good friends and we started training together. Not many youngsters get the opportunity to train with a pro, so I felt extremely lucky.
Through Marko and Jan I learned a lot about UAE Team Emirates, its development program, its ambitions and also the project it is working on in the UAE to inspire a new generation of local cyclists.
Coming from a country like Slovenia, where I see cycling’s importance increasing year on year, I understand the value of this project and wanted to be a part of it.
Fast forward until this season and I couldn’t be happier with my development. The team put its faith in me and I am glad that I was able to repay them with stage victories and overall classification wins at the Volta ao Algarve and the Tour of California.
And of course on Monday I hit the peak of my career so far – winning Stage 9 of La Vuelta.
That was a really tough day. Nearly 95 kilometres of constant climbing and sketchy descents. I managed to get in a group with all the main general classification contenders; guys like Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez and Primoz Roglic – who also comes from Slovenia.
Behind-the-scenes at the Vuelta a Espana with UAE Team Emirates
With about 20km to go everyone started attacking on the steep climbs of the Cortals d’Encamp. I didn’t follow the moves. I decided to ride at my pace, do my own thing. I felt strong and there was no pressure on me to win so I stayed within my limits. I am only 20, the youngest rider in the race, so I think the other riders didn’t consider me a major threat.
When we were about half way up the climb, the weather got super bad. Huge hail stones came raining down on us. Honestly, I didn’t mind as I was getting a bit hot on the lower slopes! Because of the weather, the road surface got really bad and then we had a short gravel sector to contend with.
A couple of the riders came off their bikes or lost time and I used it as an opportunity to push on with Quintana. With 3km to go I was on his wheel in third place behind him and his teammate Marc Soler. I could see they were struggling, so I decided to attack. They couldn’t respond, which gave me even more motivation and I rode as hard as I could without blowing up all the way to the top.
I am not sure I have ever crossed the line in weather that bad, but I barely noticed the cold. I had just won a grand tour stage three weeks before my 21st birthday!
It was my first grand tour and I’ve only been a top level pro for nine months so I was so proud with the achievement – and also proud to know that I have added to UAE Team Emirates’ collection of grand tour stage wins which is six now; two from each of the races over the last three years.
My motto is: I am cyclist, I may not be the best, but that is what I strive to be. I may never get there, but I will never quit trying.
I hope I proved that this week and helped to show other young kids in the UAE or Slovenia or wherever, that if they love something, they should peruse it. And never give up.