8:10 am, June 21, 2022
At the 80th kilometer of the 4th stage of the Tour of Slovenia, Tadej Pogacar found himself on conquered ground on Saturday. The village of Komenda, 6,000 inhabitants at the foot of the Kamnic Alps, was crossed with a few pedal strokes. This is where the later champion rode his first racing bike at the age of 9. On the way to Cerklje you can see the rounded peak of Krvavec at 1,850 meters above sea level. “The first time I accompanied him with his brother Tilan, but they were already traveling too fast”, smiles Marjeta Pogacar. A few days earlier, the mother of the double yellow jersey had given us an appointment near the roundabout at the Hohe Linde. Asked for “around the world”She had accepted an exception to tell her Tadej in French, the language she teaches in high school.
“The fact that we doubt your child is terrible”
She quickly tackled the tiresome subject herself: doping. Marjeta Pogacar felt ” insulted “ from the aggressive questions put to her son after his coup d’état on the Planche des Belles Filles the day before the 2020 Tour de France arrived. In a dark room in the town hall, she relives her emotions from that time: “It’s terrible that people doubt your child. We raised him honestly. Doping is the opposite of our upbringing. I’m sure Tadej will never take a banned product. »
But she fears that she will be set in a trap. At Rog Ljubljana, Tadej’s first club, young practitioners sign an anti-doping charter every year. One day the would-be cyclist needed a cream to relieve an allergy. “He said to me, ‘Ask the pharmacist if the product is approved.’ says his mother. She answered me laughing that he would reach the height. » The teenager was aware of the limits and also paid attention to everything he ate.
Sadder for Roglic than euphoric for Pogacar
That probity, Primoz Roglic doubted after Pogacar stole the yellow jersey from him two years ago. “I Can’t Believe”, had hinted at the fallen leader in a documentary on Dutch broadcaster NOS. The whole country was affected by the scenario. “It was incomprehensible even for us,” admits Marjeta Pogacar. This time of 36.2 kilometers, in which the rookie lost 1’56 inches from one of the best riders in the world, was watched by parents at home. Before hopping on a plane on Sunday morning to witness the most breathtaking triumph since Greg LeMond at the expense of Laurent Fignon in 1989. A few hours later, Komenda celebrated in turn “biggest event” Mayor Stanislav Poglajen remembers its recent history.
A dozen witnesses assured us: the Slovenes were more sad for Roglic than euphoric for Pogacar. It was the leader of Jumbo-Visma who popularized cycling. He who won the first Grand Tour by a Slovenian rider, the Vuelta, in 2019. Above all, however, he has become one of the figures in a sport that he only discovered for himself at the age of 23 after a jumping accident. The relationship between the two rivals would be soothed. It even happens that they share a training session or a dinner in Monaco, where they live. “We’re All Good Friends”He downplays Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious), who also lives in the Principality.
The downhill specialist is the third Slovenian cycling champion. At 27, he is the link between Roglic, five years his senior, and Pogacar, four years his junior. Anyway, he opened the road 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 the underdog. “Tadej was really underdeveloped, even smaller and lighter than me, he restores. However, it quickly became clear to us that his climbing skills would attract attention. » 2018 confirmed insight: At the Tour de l’Avenir, a must for future leaders, Pogacar crushes the competition. Stunning progress, as two years earlier he had been overtaken on the podium at the European Junior Championships by two Frenchmen who have since stayed by the side of the road.
Tadej didn’t skip a step. We started to see the result after putting all the pieces together like a puzzle
The man who accompanied this trajectory works near the Sava River, northwest of Ljubljana. In a messy room after a race weekend, Miha Koncilija opens isotonic drinks, pulls out two chairs and rolls out: “Tadej didn’t skip a step. We started to see the result after putting all the pieces together like a puzzle. » The trainer lists: endurance, recovery speed, relaxation, “there is no secret to success, but a thousand small reasons”.
In Yugoslavia, Slovenes were “water carriers”
On Tuesday in Nova Gorica, during the presentation of the Tour of Slovenia, a man kept his eyes on Pogacar. As we approached, he lowered his dark glasses, not his guard. Andrej Hauptmann is the Slovenian national coach. As well as the champion’s mentor since signing their first professional contract with UAE Emirates. He would have discovered it when he was 12. He prefers to talk about a third place in the last junior year, “a week after the end of the school year”. A sign, he said. We won’t find out much more. Runner Hauptman was ruled out of the 2000 Tour de France because of an abnormal hematocrit. Behind its champions, Slovenian cycling lives with another darker reality: several riders and coaches have been suspended as part of Operation Aderlass, a doping scandal uncovered in 2019.
When she first met Hauptman, Marjeta Pogacar had told her that her 15-year-old son was quitting cycling. “Because of doping She remembers. We talked a lot about it back then. » Finally he set off. Like other top athletes, from NBA superstar Luka Doncic to Olympic climbing champion Janja Garnbret. “There is a system behind it”, explains Mojca Doupona, Sports Director 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 executives. “Our children are very motivated because with a population of 2 million, the chance of reaching a national team is higher than anywhere else,” says the officer.
For a long time, cycling lacked practitioners. “I visited dozens of schools, offered tests to children, called the parents of the most promising, but it wasn’t enough,” coach Miha Koncilija rewinds. Pogastar’s victories changed the game. With 150 children aged 7 and over, his school is the first in the country. The cycling association is complaining about 150,000 licensees, and the trend is rising. Partly thanks to the pandemic that has restricted the practice of indoor sports. “It’s a good time to recruit”, he continues. For two years, Pogacar and its sponsors have been providing financial support to the club, which has been renamed “Pogi Team”. Koncilija, twenty years of experience, has another theory: at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Yugoslavia, the Slovenes were “water carrier”. The generations that took up the sport after the war would have been better prepared to shine individually.
“His humility is not feigned”
As a small “cannibal”, Pogacar has already swallowed two cycling monuments (Tour de Lombardie, Liège-Bastogne-Liège). But his relatives assure him: he doesn’t think he’s the boss. “His humility is not played”, swears Pavel Mardonovic, the president of the association. His popularity with fans is a testament. As a private photographer, nobody watches Pogacar better than Alen Milavec. In March he saw the Tifosi in the Strade Bianche “mad about him”like the Belgians who welcomed him to the Tour of Flanders “as if he were one of them”. In France, where there has been a strong culture of distrust since Lance Armstrong, the charm doesn’t quite work.
Back to Komenda. Sitting to the right of his wife, Mirko Pogacar is a man of few words. To express how he felt about his Master Son, he began writing a book. “It would be easier to write about someone else” he says in a thin voice. He grew up “in modesty” from the farm, accustomed “Let others take the lead.” The use of superlatives that nourish sports stories is not a matter of course for him. But he has been asked about Tadej’s childhood so many times that he finds it useful to describe the family environment. 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”.