Pressure. The action of continuous physical force exerted on or against an object. The use of persuasion or intimidation to make someone do something.
You need to have buckets of the first to win the Tour de France, stamping on the pedals against the gradient harder than any of your competitors. That’s the simple part, relatively speaking. But pressure, the type others put on you or you put on yourself. That can’t be calculated using a power meter.
We’ve seen Tom Dumoulin succumb to it last week, the Giro d’Italia winner and Tour nearly man opening up about the struggles of the peculiar life that he’s chosen for himself, widening the definition of champion beyond just crossing the line first.
Winning the Tour means you transcend the sport. Your life changed forever. The pressure applied to propel yourself towards this lofty goal is fickle, it will soon turn on you. People in the street will stop you for pictures, the photos of you in yellow on the front of newspapers soon melt down into questions of whether you can do it again? The first triumph, already forgotten.
Only Chris Froome has successfully defended his Tour de France title since the turn of the millennium, which is because, and we’re sure he won’t mind us saying, he is a freak. Freakish in what he can do physically on a bike, in his terminally sunny disposition with the press, his determination to come back from serious injury to win again, to suffer the indignity of TV cameras locked on as he drops off the peloton in nearly every single race during his comeback season.
When grown men with families have this scrutiny thrust upon them, you accept it. They have chosen this life. But with the current precocious crop of boy wonders winning the biggest bike races, you begin to wish they had a bit longer before it all hit them. Like a less-travelled holiday destination yet to be sullied by global tourism.
Egan Bernal became Colombia’s first yellow jersey winner in 2019, and who’s to say how much of his back trouble the proceeding year was caused by the weight of expectation from home fans. Meanwhile Remco Evenepoel was already talking about the struggles of having to deal with the limelight and Merckx comparisons at the age of 19, before you needed more than one hand to count his professional victories.
Tadej Pogačar, on the other hand, is from Slovenia. A tiny country of just over two million people but also the perfect place to be a bike rider. Within two hours you can be in the Alps or taking in the sun along the coast. After shocking the world with his stage 20 time trial victory, he goes through television interviews, doping control, podium duties, then is quickly whisked down La Planche des Belles Filles to talk to even more reporters, who ask the new yellow jersey in as many words: “who the hell are you?”
“I’m just a kid from Slovenia,” Pogačar replies. “I have two sisters, one brother. I don’t know what to say…I like to have fun? I like to enjoy life, the little things. So this press conference is too big for me. I don’t know what to say about me, actually.”
As the then 21-year-old emerged as a contender in the latter half of the race, those inside the team bus say you’d barely have known it by looking at him. Laid back, without stress, calling his girlfriend, fellow pro, Team BikeExchange’s Urška Zigart, after the stage to let her know he was okay.
Even after stage 17’s murderous Col de La Loze, where he lost 15 seconds to Primož Roglič, he was okay with admitting the race “really seemed finished”, finding himself nearly a minute back on his compatriot and content with second place at his debut Tour de France, his second-ever Grand Tour. Of course, things didn’t end that way.
Exactly one year before the time trial performance that changed everything, Pogačar was in Leeds, meeting Sean McNicholl, who would drive the car behind him as he reconned the Yorkshire course for the Worlds road race the next week. Two days later it was his birthday, with the Slovenia team and staff enjoying cake in the hotel with their meal that night. One year on, that gift was blown out of the water by a well-earned yellow jersey the night before he turned 22.
“I first heard his name in 2017, and that was at the Rás in Ireland,” McNicholl told Cycling Weekly back in September on the day Pogačar rode into Paris. “He wasn’t there, but his team was there. The two men who were on the team, Andrej Hauptman and Marco Polanc [Jan’s father] came over with this young team, a very good young team, but just not strong enough to do damage in the Rás.
“I can remember Andrej saying to me that they had another rider who should be here but he has to study so he can’t come, and that’s when he mentioned Tadej’s name. He said if [Pogačar] was here he would win this. I remember thinking ‘yeah okay’ but it turns out he was dead right.”
After the Tour, Pogačar rode the Worlds again, riding for his beaten-rival-turned-team-mate Roglič, before a top 10 at Flèche Wallonne and podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Then, it was time for a break. Whisked away for a holiday with Zigart, with everyone told he was uncontactable, no matter the request.
As he left the rest of the world behind, a parting gift of watches for his team-mates was delivered, for their work in delivering him to the Tour podium. Any treats for himself? “A couple of nice dinners with my girlfriend,” Pogačar tells the media in January 2021.
The Slovenian is speaking over Zoom from Dubai, where he has received a coronavirus vaccine and is becoming acquainted with some new additions to the team at their opening training camp of the year.
Since we last saw Pogačar, people want to know how his life has changed, but he says apart from a few more obligations and people stopping him in the street, he still lives much the same life as before.
‘But what about your lifestyle? Have you moved to a bigger apartment?’ asks one reporter who maybe also moonlights as a Monaco realtor.
“No, not planning on moving to a bigger apartment, I’m still 22, I don’t need a big house, I have my girlfriend living with me. We enjoy our small apartment, we don’t need to change anything because we live a very good life there.”
The youth of the Tour champions Bernal and Pogačar is refreshing. They are almost as surprised as we are to find themselves in this position. For the others who have won a yellow jersey in the last 10 years – Evans, Wiggins, Froome, Nibali and Thomas – it’s something they’ve been building towards their whole lives. Bernal and Pogačar’s lives, professionally speaking, have barely begun.
“That is my fear every year, actually, to have bad luck and something happen to me,” Pogačar says when asked whether he ever worries that the disappointing year Bernal suffered after winning the Tour could also befall him. “But, I have the best life in cycling, I think. If I go on besides any bad luck, I hope I will be fine.”
“Well we don’t know,” McNicholl, who has also worked with Benoît Cosnefroy and Søren Kragh Andersen at one point or another, said of how Pogačar will adapt to being a Tour de France winner. “You don’t know how they take it. I think it all depends on how they’re managed. He has good people around him, there’s no way that Hauptman will let it go to his head. His parents would step in and have words with him if he became arrogant or anything like that. Not a lot of them do, but some of them do. I don’t think that would happen with him.
“He also doesn’t realise how special he is as a rider,” McNicholl adds. This humility is what makes it easy to root for him.
Pogačar says, matter of factly, that he will be one of the favourites at the start line of the Tour in Brest this summer, he brushes off the accusations from Jumbo-Visma highlighted in the recent NOS documentary of the unbelievability of his TT ride as “a little bit in the heat of the moment”.
“I guess Tadej hasn’t had the pressure Roglič has had,” McNicholl adds. “It’s normal to him because he’s just around friends and riding his bike. That’s pretty much the way he looks at it.
“He’s just one of the nicest young lads you’ll ever meet. He always makes time for people, always does. He doesn’t know how good he is and pretty much just has a lot of fun.”
What isn’t fun, is having to retell the story of a certain three weeks of your life over and over again.
“Interesting question…” Pogačar says of whether he’s bored of talking about the 2020 Tour de France yet.
“I’m always like that, that we can move forward and not stay in the past. In my mind, I’m already in the next races and I will race them one-by-one. I don’t want to forget about the past, but also I don’t want to think about that all the time.”
It took Roglič a whole Tour de France to prove his humanity, whereas Pogačar’s is the source of what he’s achieved so far, and whatever he goes on to do next.
“I still want to prove myself, there are still a lot of races I can win,” Pogačar finishes. “I will still be super-motivated, but at times I can relax a bit more.”