As a child, Tadej Pogacar emulated his elder brother Tilen. But when at the age of eight, he tried to join Tilen’s cycling club on the outskirts of Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, there was no bike small enough for him. He is still precocious and, after becoming the youngest Tour de France champion in more than a century, he dreams this summer of grabbing another Tour title, as well as his country’s first Olympic cycling medal in Tokyo, ahead of his great rival and compatriot Primoz Roglic. The pair, almost 10 years apart in age, have sparked a cycling fever in the small Alpine country of two million.
While there are other strong contenders in this year’s Tour, for people at home the battle is again between the two Slovenians.
“After Tadej’s and Primoz’s results last year, our expectations are rather big,” Miha Koncilija, coach at Pogacar’s cycling club, told AFP.
“If they do not come back with a victory, we will be a bit disappointed,” he added.
Yet they took very different journeys to the top.
Pogacar, 22, started young and rose through the cycling ranks. His Tour runner-up Roglic, 31, made a spectacular career change at 18, switching from ski jumping to cycling.
No bike small enough for him
Coach Koncilija spotted Tilen Pogacar as a schoolboy.
“Tilen passed the test and was excellent,” Koncilija recalls.
“Tadej soon wanted to join him.
“We could not get a racing bike with 24-inch (61-centimetres) wheels while those with 28 inches were too big for him,” he adds.
So the younger Pogacar had to wait several months until a bike was found for him.
“It was hard to predict he was going to win the Tour de France, but he was special,” Koncilija says.
“He loved training with his group and quickly showed himself very good on the climbs.”
Mirko Pogacar, Tadej’s father, said cycling was the boy’s “first and ultimate great love”.
Speaking to AFP in his village of Komenda at the foot of the Alps, Mirko said his son was “always among the shortest kids” and so had to fight harder to compete.
“Once he grew up, he became much better than those that had got big earlier,” Mirko said.
When AFP visited his childhood club — where Pogacar is now a sponsor — on a rainy day last month, children were training on indoor cycles, their eyes focused on a big screen showing their idol’s races.
Kristof Kogovsek, coach of the junior team that bears Pogacar’s nickname “Pogi”, confirmed his determination to “fight for the best places”.
“Each year, he progressed a little more,” says Kogovsek, who used to compete with Pogacar.
‘Raised him best we could’
Roglic, on the other hand, devoted his youth to ski jumping until he quit in 2012, a few years after a serious accident, and turned to cycling.
“He worked hard, was very obedient and disciplined, qualities that immediately paid off in cycling,” sports psychologist Matej Tusak, who worked with Roglic before his career change, told AFP during an interview last year.
Roglic’s father, Leopold, says he and his wife “fully supported” the switch.
“Whatever sport he picked, it’s OK. All sports are good as long as you do it,” he told AFP in the family’s home town of Kisovec, known for its old coal mine and the heavy snow in the surrounding hills.
A yellow bike sits at the village entrance in tribute to Roglic, alongside murals showing him and a banner from last year’s Tour, which Roglic led until Pogacar snatched victory on penultimate stage.
“I’m very proud he can win but also knows how to lose. Some are not good at losing,” says the elder Roglic, sporting a branded black cap and sweater with his son’s initials.
“My wife and I raised him the best we could and maybe that’s the result.”Despite Roglic’s age, Leopold says his son, is “certainly stronger than last year”.
For his part, coach Kogovsek predicts a “ruthless fight” between Roglic and Pogacar during the Tour, which starts on Saturday.
“There will not be a single second without a fight… it will be 100 percent interesting!” he says.
After winning his home race, the Tour of Slovenia for the first time earlier this month, Pogacar told AFP he expects that returning to the Tour as reigning champion will make it harder than last year.
“It’s going to be a really weird feeling for me, but I think it’s going to be great racing knowing that I’m defending the title,” he said.
RBA/AFP Photos: Bettini