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The Best 21-Year-Old Slovenian Athlete Isn’t Luka Doncic

It’s Tadej Pogacar, the phenom who is taking the cycling world by storm, and may just win the Tour de France in the process

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Ringer, as a media concern, is known for many things: feature writing, TV criticism, polarizing food takes, occasionally waylaying passing pleasure yachts and press ganging their passengers to crew our pirate galleons. The usual.

But among our most celebrated functions is as a clearinghouse for basketball takes. And few current NBA players, if any, are as celebrated as Luka Doncic. Doncic, to the uninitiated, is a cherubic 21-year-old Slovenian guard for the Dallas Mavericks. He won NBA Rookie of the Year in the 2018-19 season and very nearly averaged a triple-double in 2019-20. Doncic is an undeniably exciting player, a willing outside shooter and audacious passer who’s not only capable of putting up 43 points, 17 rebounds, and 13 assists in a playoff game—which he actually did against the Clippers last month—but doing so with a panache and joie de vivre that recalls Meadowlark Lemon pulling down an opponent’s pants.

The Ringer so admires the young Dallas star that our in-house music composition arm, Ice2Ice, even created an anthem in his honor: the chart-topping 2018 crossover hit, “Halleluka.”

But what if I told you … [pulls sunglasses down bridge of nose] … that Luka Doncic is not the best male 21-year-old Slovenian athlete going right now? That the true breakout hero of Slovenia is a man about half Doncic’s size, who is currently making his way up a remote Alpine road on a bicycle?

Friends, this is Tadej Pogacar, the Luka Doncic of cycling.

Pogacar has been an up-and-coming name on the cycling circuit for a few years now. In 2018, as a teenager competing in cycling’s second division, Pogacar won the Tour de l’Avenir, the de facto junior Tour de France. A year later, he debuted on the UCI World Tour, the highest level of men’s road cycling, with Team UAE Emirates. In May, he took a general classification win at the Tour of California, then in September followed it up by winning three stages at the Vuelta a Espana and finishing third. In doing so, Pogacar became one of the 10 youngest podium finishers in the century-long history of grand tour racing.

This is not merely a path to superstardom, it’s the path to superstardom. In 2017, a 20-year-old Colombian named Egan Bernal won the Tour de l’Avenir. The following summer, he won the Tour of California and impressed in his debut grand tour appearance, in which he helped teammate Geraint Thomas to overall victory. And in 2019, Bernal won La Grande Boucle itself, sneaking past Thomas and wearing the yellow jersey into Paris.

Pogacar could very well do the same this year. With four competitive stages left in the Tour, Pogacar sits in second place, 40 seconds behind race favorite and fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic in the general classification. On Stage 9, Pogacar made it through a rolling, mountainous course with the leaders, then out-sprinted Bernal, Roglic, and rising Swiss star Marc Hirschi to become the youngest Tour de France stage winner since Lance Armstrong in 1993. On Stage 15, a climb up the Col du Grand Colombier, Pogacar likewise burst out to beat Roglic to the summit.

These attacks are characteristic of Pogacar, and part of what makes him such an exciting rider to watch. Where Bernal is at his best grinding opponents to dust over long climbs, leaving a trail of gasping, defeated men in his wake, Pogacar is a slightly bigger, more powerful rider. (Only in the warped world of cycling is 5-foot-9 and 146 pounds considered “bigger.”) Grand tour contenders usually try to weigh as little as possible, as 10 extra pounds of muscle might as well be 10 pounds of sand when pedaling up a mile in vertical elevation. But Pogacar is not only able to hold serve against the best climbers in the world, he can out-drag his rivals to the line in a sprint and produce an explosive attack off the front of the group with miles left to go.

This year’s Tour will likely be decided between Wednesday’s climb to the Col de la Loze, the highest summit in the race, and Saturday’s individual time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles, the climb on which four-time Tour winner Chris Froome announced himself as a grand tour contender in 2012. And unlike last year’s race, which was one of the most chaotic of the 21st century, this is pretty much a two-man competition now.

Bernal’s team, Ineos Grenadiers, has in some form or other won seven of the past eight Tours de France, but has all but no-showed in 2020. Bernal himself lost seven minutes to the Slovenians on Stage 15, knocking him out of contention just as the race was heating up. Third-place Rigoberto Uran, riding for American team EF Pro Cycling, has finished second in three grand tours and is a good enough time trialist to hold his own in Stage 20, but can’t keep up with Pogacar and Roglic at their best in the mountains. With the possible exception of sixth-place Richie Porte, who stayed with the Slovenians on the Grand Colombier and is racing his best Tour in years, everyone else is too far behind or not good enough against the clock to threaten Pogacar and Roglic.

The way Pogacar is riding right now, it would take an absolutely imperious opponent to hold him off. But that’s precisely what Roglic represents. Roglic, a 30-year-old former world junior ski jump champion, is distinguished from his competitors by his goatee, tattoos, and impenetrable poker face. With his win on Stage 4, Roglic has now won at least one stage in every grand tour he’s entered—a combination of time trial wins, daring solo breakaways, and hair-raising descents. It was Roglic who beat Pogacar to overall victory in last year’s Vuelta.

Roglic is the best all-around rider in the world, one of the best time trialists in the peloton, and an excellent sprinter for a grand tour contender. Even with Bernal in the peloton, Roglic entered this year’s Tour as the heavy favorite, backed by one of the best supporting casts ever assembled.

Every dominant Tour de France team of the past 25 years has operated what’s known as a “train.” One dominant leader is surrounded by a multitude of support riders who sit at the front of the peloton and drive the bunch at such a fast pace that it’s incredibly difficult for individuals to gain time on an attack. That’s how Lance Armstrong won his seven Tour titles, and Ineos Grenadiers won their seven titles in eight years.

Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma teammates, working in concert, are just as impressive as their leader. Veteran road captain Tony Martin, former Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin, and former Tour of California champions George Bennett and Robert Gesink were all household names in the cycling world before this season, and Jumbo-Visma also has two of this season’s breakout stars.

Former cyclocross ace Wout van Aert won the prestigious Italian one-day races Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo last month, and in between pulling Roglic across hilly terrain, he’s found time to win two sprint stages for himself in this year’s Tour. And Roglic’s closest helper on tough climbs is 26-year-old American Sepp Kuss, who’s emerged as one of the most explosive climbers on the planet. Last year, while helping Roglic to victory in the Vuelta, he took off to win a stage on his own and slowed down to high-five spectators on the way to the finish.

Roglic has not yet been dropped on a climb at this year’s tour, but that’s not to say he hasn’t been attacked. The only problem for his opponents is that at least one of Kuss or Dumoulin has hung around to the end of every climb, which means that if Pogacar (or Uran or Lopez or former yellow jersey wearer Adam Yates) attacks, Roglic can have a teammate pace him back to the head of the race without expending much energy at all.

Pogacar, by contrast, has climbed up to second place in the race with very little help from his team. UAE Team Emirates was set up for a dual-leader strategy with Pogacar and Fabio Aru, a former Vuelta winner who’s battled illness in recent years and abandoned this year’s race on Stage 9. Jumbo-Visma’s train strategy is designed to isolate the other contenders, and sure enough, by the time van Aert hands off to Dumoulin or Bennett, Pogacar is usually alone—but he’s always been able to hang on.

Based on the events of the past two weeks, the race will be decided on the Stage 20 time trial, which includes 30 kilometers of flat-to-rolling terrain at the start, followed by a six-kilometer stretch that goes up 500 meters in elevation. On a flat course, Roglic would usually be the heavy favorite, but this year’s Slovenian national time trial championship featured similar terrain, and Pogacar beat Roglic by nine seconds on a course less than half as long as the Tour de France time trial. If Pogacar keeps the gap where it is until Saturday, he’ll have a chance to pull off a huge upset.

Not just a huge upset, but the biggest sporting achievement by any young Slovenian this year. Surely that’d be an occasion worthy of celebrating in song.