Defending Tour de France champ is a 22-year-old Slovenian whose freakish physiology and metabolism mean he can recover 3 times as fast as his rivals

Tadej Pogacar racing in a Tour de France time trial in 2020.
‘Tadej, his nature, he’s a beast,’ his coach has said. ‘He’s not afraid of anything.’ Tim de Waele/Getty Images
  • Tadej Pogačar, the world’s best cyclist, is set to defend his Tour title starting on Saturday.
  • He’s only 22 but has already won the biggest races – often ruthlessly.
  • On Friday his coach shed some light on what makes Pogačar so good.
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I once heard that the winner of the Tour de France is the rider who sleeps the best. After all, there are 21 days of racing. The riders cover 161km a day on average. They race hard.

There’s a reason. Nobody uses the Tour as training for another race. Riders use other races to train for the Tour. Ask anyone to name one bike race, and they’ll say the Tour de France. Team bosses want riders to get results. Sponsors want results. Everybody wants results, but only a handful get them.

The three-week race is often won not by minutes but seconds. It’s not enough to be good some days. To win the Tour, you have to be good every day. Have one bad day, and you can lose minutes. So a rider’s recovery is paramount.

Enter Tadej Pogačar, the 22-year-old Slovenian who shocked the cycling world last year to win the greatest race on the second-to-last day with a crushing performance in an uphill time trial.

He climbed so fast he not only won the stage but stole the leader’s yellow jersey from his chief nemesis in one of the biggest upsets in Tour history.

Cyclist Tadej Pogacar at the Tour de France prerace 2021.
Pogačar on Thursday in Brest, France, two days before the start of the 108th Tour and his defense campaign. AP Photo/Daniel Cole

Pogačar, who became the youngest Tour de France winner in modern times, is so good at racing bikes he’s the super favorite to win the Tour again this year.

He’s just barely of legal drinking age, but Pogačar has already won numerous top races, notably Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of California, and Tirreno-Adriatico. Last year’s Tour win was a culmination.

Now people are wondering how many times he can win it.

What, exactly, makes him so good?

I asked his coach, Iñigo San Millán, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He’s an expert in physiology and metabolism. He’s also the director of performance for Pogačar’s UAE-Team Emirates.

He’s tested Pogačar extensively and has helped him improve through specific training protocols.

“The main element is his mitochondrial function, which allows him to improve lactate clearance capacity as well as use both fat and glucose very well,” San Millán told me on Friday.

“Therefore allowing him to be very efficient metabolically speaking and holding high amounts of power output for long periods of time.”

The gist: Pogačar doesn’t go into the red easily or quickly. He can pedal harder for longer.

Tadej Pogacar Tour de France favorite aims to defend title in 2021.

But it’s not just that he’s better than you and me. He’s better than world-class riders. San Millán said it’s Pogačar’s powers of recovery that really make the difference.

“His physiology and metabolism are exceptional and also his recovery capacity,” he said.

“While it may take two to three days for others to recover, it may only take Tadej one day, which usually helps him in long stage races over the rest.” That’s depressing news if you’re a Pogačar rival.

But it’s not just that Pogačar won some “pick the right parents” lottery, which he did. It’s also racecraft and mindset and hard work.

“He reads the race very well,” San Millán said. “His head is really good at being calm and not being overwhelmed or demoralized. He also dials in training and nutrition.”

Winning the Tour is never easy, and there’s strong competition aching to crack the wunderkind in this year’s race, which runs from June 26 to July 18.

Still, Pogačar has returned to France with an even stronger team. He’s the top favorite. And he’s shown he’s tough.

Not long after Pogačar won the Tour last year, San Millán said: “Tadej, his nature, he’s a beast. He’s not afraid of anything, right? If he dies, he will die killing someone – on the bike, right?”