Pogačar entered the race as an unknown to all but his squad, which instead of making him do traditional time as a rookie pro, keeping tempo at the front of the bunch or collecting bottles, assigned him as leader here.
“I surprised myself a bit that I took the overall win but I’m really happy,” said Pogačar in a post-race press conference at Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena.
The victory came just four months after the 20-year-old made his WorldTour debut at the Tour Down Under and less than 12 months after he won the ‘baby’ version of the Tour de France, the Tour de l’Avenir.
“When I was in Australia, I realised a bit more of his character and realised we had a gem there,” UAE Emirates sports director Neil Stephens told Cycling Central.
“Up until now he’s been racing not as the leader, he’s been racing as the last man because of his talent, his climbing and his abilities. He’s earned himself the role of being leader.
“The way he defended the Tour de l’Avenir lead when his teammates weren’t there anymore, he calmly took it on and did it himself. It was a little bit like [Peter] Sagan when he’s in the classics and loses all of his support riders, then he just attacks.
“His mentality is a great thing.”
Pogačar competed at the Tour Down Under, Volta ao Algarve, which he won, the Tour of the Basque Country and dabbled in the Ardennes Classics en route to California – collectively races that typically belong to Grand Tour contenders.
“If he has to ride for someone he’ll ride. He ran 13th in Australia and he helped [Diego] Ulissi. He ran fifth [sixth –ed.] in the Tour of Basque Country, but helped Dan Martin run second,” said Stephens.
“He was a little bit nervous because he was for the first time the leader of a team here, but he didn’t worry about it and took it in his stride. He’s so calm and relaxed. He was just doing what we knew he could do.”
The Slovenian’s title triumph was all but sealed on Stage 6 when he beat some of the best climbers in the WorldTour, Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and a packed EF Education First team, to take line honours on the notorious Mt Baldy summit finish and the yellow jersey with it. That was despite being one man down for the queen stage after teammate Kristijan Durasek was suspended and left the race upon news of his alleged involvement in Operation Aderlass.
“His team did a great job, his last man left him with 6km to go and he then looked after it on his own,” Stephens recalled of the decisive climb.
“He doesn’t talk, which is a bit frustrating sometimes, but he says what he feels. I knew what he was doing, I reminded him to ride his own race and it came out well.”
Pogačar was asked about his Grand Tour ambitions following his triumph in California, but he inadvertently reminded everyone of his tender age and comparative inexperience saying his ‘home’ race, the Tour of Slovenia, was the next big objective for him.
“For sure the Tour of Slovenia this year is really important for me, but for the future I hope I can do really good on Grand Tours,” Pogačar said.
“I must say when you see more experienced riders dropped, it gives you more motivation and it’s just really exciting when you’re battling for the win,” he modestly added.
Stephens said Pogačar’s race program this season won’t be changed or elevated despite the success here in America.
“He’s doing one of the Hammer Series races, Slovenia after that and then he’s having a break,” he said. “We’ve already started to talk about which Grand Tour he’ll do in the future. We’ve got to work out what his and our interests are and physiologically what suits him.”