An Australian duo have played a key role in the development of Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar, riding and sponsoring the Slovenian star on Continental squad Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum just a two years ahead of his Tour de France success. Aside from UAE Team Emirates director Allan Peiper, they're the Aussies with the biggest connection to the Slovenian prodigy.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

23 Sep 2020 - 9:53 AM 
Riding around the Eastern European and Italian circuits is not the most glamourous of cycling destinations for Australian aspiring cyclists. Girona, Spain and Monaco, France are favoured by most of the professionals, while there’s a travelling band of riders looking for professional contracts that base themselves for a stint in Belgium and France each year.

That wasn’t the case for Ben Hill and Timmy Guy, who spent their 2018 riding with Slovenian Continental squad Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum alongside the youngest ever Tour de France winner since 1904, Tadej Pogačar.

Pogačar wins Tour de France
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) won the Tour de France on the eve of his 22nd birthday, finishing the traditional final stage on the Champs-Élysées within the main bunch and securing the win.
Pogačar produces legendary performance to seize Tour de France yellow jersey
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) produced one of the greatest time trial performances in Tour de France history, overhauling a 57-second gap to previous race leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) to take the stage win, the mountains jersey and the ultimate prize, the yellow jersey.

Hill was one of the go-to riders of the squad, an attacking rider who found himself in a lot of breakaways, and spent a lot of time riding with the young Slovenian phenom. Hill had a big smile watching from home in Canberra as Pogačar pulled off one of the greatest time-trial coups in Tour de France history as he out-duelled Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) for yellow.

“I definitely didn’t rule out that he could win the Tour de France, but it does surprise me that it’s come so quickly,” said Hill. “I saw a lot of special things from him that indicated that he had big stage race-winning ability.

“I’ve never met anyone who’s won the Tour de France, known what it’s required. It’s cool to realise that what I saw in him is what it requires.”

That prompts the question of what is necessary in a rider’s makeup at that developmental stage to become the youngest Tour winner in living memory.

“The first time was probably Stage 5 of Tour of Croatia,” said Hill. “It had been a really hard Tour and it was the queen stage of the race. There were a few World Tour teams there and a five-rider break had gone away on the HC (hors categorie) climb and come down. There were 50 riders left in the group, I was absolutely on my hands and knees to make it back to the bunch.

“I led him into the next climb, made it about 100 metres up the climb myself and he just took off, rode away from the favourites from the bunch, get fifth on the stage, not quite catching the break. For the last 20 minutes of that final climb he did what was then his best 20-minute power. I was like ‘that’s when you do your best power?’.

“Everyone else does it fresh, tapered, ready for their 20-minute test and he does it at the end of a really hard stage.”

“I just thought, he never gets tired, that’s the ability. The 20 minutes itself wasn’t that special, but it was to do it in that state of fatigue, that was the X-factor.”

Pogačar’s showing at the Tour de France seems to confirm that. His Stage 20 time-trial finished with a sensational performance on the Planche des Belles Filles, and if somebody told you that was his best ever 20-minute power, that would be believable, despite it coming at the end of the hardest race in the world. We won’t know, as Pogačar rode the climb without a computer or power meter, relying on his determination and feel for his own body to carry him through, as he completely emptied himself coming into the finish.

“He would win a lot of races we did… or die trying,” said Hill. It was very motivating for us to have someone who could consistently perform at a high level. We were very confident having him there.”

Pogačar’s Tour de France winning performance on Stage 20

Tim Guy’s relationship with Pogačar was as much off the bike as on, a key part of forming the team that allowed the Tour de France winner to soar to such heights early in his career. Guy had been discussing scouting around for sponsors for the ROG-Ljubljana team, which would allow him and Hill to join as riders and the squad to race a more extensive program. Overseas sponsorship was crucial so that Slovenian government money could also be sourced.

For Guy, it prompted an unlikely mixture of his two passions, cycling and spreading awareness and understanding of mental health issues, problems that he himself struggles with.

“We were both trying to find sponsors and find these connections and I’d recently started HeadCrack with a mate,” said Guy. “It’s a platform to talk about our honest experiences with mental health, anxiety and depression.

“I woke up one morning and I had a hat on the end of my bed with HeadCrack on it and I thought ‘stuff it, what if HeadCrack’s the sponsor?’. We put a bit of money forward and it was enough to get the ball rolling.”

It meant Guy was a rider and sponsor for the squad, a situation that enabled him to get the message out about mental health through the cycling media in Slovenia, a country that had one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe. For Pogačar it opened up a much more extensive race program.

“With Tomaz (Poljanec team director), we had the connections to get into some big races,” said Guy, “we did Tour of Croatia - Nibali had won it the year before- and the Tour of Slovenia.”

“There were a number of those stage and one-day races that Tadej got to race throughout the year and he got more race days and opportunities than he would have if got straight onto a WorldTour team where he would have been working for someone else. We were able to target programs that meant that he could target big goals like the Tour de l’Avenir and do as many race days as possible around that.

“He could handle the race days, we gave him breaks when he needed it, but I think he did 60+ race days that 2018 year (Ed- Pogačar did 55 days UCI-level racing, in addition to local races).

“He definitely would have been able to win the Tour de France in the future, but I think that program is definitely the reason that he was able to do it so young. A lot of people are saying that Pogačar is coming out of nowhere, but he’s had that base with us, a number of years building his workload and racing, being a leader from a young age.”

While it might seem a long way from Guy’s current job teaching physical education in New South Wales schools to the top of the podium in the Tour de France, there’s now this connection that can never be broken, forged out of his own battles with mental illness and desire to grab opportunities in life despite the obstacles.

“I’ve got a signed Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum jersey sitting at home and it’s cool to see this signed jersey with HeadCrack on the shoulders,” said Guy. “It started out as sharing personal stories about mental health and now it has this connection with a Tour de France winner. That’s pretty cool.”

“There’s some great stories that have come out of that, Ben Hill riding alongside Tadej and wearing the leader’s jersey at the Tour of Slovenia, the nice Australian connections to the country and Tadej himself. It’s nice to be sitting here now and thinking that seven years ago I wasn’t able to get on a bike and now I’ve got all these special connections.”

For Hill, there's one big relic of his time in Slovenia that's still relevant, he currently holds bragging rights over his younger Slovenian friend. 

“There’s a local climb that all the young Slovenians from the club that we rode for test themselves from," said Hill. "He battles with Roglic for the Strava record on the biggest KOM, but I’ve got his record on this one-kilometre climb. I’m just waiting for him to try and reclaim that!"