When Tadej Pogačar crossed the finish line in Paris as the 2020 champion of the Tour de France, it was a history-making performance. He became the first cyclist in history to win the yellow jersey as the overall champion, the white jersey as the top young rider and the polka dot jersey as the King of the Mountains in the same year.
Pogačar’s physical and mental fortitude served him well in the 21-stage, 2,165-mile event. Yet the ability to reach the top capacity of what his body could do was in the hands of a team led by Íñigo San Millán, research associate professor of human physiology and nutrition in the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and the director of performance for UAE Team Emirates.
San Millán has worked with professional athletes for the last quarter century, and the last two with cyclists with UAE Team Emirates. He joined the team shortly before Pogačar signed as a teenager, and knew the young cyclist was unique after the first physiological test.
“His capacity is unbelievable,” said San Millán. “You need to have great genes to be at that level at that age.” By the time he joined the team, Pogačar had already won some smaller tour races in Europe.
He said that the 22-year-old, who celebrated his birthday the day after becoming the youngest rider since 1904 to win the Tour de France, has the mentality of someone near the end of their career, not the beginning. Pogačar’s mental capacity is among the best that San Millán has seen in his career, if not the best.
“His head is something else. Sometimes it seems like he’s 35 years old,” San Millán said. “He’s very knowledgeable, very calm, very quiet and never gets nervous, which is huge in the sport.”
And in a sport like cycling, while the main results are the individual times for each stage, it takes a team to move those top riders to the front of the group or to mount an attack to separate a rider from the group.
“Pogačar’s very humble, very hard-working, has a great work ethic and is very respectful,” San Millán said.
San Millán’s career in sport performance
The work with Pogačar and Team UAE Emirates in the last two years is part of an overall body of research with the University of Colorado that started at CU Boulder and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, and now has brought San Millán to the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center at UCCS.
He developed a new methodology to measure mitochondrial function and metabolic flexibility – essentially, being able to quickly measure how an athlete uses and produces energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and how they respond to fatigue and recovery. In an athlete like Pogačar, the results greatly exceeded what San Millán saw with other elite athletes, and by extension, his top-level performance had the ability to outperform other top cyclists.
From there, San Millán builds out the individual training program for each cyclist on Team UAE Emriates to safely reach that top athletic ability. While Pogačar or any other cyclist trains or competes in other places in the world, San Millán can analyze the performance results from Colorado and make recommendations to further optimize results.
The remote access to the biometrics allowed San Millán to stay based in Colorado, which proved to be more critical as travel restrictions began during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that didn’t prevent him from getting caught in a two-week preventative quarantine when traveling back from the UAE Tour in late February where Pogačar finished second in his first UCI World Tour event of the season.
Impact of the study of elite athletes
San Millán’s life as an athlete, and now a performance expert, is expected to have long-term impacts on how doctors can treat a wide range of illnesses.