Matej Mohorič and the pursuit of selfless cycling

GCN sits down for an interview with the Slovenian to discuss his upbringing, his almost accidental career, and his quest to give a 'higher purpose' to his racing

Clock19:00, Friday 3rd November 2023
Matej Mohorič at the 2023 Tour de France

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Matej Mohorič displays a complexity of emotions rarely seen in elite sport

There are numerous ways to explain the appeal of Matej Mohorič. First and foremost have been his results – sporadic, emphatic and audacious. Milan-San Remo might always be the first that comes to mind, but there have also been three stages of the Tour de France, one in the Giro d’Italia, one in the Vuelta a España, and a thrilling overall win in the 2018 BinckBank Tour, not to mention his most recent win at the UCI Gravel World Championships.

Then there’s the famous and now bygone super-tuck, which he pioneered as a dare-devil U23 who caused the collective cycling community to tilt their heads with curiosity. Once that super-aero position was banned by the laws of the land, he pushed the envelope by putting a dropper post on a road bike to win San Remo. This is a rider who turns his nose up at convention.

All of that coloured the persona of the Slovenian before the 2023 Tour de France, but after that edition of the race, we were left with a deeper understanding of Matej Mohorič.

You probably watched that post-race interview. Tears in his eyes and words spontaneously rolling off his tongue, Mohorič, having just won stage 19 from the breakaway, offered a truly remarkable insight into the mindset of a professional cyclist.

The life and emotion of that moment is enough to see the depth of the man. It is that depth that makes him special.

“There were so many people who were almost crying themselves telling me about how inspired they were about my interview,” Mohorič tells GCN in a wide-ranging discussion.

“That gives me goosebumps because you know how much you affect others. And how much you help them give their best, try harder and not give up in their own lives.

“This is why sports, in general, are important," he continues, "because if we were a completely rational society and we wanted to keep the planet green or do the minimum possible to be a more advanced society, in the end, it wouldn't work out the way we think it might, because we would lack certain things. One of those things is emotions that also sports can bring.”

Matej Mohorič contains multitudes. That Tour de France stage revealed a fuller picture of the person behind the rider, but there are still more layers to peel back.

Accidental professional

The thing about Matej Mohorič is that he reached lofty heights in cycling almost by accident. Not an accident in terms of luck – he earned all the races he won – but an accident in the sense that he had other dreams as a child, dreams of academia and making a difference in the world. Cycling just happened to be where he landed.

“I was struggling with the meaning of cycling at the start of my career because I enjoyed going to school and I really wished to go to university,” Mohorič says.

“I also wished for my life to have a higher purpose and I was questioning a lot of what I was doing. When I first turned professional [in 2014], I signed my first contract for the money. And because I enjoyed cycling.

“But I said to myself, ‘Ok, I'll try for two years, I'll see what this looks like, and if I want to, I can go back to university and my life will still be a little bit easier because I have that little bit of savings for those two years'".

Only then, once he started to find his feet in the public eye, did the full meaning of a career as a professional cyclist begin to materialise.

“I wasn't on a huge huge contract, but it was, for a Slovenian, a very good salary. Then I realised that sports inspired people," he says.

"People look up to athletes, to the best athletes. Those athletes have a real chance to make a difference in children's lives and people in general. If you are authentic, if you are who you really are, if you show how hard you work for where you are, to achieve great things, to set big goals and then try and chase them, that really inspires people."

As much as he certainly inspires riders today, and even supports junior racing and development in his home country of Slovenia, he was a kid without the same inspiration. His cycling career was a possibility only when it became almost impossible to pass up after his U23 World Championship win.

“I came from a working family, my parents have a farm, and I didn't have time to follow sports,” Mohorič adds.

“I started to practice cycling when I was 12, but I didn't think about the fact that you could live off of that. I didn't think about those things. I was more focused on the moment, on the current responsibilities I was given at that age. Only later did I realise and question those things.”

"If you are authentic, if you are who you really are, if you show how hard you work for where you are, to achieve great things, to set big goals and then try and chase them, that really inspires people." - Matej Mohorič

'Those things' encompass the 360-degree view of his professional. With the inspiration he has instilled amongst his fans, and the joy he sees when he is at local races in Slovenia, 'those things' have grown in his own estimations.

You could describe it as selfless cycling.

“As you go up, you get more familiar with some things. You set your own values on what you want in life, how you want to live, and your search for your own higher purpose," Mohorič explains.

"I think that came later. By putting years and years of work into my profession, I realised more and more how my job – or not my job but my effort – counts to the lives of so many others."

The philosophy in his winning

Mohorič is a Monument winner, a World Champion and a stage winner in each Grand Tour because of his ability to unpack and compartmentalise races. While this aspect of bike racing is often described as a kind of chess, for Mohorič it is better articulated by the language of philosophy – a subject he has dabbled in.

In philosophy, the underlying structure that theories are built on is logic. Logic, with its rules, causality and unimpeachable universality, guides everything and is a necessary foundation for any argument. It is also, in a roundabout way, how bike races are won.

At every turn, Mohorič – ever the scholar – has seemed to have that bike racing logic down. In our conversation, this was underscored by the Slovenian breaking down the demands of the GP Quebec and GP Montreal that were on deck that weekend, with intricacies and nuance that went well and beyond other riders' descriptions of the races in Canada.

It was as if Mohorič knew this race like it was his own, even if it was a pair of circuits on the other side of the world.

“I need to work hard, I need to be in peak condition, on the race day I need to focus on the details, try to say more energy than others, try to play it smart tactically and also the stars need to align. If you check the physical abilities I have, it's probably not in line with the results, because I can't win the A-level race on Zwift," he says modestly.

“I think about many things and that's why I got so emotional," he adds, referring back to the Tour de France. "I think about all this because for me to win it is not easy. It's not like I am super talented like Pogačar who turns up at any given race and probably has a 92% chance of winning. I am not that guy.”

This makes the fact that Mohorič won the recent UCI Gravel World Championships not surprising because, even if he is a newbie in terms of gravel racing, there is nobody more equipped to be the fast learning outsider than one of cycling’s most notorious thinkers.

Thinking that leads to his unorthodox tech choices, thinking that leads to unorthodox tactical choices, thinking that leads to wins. Thinking that also leads to his feelings being more complicated than you might expect.

“After all the years, you feel more connected to everyone else that does this job because you know what they're going through," he says of his fellow competitors. "You know how much they sacrifice to be ready, and you feel for them because maybe you also see their mistakes in the race. You acknowledge that and maybe take advantage of that.

“The stage win in the Tour, for example, was special because you spend the full month with those guys, you've been together in the gruppetto, help each other out, and then, on the last opportunity for everyone, with a huge amount of pressure, you manage to get in the winning move. We all worked together as hard as we could, it was probably harder than a team time trial, and we succeeded. But when we succeed together, then we need to compete against each other to take the stage win.

“Third place in a stage is a great result and a great achievement, but to win a stage changes everything, it can be the cherry on top of some riders’ careers. When it came down to that sprint, I was thinking about that, because I knew how much of a difference that makes. When you manage to actually win, you feel super happy, proud and overwhelmed with emotion, but also, at the same time you feel sorry.”

So what is a rider to do after a big win, when the world is watching and they have the chance to show their wares and boast of their triumphs if all they feel is complicated exhilaration?

According to Mohorič, the best path forward is always to own it.

“If a rider who wins brings positive emotions," he says, "then everyone who follows the sport is better off.”

It would be a stretch to find anyone who would dispute that, even his competitors who have been his victims.

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