Fine young cannibal: has Tadej Pogačar won the Tour?
Tadej Pogačar is inexorably bending the 2022 Tour de France to his will, with a second consecutive stage victory atop La Super Planche des Belles Filles
With 900 metres to go on La Super Planche des Belles Filles, just before asphalt gave way to gravel and the roadway ramped up to the heavens, Rafał Majka of UAE Emirates finished his turn on the front and swung his arm to motion his team leader Tadej Pogačar through. It was a more expansive gesture than the usual flick of the elbow, as if the Polish rider was trying to communicate to Pogačar that the road ahead belonged to him. “All this, this kingdom, is yours,” he could have been saying.
The Tour de France is increasingly looking like the personal property of Tadej Pogačar. For the second day in a row, the young Slovenian was the stage winner, though Jonas Vingegaard made him work very hard for it. It was also the second time in two attempts that he’d won on La Planche des Belles Filles. Last time, in 2020, he delivered a single knock-out punch to Primož Roglič and won the Tour de France. This time around, his victory was more a series of assured jabs delivered from calculated angles, but the final result may well end up being the same. Vingegaard succeeded in surprising Pogačar on the final steep climb to the line, and looked to have done enough to at least win the stage, but Pogačar seems to be developing cannibalistic tendencies and he overhauled the Dane. La Super Planche brought him to three out of three consecutive mountain stages at the Tour, following his wins at the Col de Portet and Luz Ardiden in week three of last year’s race.
The Tour’s vehicles and the riders kicked up clouds of dust for the second time in three days, following the cobbles of stage five, but through the haze at the top of the Planche, the 2022 Tour hierarchy was starting to look very clear: Pogačar, then Vingegaard, then a gap. Next comes the group comprising Roglič, Geraint Thomas, David Gaudu, Enric Mas, Romain Bardet and Adam Yates. Then there’s a gap to the rest.
Image: ASO/Pauline Ballet
The dust kicked up on the Planche on stage seven eventually dispersed and settled, but the question of what to do about Tadej Pogačar is lingering around the peloton, as it has done for two seasons. The Tour has not yet found the terrain upon which he is vulnerable, and his most favourable terrain, the high mountains, has yet to come in 2022.
His superiority is not just based on physical dominance, though that is a large part of it. He exerts psychological dominance, but not in the same baleful, animalistic way of previous Tour winners like Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong, who enjoyed beating people for the psychological kicks. Nor in the aloof manner of Chris Froome or Vincenzo Nibali. Pogačar crushes his rivals, but brings them in on the joke - by projecting a sense that cycling is naught but a game to him, he makes his rivals complicit in their own defeat. Losing bike races to Tadej Pogačar is fun! Such is the way he exerts his unique and terrible authority on the peloton. His age reinforces, rather than undermines this: his youth is one of his primary weapons.
There’s also something more: in winching his way past Jonas Vingegaard in the final metres on La Super Planche des Belles Filles, he betrayed a more profound refusal to be beaten: it is as if he has not yet developed the mental pathways needed to accept either defeat or compromise, nor has he felt it necessary to share the stage wins around. Tadej Pogačar has been unbeatable for some time at the Tour, and the perception that he is unbeatable creates its own momentum.
Image: James Startt
However, there is hope. His rivals can hope that he falters, which has never happened before, but it is a hope nonetheless. They can also hope that he has bad luck, which has also never happened before, and is not a very effective or reliable race-winning strategy. Looking at the top tier of riders, the Ineos Grenadiers are the only team who can try to turn the race into something else than a physical contest, which is what it needs to be in order for Pogačar to be defeated. Ineos still have Thomas and Yates in third and fourth, plus Pidcock and Martínez in the top 10. It would take a tactical coup of epic proportions, and the right terrain, and for UAE Emirates to drop the ball spectacularly, and for the Ineos riders to be completely willing to lose the race as a consequence, but while they have more than one rider within a minute or two of Pogačar, it remains possible. UAE Emirates did a good job of controlling the race en route to La Planche des Belles Filles, but they don’t have the strength in depth of either Jumbo-Visma nor Ineos. The sequence of events, on a stage with early climbs, would be: make the race hard, to get rid of the UAE domestiques, send a strong rider up the road, attack mid-stage to link up with the rider who is up the road and hope that Movistar or Groupama-FDJ don’t start riding to defend fifth or sixth place. It’s a lot easier said than done, and there aren’t many stages that fit the bill - the big mountain stages are backloaded, so the Massif Central may be better terrain for it. But the (very significant) risk is that it doesn’t work, in which case Pogačar would still win, and maybe Ineos would miss out on the podium.
Finally, however, there’s a more prosaic fact, which we would do well to remember: Pogačar has not won this Tour yet. By the time Jonas Vingegaard worked out he was climbing as well as the Slovenien in 2021, he was already five minutes behind. At the top of La Super Planche, the Dane is only 35 seconds behind, and he climbed as well as Pogačar on the final rise to the line, which bodes well for the high mountains. It’s also true that Pogačar spent a lot of effort on the cobbled stage gaining just 13 seconds on Vingegaard, who had to be paced back on after a mechanical, but did not do the work himself. If either rider looks to be overreaching so far, it is Pogačar, not Vingegaard. Pogačar has looked invincible so far, but that’s the thing about invincibility: you’re unbeatable, until you’re not.
Cover image: Getty