How can Tadej Pogačar be beaten?
Cobbles, mountains, time trials, he can do it all. Tadej Pogačar has been a cut above in this year’s Tour de France so far. Can anyone do anything about it?
We are witnessing greatness. Before our eyes, history is being written by a 23-year-old cyclist from Klanec, Slovenia. Tadej Pogačar has won the Tour de France for the last two editions in a row, but his imperious start to the race in 2022 – and on the variety of terrain he has tackled – has perhaps been the UAE Team Emirates rider’s most impressive show of talent so far, and not just from a physical standpoint.
The overhead helicopter shot from today’s stage of the Tour de France exhibited Pogačar’s brutal turn of speed when he gets a sniff of the finish line. With apparent ease, in just a few pedal strokes, he opened up a gap on a flagging Primož Roglič and left one of the fastest finishers in a reduced bunch, Michael Matthews, in his wake, the Aussie's only option to do his best to cling on for second place. While the BikeExchange rider rocked and rolled over his bike in an agonisingly difficult schlep to the line, Pogačar’s body remained rock solid. He simply oozed power through the pedals, crossing the line with ample time to celebrate.
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It wasn’t just the pure strength he displayed as he crushed the hopes of his rivals that made Pogačar’s move today so impressive, however. His timing was impeccable too, a display of tactical astuteness and knowledge that proves this prodigious talent can read a race as well as he can perform in it physically.
Image: Pauline Ballet/ASO
The same can be said for his performance in yesterday’s stage on the cobblestones. Sure, he showed strength and endurance to make his way into the top ten on one of the Tour’s most demanding stages, but, as those who have ridden them will tell you, there’s much more to conquering the cobbles than just physical ability. It takes bike-handling skills and technical ability that many can’t muster. As his rivals slipped on the dusty stones and overcooked corners, Pogačar never put a pedal stroke wrong. He hit the apex of every turn, rarely being outside of the front five riders in the bunch throughout the entire stage.
What’s more, he did this with barely any teammates to help him. With an otherworldly type of sorcery, the Slovenian superstar skirted the trains of other teams, he used them to his advantage, almost floating over the jagged pavé. Without a doubt, Pogačar is the strongest rider in this year’s Tour de France, but his show on the cobbles yesterday put him in the run-in for the most skilful too. Add in his third place against the clock on the opening ITT in Denmark, and Pogačar is proving that he really can do it all.
So where does this leave us? Still with 15 stages of the La Grande Boucle remaining, the two-time Tour de France champion looks unbeatable. Before we’ve even reached the high mountains or the final long time trial at the end of the race – Pogačar’s bread and butter – he has put time into his main rivals. Will anyone be able to stop him waltzing towards a fourth yellow jersey and the top step of the podium in Paris in 2022?
It’s a tall order, but we shouldn’t write off Pog’s rivals just yet. Quietly slipping through stages unscathed is Geraint Thomas of the Ineos Grenadiers, still just 46 seconds behind the Slovenian on the general classification. The Brit forms part of a four-pronged approach for Ineos with Adam Yates, Tom Pidcock and Dani Martínez all sitting within a minute of Pogačar on GC.
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Then there is the Danish Dynamite of Jonas Vingegaard still in the run-in for the overall win, as well as Bora-Hansgrohe’s talented 26-year-old Alexsandr Vlasov who has been consistently strong so far in this race. Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers have the numbers to beat Pogačar – his own team have been unreliable so far this Tour at crunch time.
However, they won’t be able to do it by stringing out the bunch on long mountain passes in a metronomic train on the front of the bunch, Pogačar will just profit off this work. The other teams need to think innovatively, think of working together to try and get one up on Pog, think of isolating him, look for moments where he doesn’t expect the attacks to come. His one mistake so far this Tour was when Wout van Aert attacked on stage four and the UAE Team Emirates rider was caught napping. It’s possible to catch him by surprise, but his rivals are going to need to think radically about how to do this.Image: Pauline Ballet/ASO
It’s important to remember that this is the Tour de France and anything can happen. Turning off our TV screens now would be a mistake, there’s plenty more challenges to come for Pogačar on the run-in to the final stage on the Champs Élysées. There have been countless examples over the years when we thought the race was done and the Tour threw up new surprises. Pogačar looks good, but this things are by no means decided.
We should also accept that there’s the possibility Pogačar will hold on to yellow from now until Paris, that he’ll dominate every stage and leave with the biggest winning margin ever seen in the history of the Tour. But we can enjoy that too. Feast our eyes on the fact we are witnessing something never seen before in the history of our sport. A rider who can excel on any terrain, a man who rides a bicycle like he was born to do it.
Be it thanks to his undeniable physical strength, his finesse on technical roads and complicated surfaces, or his imperturbable calm in the face of mounting pressure, there is no doubt that we’ve never seen a rider quite like Tadej Pogačar before. But no one is immune to the craziness of the Tour, and the race is still very, very young.Cover image: Pete Goding/Agence Zoom