Winning both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same season has over the last few decades become notorious as an impossible frontier in men’s cycling. Though the double has been achieved by seven riders in the past (once each by Jacques Anquetil and Stephen Roche, two times by Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain, and three times by Eddy Merckx), nobody has managed it since Marco Pantani in 1998, leading to an ever stronger consensus that it is incompatible with the demands of modern cycling.
Some have tried in the years since, but few have come even close. For the great Grand Tour riders of the past few generations, the double has been perceived as a challenge to seek out, something to strive to add to the palmarès when circumstances dictate. Wanting to ride the Tour, but not wishing to sacrifice his home Grand Tour, Ivan Basso targeted the double in both 2006 and 2010, but, despite winning the Giro each time, was respectively refused entry in the aftermath of the Operation Puerto scandal, and suffered a lack of form.
In 2011, Alberto Contador was prompted to ride (and win) the Giro when the possibility of a doping suspension threatened his participation at the Tour, and, even though he was ultimately cleared to ride the Tour, his form also suffered, finishing down in fifth. After both those results were annulled by the delayed doping sanction, he tried again in 2015, achieving the exact same results of first and fifth respectively. And in 2017, Nairo Quintana’s attempt fell at the first hurdle when he lost out to Tom Dumoulin at the Giro, before tiredly dragging himself to a lowly 12th place at the Tour.
Chris Froome came the closest in 2018, capitalising on a slightly modified calendar that allowed for an extra week’s rest between the two races. Though he toiled to win the Giro, taking the pink jersey only after his now legendary 80km comeback attack, he was clearly still relatively fresh at the Tour. But he still couldn’t quite complete the double, finishing third behind Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas, and Tom Dumoulin — who, having also finished second behind Froome at the Giro, reiterated the double’s feasibility that year. The calendar has since reverted back to normal, removing that key extra week of rest, and none of the new generation of Grand Tour stars have attempted it since.
That’s why Tadej Pogačar’s announcement on Sunday that he intends to ride both races in 2024 has caused such a stir in the world of cycling. Many have greeted the prospect with glee, anticipating with bated breath the best rider in the world taking on one of the sport’s great challenges. By contrast, others are questioning the rationale of the decision, predicting that it is in effect handing Jonas Vingegaard the yellow jersey on a platter. The double has come to be seen as something unrealistically idealistic, a hubristic pursuit in denial of how the real world operates, a folly even for a rider as brilliant as Pogačar. So much so, that the Slovenian was uncharacteristically coy when asked about whether he was indeed targeting GC in both, saying: “Let’s see first how it goes with the Giro, and then how it goes with the Tour. Let’s not think about the double, let's just go to enjoy racing."
But there is reason to believe that Pogačar might succeed where others have failed. In recent years, there’s been a shift away from the kind of specialisation that became the norm in the years following Pantani’s 1998 double, when the top Grand Tour riders like Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich fixated on the Tour de France at the expense of the other major races. Now it’s common for the contenders in Grand Tours to take on a variety of races throughout the year, and it’s no longer deemed incompatible to win stage races and Classics.
Leading this vanguard of change is Pogačar himself, achieving results previously not thought possible any more. By winning Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2021, he became the first rider since Bernard Hinault 30 years earlier to win a Monument and the Tour in the same season; then following his Il Lombardia success later that year, the first to win two Monuments plus the Tour since Eddy Merckx. And though he did not couple it with a Grand Tour victory last year, his victory on the cobblestones at the Tour of Flanders totally ripped up the rulebook; nobody had won both the Tour of Flanders and the diametrically opposed Il Lombardia in the same season in 32 years, while you again had to go back to Merckx for the last time someone made the Tour de France podium as well.
Still, the Giro-Tour double feels like an extra level of difficulty, and one that Pogačar is having to accommodate for. Something has to give from his race program, especially as he intends to also target the World Championships and Olympic Games, and so he has planned a much leaner Classics campaign. He also announced that he will only ride Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo in the spring, and neglect to defend his titles at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne.
Even with these sacrifices though, it’s going to be very hard for Pogačar to pull it off, if only because of how formidable an opponent Jonas Vingegaard has been at the last two Tours. Even if Pogačar were only targeting the Tour, he’d still have to be considered a joint favourite at best for the yellow jersey, given the way the Dane so thoroughly defeated him last year. Perhaps this contributed to his decision to ride the Giro — rather than put all his eggs in the Tour basket, a victory at the Giro would at least mean he has one Grand Tour victory in 2024 regardless of what happens in France.
It has been speculated that not sharing the same laser focus Vingegaard has and insisting on riding so many Classics is why he was defeated at the Tour, and that therefore riding the Giro will only exacerbate the gulf between them at the race. But it should be remembered how much his preparation for last year’s Tour was compromised by his crash at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, which, upon reflection, he now thinks meant he “wasn’t ready for all three weeks of racing”. Leaving that forced absence aside, it has been remarkable how Pogačar has managed to sustain such a high level from February to October in each of the last three seasons, rarely if ever not looking at his very best. Who’s to say he can’t also peak for both the Giro and the Tour?
Pogačar is such a special rider you sense that if anyone can buck the trend and win the Giro-Tour double, it’s him. He’s currently operating at a level few have in the whole history of the sport, and, given the unpredictability and temporary nature of the sport, cannot know how long he’ll be this good. Aware that, having recently turned 25-years-old, his body may now be in as good a condition as it will ever be, Pogačar stated that "I am now not so young anymore, and I think I can do two Grand Tours”. If ever there was a time to chase history by aiming for a Giro-Tour double, it’s now, and if ever there was a rider to do so, it’s him.