It isn’t that Tadej Pogačar has been bad at this year’s Tour de France, but more that Jonas Vingegaard has been very, very good indeed. It’s important to remember that while he lost to Vingegaard by almost one minute in the time trial on stage 16, Pogačar was still one-and-a-half-minutes ahead of Wout van Aert who finished in second place. Even after his spectacular blowout on the Col de la Loze on stage 17, Pogačar is still three minutes ahead of Adam Yates who sits third on the general classification. The Slovenian rider still is winning the young rider’s classification by four-and-a-half minutes ahead of Carlos Rodríguez. He is still a spectacular bike rider. Jonas Vingegaard is just, somehow, that bit better.
Pogačar has, in some ways, made life hard for himself by being so bloody talented. As soon as he won the Tour de France for the first time in 2020, he would not race again without that expectation on his shoulders. In 2021, he managed it admirably, winning his second yellow jersey by over five minutes. It was like people thought that was it, then. He would be a rider like Chris Froome and go on to win his third and fourth editions. Anything else would be a loss. When Pogačar doesn’t win the Tour de France, it’s no achievement to finish on the podium or win the white jersey like it would be to some riders. His performances over the last few years have taken away that possibility – we expect the very, very best from him. The story is not when he wins, but when he doesn’t.
It’s been that way in this year’s Tour especially. Tales of Pogačar finally crumbling and of Vingegaard’s level-headed and measured strategy finally proving to be the better one against Pogačar’s spirited, energetic, attacking style. The two riders have been compared non-stop, their contrasting styles making the rivalry even more intriguing. Their closeness in ability over the last couple of years has played into this too; the way they can yo-yo from one day to the next, like when Vingegaard dropped Pogačar on stage five to Laruns but the UAE Team Emirates rider bounced back the next day to turn the tables on his rival and win stage six
There was a clear vibe shift in the time trial on stage 16, however. The times on the result sheets showed us that Vingegaard and Pogačar were no longer close, the rivalry was no longer tightly-fought. The Jumbo-Visma rider was definitively stronger. We clung on to some hope that Pogačar might turn it around on stage 17 and produce a spectacular performance to put himself back in the race, but those thoughts seemed futile almost as soon as the racing began. Pogačar looked gaunt and tired, crashing early in the stage and battling on with blood coming from his knee, the cold sore on his mouth a tell-tale sign of an illness, a weakness.
Illness is one possible factor for Pogačar’s decline in performance relative to Vingegaard’s, but there are other factors that could come into play here too. The two rider’s approaches to the Tour de France couldn’t have been more different: Pogačar raced the full Classics season while Vingegaard stuck to stage racing. Pogačar was off the bike for weeks after breaking his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège while Vingegaard trained consistently at altitude. The crash was, of course, out of the Slovenian rider’s control, but his race calendar raises questions. Is the Tour de France becoming too specialist for a rider like Pogačar? Does he need to sacrifice such a busy start to his season in order to prepare more specifically for the three-week race? As spectators, we hope not, but after two years of fumbling the Tour win, his team may have to think a little differently.
On the other hand, Pogačar’s ability to perform in one-day races also makes his defeat at the Tour sting a little less. It means that, after rest and recovery, there are still opportunities for him as the season progresses. The World Championships in Glasgow, for example, are perfectly suited to the 24-year-old’s characteristics. He still has his title at Il Lombardia to defend at the end of the year. He could even decide to race in the Vuelta a España and win a new Grand Tour altogether.
What we know about Tadej Pogačar is that he will be back and this will not be the last time we see him fighting for yellow at the Tour de France. It’s his ability to rip up the Classics and his attacking style that makes the UAE Team Emirates rider such a fan favourite and it would be a shame to see him sacrifice that in order to prepare for the Tour in years to come. Also, the reality is that the Tour de France does not have to define a rider’s career.
As we discuss Pogačar cracking painfully on the slopes of the Col de la Loze and we see the photos pop up of him looking sad and dejected while he is consoled by his teammates, let’s not forget what he has achieved this season so far: wins in the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne, and there is, no doubt, more to come. He’s still second in the Tour and he’ll still win the white jersey. It’s not the outcome he would have dreamed of as the race rolled out of Bilbao two-and-a-half weeks ago, but it’s something to be proud of all the same.