When asked during the post-race press conference of yet another win at Lombardia how he rated his 2022 season, Tadej Pogačar replied with a wry smile: “almost perfect.”
The operative word here is “almost.” For all the stunning success he has enjoyed throughout the season, which in some ways was arguably even more impressive than his similarly glorious 2021, the primary memory many will have of the Slovenian this season is his coming undone at the Tour de France.
Pogačar has made winning such a habit that that defeat to Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) sticks out for being more remarkable than the kind of brilliant performances he has made routine, and his triumph at Il Lombardia was every bit as good as his other famous wins.
It might not have had the impudent panache of his long-range Strade Bianche victory earlier in the season, where he almost taunted his rivals by seeing how far he could afford to attack solo from and still win. But the way he managed the pressure of being the overwhelming favourite, controlled the race with his UAE Team Emirates, and attacked in a predictable yet unanswerable way, was every bit as domineering.
Monuments are meant to be this straightforward. Many of the world’s best talent assemble at them, often having made the race a major season highlight, and this year’s Il Lombardia featured a range of top talent from retiring puncher supreme Alejandro Valverde, his on-fire teammate Enric Mas, and Pogačar’s nemesis from July, Jonas Vingegaard. But the Slovenian rode as if the result had already been ordained, attacking at precisely the moment he intended on the Civiglio climb, dropping everyone but Enric Mas, then winning the two-up sprint without ever looking remotely worried that he’d be beaten.
The victory extends his career tally of Monument wins to three, which, now that Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) are all retiring, is more than anyone else in the else currently in the men’s peloton.
What makes this especially extraordinary is how rare it has been in the recent generations of cycling for a rider to excel at both Grand Tours and the Classics. Primož Roglič and Remco Evenepoel have managed to do so in recent years, but before them the only riders for over ten years were Nibali and Valverde. And aside from Nibali, no rider has bettered Pogačar’s combined total of Grand Tour and Monument wins (five) since Sean Kelly way back in the 1980s. And, of course, he’s still only 24.
Therefore, for all the recent success of Remco Evenepoel, Pogačar is surely still the best male rider in the world —something that would probably be indisputable were it not for that fateful day in the Alps when he lost the yellow jersey to Vingegaard. It’s that memory that must have flashed before his eyes when he gave his “almost perfect” answer in the post-race interview, even as he was celebrating another huge win in his career.
His ability to recover and perform all year long, from Strade Bianche during the first weekend of March to Il Lombardia during the first weekend of October is something else that sets Pogačar apart from everyone else, and it was notable how far off Jonas Vingegaard was from his Tour de France-winning form. He has been tipped as a favourite following his winning return to racing at the CRO Race, but the competition at Il Lombardia proved to be a whole other ball game.
Jumbo-Visma certainly rode like they believed they were protecting a rider capable of winning the race. They contributed to the early pace-setting along with UAE Team Emirates and Movistar, and took total control on the Madonna del Ghisallo, using their domestiques to up the pace in the hope of wearing down their rivals.
But come the key Civiglio climb, Vingegaard was moving out the back of the group of favourites rather than off the front, and the fact he was later dropped out the main group of chasers too to finish fourteenth suggested he had gone too hard too early. He might have been the strongest rider in the world in July, but certainly isn’t in October.
Instead, it was a rider who floundered during the Tour in July who pushed Pogačar the hardest — Enric Mas. As at the Giro dell'Emilia, he was the only rider to go away with the Slovenian on the Civiglio, and the way the pair flew away from everyone else to gain a gap of over half a minute is testament to just how strong the Spaniard is riding at the moment.
Following his runner-up finish at the Vuelta a España, it’s fair to say Mas is in the form of his life; but just as he came up against an unstoppable force at that race in the form of Remco Evenepoel, here he was unable to drop Pogačar on the climbs, and inevitably succumbed to him in the sprint.
On the day Alejandro Valverde retired, Mas’ performance was one of many by Spanish riders that showed the nation to be in rude health despite the imminent loss of their long-term talisman. Behind Mas in third place was the biggest surprise of the day, Mikel Landa, who showed much better form than at the Vuelta to take the first Monument podium of his career. For so long lamented as one of cycling’s unlucky, underachieving nearly-men, he deserves great praise for a season that had already seen him make the podium at the Giro d’Italia.
If Mas (27) and Landa (32) can’t exactly be said to be youthful prospects anymore, 21-year-old Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) certainly can. By breaking clear of the other chasers after the Civiglio with Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) to finish fifth, he adds a Monument top-five to the seventh-place he managed at the Vuelta a España — suggesting that, much like Valverde himself, he could be a man for both the hilly Classics and the Grand Tours.
But, like everyone else in the new generation of cycling, he must face the daunting prospect of going against the incomparable Tadej Pogačar.