Why the Volta a Catalunya isn't a foregone conclusion for Tadej Pogačar

The Slovenian has thrived in Classics since winning Paris-Nice last year, but returns to week-long stage racing for the first time since on a tricky parcours against a stellar field 

Whenever one of the peloton’s so-called 'big six' ride a race with none of the other five present, it’s beginning to feel like victory for them is a foregone conclusion. That’s certainly been the case during the early weeks of this season. Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike) has stormed to two successive overall titles plus five stage wins in the two stage races he’s competed at so far, O Gran Camiño and Tirreno-Adriatico, while Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) obliterated the field with a stunning 80km attack to win his one and only race of the season so far, Strade Bianche. Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike) might not have won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but a Visma-Lease a Bike teammate did with his assistance, and he himself was triumphant only a day later at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; and though Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick-Step) finished second behind Matteo Jorgenson (Visma-Lease a Bike) at Paris-Nice, he was victorious at both his first stage race (Volta ao Algarve) and classic (Figueira da Foz, via a huge solo attack) of the year. With Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) not starting his 2024 season until this weekend at Milan-Sanremo, the only member of the big six not to have got off to a winning start is Primož Roglič, who looked out of sorts at Paris-Nice.

So when Tadej Pogačar starts Volta a Catalunya next week as the sole representative of the big six, he will inevitably be the overwhelming favourite for overall victory. Though he’s only had one day of racing so far in 2024, there’s certainly no doubts about his form following his crushing display at Strade Bianche — if anything, he looks even stronger than ever. And he has a near-perfect recent record in stage races, winning GC in all but two of the nine he’s ridden since the summer of 2021 (the exceptions being the two Tours de France in which he finished second behind Vingegaard). Put simply, there’s a huge gulf between these six riders and the mere mortals that make up the rest of the peloton, and therefore between Pogačar and the rest of the riders taking part at Volta a Catalunya.  

But before we write the race off as a likely one-horse race, there are some reasons to believe that Pogačar might not find sealing overall victory here quite as straightforward as all of this suggests. After all, the recent Paris-Nice threw up a surprise without either Evenepoel or Roglič winning, and demonstrated how these kind of week-long stage races can be unpredictable and not necessarily go by the script. And the specific characteristics of Volta a Catalunya arguably make it a race not best suited to Pogačar’s strengths.  

For one thing, as Pogačar becomes more and more of a Classics rider, for whom one-day races are more of a priority than they are for his rival stage race GC riders, it’s unclear whether he remains quite the force in stages races as he used to. We only fleetingly see him race in stage races anymore. In fact, excluding the Covid-affected 2020 season, he has taken part in fewer stage races in every year of his professional career, falling from six in his neo-pro 2019 season to just three last year. He’s only scheduled to ride three this year, too, with only the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France lined up after Volta a Catalunya.

As he masters the explosive style of racing required to win classics like Il Lombardia and the Tour of Flanders, could it be that he’s diluted some of the skills that made him such an unstoppable stage racer? The demands of stage racing are different from one-day racing, requiring consistency and recovery over several days rather than just several hours, and even someone as gifted as Pogačar needs to be careful to measure their efforts. And unlike Classics, which feature hills rather than mountains, the decisive terrain of stage races tends to be longer climbing efforts up much bigger summits.

These are the kind of tests that have exposed rare weaknesses in Pogačar’s repertoire. At the 2022 Tour de France, he was punished for riding stage 11 more like a Classic than a GC contender at a stage race, restlessly following every move and shutting down every attack from his Jumbo-Visma rivals on the Col du Galibier before suddenly running out of gas, being dropped, and ultimately losing the yellow jersey. And last year, he was badly exposed on the category hors Col de la Loze, running out of legs halfway up the mammoth 28km climb and being dropped for good by Vingegaard, uttering the now famous words: “I’m gone. I’m dead.”

Tadej Pogacar

Intriguingly, the route of this year’s Volta a Catalunya includes multiple hors category mountains that, though not quite in the league of the Galibier and Col de la Loze, are at least comparable in length. Stage three finishes with an ascent of Vallter 2000, a 13km effort that averages a hefty 7.3%. Stage four’s summit finish at Port Ainé is even longer, at 18.5km, and rises at a far from simple 6.8%. And though the Coll de Pradell is tackled mid-way into stage six rather than at the end, its vital statistics of 14.6km at 7.1% still makes it a potential game-changer. These are the kind of mountains that Pogačar blew the opposition away from earlier in his career, but does not quite seem so commanding on anymore. With no time trial to stamp his authority on the race, might there be an opening for other riders to take him on these climbs?

And who might those other riders be? Based on how dominant they’ve been these past few years, and given that it was their rider Matteo Jorgenson who upset the favourites at Paris-Nice, Visma-Lease a Bike could be a threat. We’ve seen in past Grand Tours that Sepp Kuss has the ability to drop Pogačar in the high mountains, and he’ll be riding alongside the prodigiously talented Cian Uijtdebroeks, who could have a first leadership role at the team having helped guide Jonas Vingegaard to overall victory at both Tirreno-Adriatico and O Gran Camiño. There’s plenty of pedigree in Ineos Grenaiders’ line-up, and if Geraint Thomas can reach the form that has seen him win multiple WorldTour stage races in the past, and Egan Bernal continue his recovery that has already come on leaps and bounds these past few weeks, they too could be contenders. Simon Yates (Jayco-AlUla) can be a match for anyone in week-long stage races like this, while the likes of Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mikel Landa (Soudal–Quick-Step), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Lidl-Trek) and young talent Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ) will enjoy the mountainous parcours. Despite Pogačar’s presence, the Volta a Catalunya might not be as foregone a conclusion as it seems.

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