As was the case last year, all the talk heading into the Tour de France has been about two men: Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič. The two Slovenians have again been utterly indomitable in stage races this season, and look head and shoulders above the rest of the opposition. At this point, it would be a major shock if anyone else was to win the Tour de France.
But which of the two riders is the frontrunner? Both have been described as virtually unstoppable at separate points this season, with Pogačar’s winning streak at the start of the season widely likened to the same unbeatable form of Eddy Merckx at his peak, while, while Jack Haig described Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma team as the ‘clear favourites’ for the Tour de France following their success as the Critérium du Dauphiné.
But there can only be one winner of the yellow jersey. So which rider is it going to be?
Both Slovenians go into the Tour de France off the back of domineering overall victories at stage races this month. Roglič’s form ahead of the Critérium du Dauphiné was uncertain having missed two months of racing due to knee injury sustained at Itzulia Basque Country, but there was no indication that the injury was still slowing him down. After a strong but, by his own admission, not a great time trial, he proceeded to waltz away from the rest of the field on the mountainous penultimate stage to take the jersey, and defended it with no problem the following day with Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard, who was allowed to take the stage win.
Over at the Tour of Slovenia, Pogačar was also in a comfortable enough position to gift his UAE Team Emirates teammate Rafał Majka a stage win, while also claiming two for his own as well as the overall victory. The calibre of opposition in Slovenia was not at the same level as that at the Dauphiné, but the ease with which Pogačar virtually sleepwalked his way to victory was still ominous.
Pogačar has been in flying form through 2022 so far (Startt/Agence Zoom)
Their performances earlier in the season were similarly impressive. Pogačar triumphed against much stronger opposition at both the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico to complete a clean sweep over overall victories, while also producing an astonishing ride to win Strade Bianche that had the whole cycling world gaping in disbelief.
And Roglič exorcised demons from the past by climbing overall victory at Paris-Nice, a race he lost last year after crashing on the final day, and has only had his progress checked this year by that aforementioned knee injury, which was the cause for his eighth-place finish at Itzulia Basque Country.
Intriguingly, the two riders have only faced-off against each other once all season; at Milan-San Remo, where both missed out on victory to another Slovenian, Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious).
In fact, instances of the two racing against each other have been few and far between over the years, especially in stage races. The one showdown between them that lingers in the memory of most is of course the 2020 Tour de France, when Pogačar memorably stunned his rival with an unexpectedly superior time trial, to leapfrog him on GC and take the yellow jersey that had seemed in the bag for Roglič.
Roglič will be hoping for redemption at the Tour after two difficult years (Startt/Agence Zoom)
But that result actually remains something of an outlier in their rivalry. Prior to it, Roglič finished first to Pogačar’s third at the 2019 Vuelta a España, their only previous meeting at a Grand Tour. Pogačar also trailed Roglič at the 2018 Tour of Slovenia won by the latter (albeit as a 19-year-old still not riding as a pro), and looked set to finish behind him again at the 2020 Dauphiné before Roglič crashed out.
The 2020 Tour de France was a turning point in the career of Pogačar, as the moment he usurped his compatriot as the world's best stage racer, and became the all-conquering superstar he is recognised as today. But even in the years since, he has yet to inflict another defeat on Roglič in a stage race that was not aided by the latter crashing. That’s what denied Roglič from challenging Pogačar’s successful defence of his Tour title last year, and while they’ve shared the spoils in the one-day Classics they’ve raced against each other in (Roglič won the 2020 Liège–Bastogne–Liège, for instance, while Pogačar claimed the 2021 edition), it was Roglič who came out in top at their only other stage race meet: the 2021 Itzulia Basque Country.
Whereas Roglič made the mistake of underestimating Pogačar at the 2020 Tour de France, neglecting to attack him more in the belief that he had a big enough buffer going into that fateful final time trial, by now he knew what he was up against, and how much more it required to defeat him. Together with his Jumbo-Visma teammates, and in particular Jonas Vingegaard, Roglič set about seeking opportunities to gain time on his compatriot, using smart tactical ploys and attacking on downhills as well as uphills, in order to try and unsettle Pogačar.
Vingegaard (right) will make a powerful ally for Roglič at the Tour (Getty Images)
The result was that Roglič successfully broke clear from Pogačar on the final stage to take the overall victory, while even Vingegaard managed to finish in second-place on GC, ahead of Pogačar in third. They might have underestimated Pogačar at the Tour the year before, but they weren't going to make that mistake again.
That Itzulia Basque Country contest also featured one crucial element that will also be a factor this July: the presence of Jonas Vingegaard. For the battle at the Tour de France is not going to be a simple mano y mano contest between the two Slovenians, but between their respective teams, with Vingegaard in particular having a huge role to play.
As much as UAE Team Emirates have improved this season, Jumbo-Visma’s army of super-domestiques including Wout van Aert, Steven Kruijswijk and Christophe Laporte, still give them the edge, and, as runner-up at last year’s Tour de France, Vingegaard provides them with the kind of genuine GC threat that none of Pogacar’s teammates possess.
And although Vingegaard was a very distant second behind Pogačar at last year's Tour at over five minutes, he’ll be a whole different prospect riding alongside Roglič, especially in light of how well they rode together. Even if neither are good enough to defeat Pogačar alone, together working in tandem they might be able to do so, and it’s here where Pogačar’s apparent invincibility might crumble.
If all three can make it to the Grand Départ in Copenhagen avoiding injury or, of course, Covid, and can negotiate the hazards of the opening week unharmed, then the stage is set for a thrilling showdown at the Tour de France.
Two unstoppable forces are about to collide, and only one will be crowned the victor.
Lead image by Getty Images