Tadej Pogačar’s 80-kilometre Strade Bianche solo - Boring racing or an enjoyable spectacle?

The Slovenian’s performance evoked a sense of both amazement and defeat

He said he would attack on Monte Sante Marie, and he did. He’d told them all when he was going, so they all should have been ready, but it simply didn’t matter. Some believed that with 80 kilometres still left to race, the move was showboating, unrealistic and brash, but this is Tadej Pogačar. A rider who defies expectations, over and over again. Races should not be won by almost three minutes from a two-hour solo attack. Riders should not be able to smile and high-five fans on their way to winning Strade Bianche. But Pogačar does what Pogačar wants, whether you like it or not.

“Outrageous”, “mind-blowing”, “the big Tadej Pogačar show” were some of the descriptions from pundits who tried to put into perspective the gravity of the UAE Team Emirates rider’s performance. The Slovenian’s talent can’t even really be quantified by comparing him to dominant riders of cycling’s past eras. There have been exhibitions like Pogačar’s before from the likes of Eddy Merckx, or Bernard Hinault, or even Chris Froome in his heyday, but the 25-year-old from Klanec is different. He can win it all, be it in the Alps of the Tour de France, or the on the bergs of the Tour of Flanders – there’s no predicting what Pogačar might do. Will he launch a long-range solo move? Will he outsprint his rivals at the finish? Will he attack in the final kilometres? There is no category in which Pogačar fits, he decides how the race will be run. Cycling has never seen someone like him before.

The attack itself was almost innocuous. It wasn’t an explosive punch off the front of the peloton, but a casual few pedal strokes out of the saddle before a gap was established and riders in behind him were left to look at each other. Go on then. They seemed to be saying to each other. You chase him. But by then there were only Pogačar’s tyre tracks in the muddy gravel to follow and, as the kilometres ticked down, the time between him and his rivals just went up and up and up. Riders like Ben Healy, Toms Skujiņš and Maxim Van Gils should be lauded for their efforts behind to try and salvage some of the race, but there was nothing to be done in the wake of such imperious strength from the race leader ahead. The gap would not be closed, and Pogačar would win the 2024 edition of Strade Bianche with time to get off his bike and lift it above his head to celebrate.

There will be two schools of thought in response to Pogačar’s win. Some may argue that seeing a rider win a race with such dominant ease takes the joy out of bike racing. There are no close calls, no photo finishes, no nail-biting chases. Instead, the outcome is known far in advance of the finish line, taking almost every ounce of tension from the race itself. One could have walked away from the television screen hours before the race concluded today and returned at the finish without the outcome having changed at all. Is that really why we watch bike racing?

On the other hand, there was also a sense of privilege to witness Pogačar's performance. Talents like this only come round once in a generation, and we are seeing one of the greats rise in real time. For some, the awe and wonder at such a superhuman performance is perhaps enough to keep the race exciting and intriguing. Pogačar’s past and his personal demeanour also helps make his supremacy a little more palatable.

During his post-race interview, he said: "I don’t know why I attacked where I did. I don’t think that anyone expected that. When it was really raining a lot I felt good and decided to go solo." Wide-eyed and smiling, Pogačar’s simple explanation of his race is unavoidably likeable. He might have just done unimaginable things on his bike, but at least he can’t really believe it either. Maybe he is a bit like us, after all.

The humanity Pogačar exhibits is also helped by his nuanced past in the sport. It’s not like we haven’t seen him crack before – at the Tour de France last year, he crumbled under the assault of Jonas Vingegaard on stage 17, defeated and broken, looking only for the arms of his parents who waited for him when he crawled across the finish line in Courchevel after struggling up and over the Col de la Loze. That day, when Pogačar puffed “I’m gone, I'm dead,” on the radio to his teammates, he showed us, once again, that he’s far from a robotic winning machine.

Whichever camp you sit in, whether there’s a feeling of resentment that one of the most exciting races in the entire season was over before it really started, or whether you’re still in a sense of amazement about the performance of Pogačar, there is no denying that history was made in Tuscany today. And if there is one man who will have quietly taken note of what Pogačar did on the precarious wet gravel roads, it’s his Tour de France rival, Jonas Vingegaard. When stage nine of the Tour rolls round this summer and the peloton takes on 40 kilometres of off-road terrain in Troyes, Visma-Lease a Bike better be ready. As always, Tadej Pogačar means business.

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