Suddenly, all seems right again. Tadej Pogačar, three days on from his Col de la Loze humbling, is back winning bike races, he’s grinning once more, and a natural sense of order has been restored.
On the Tour de France’s penultimate day, a stage across the Vosges that the organisers had originally hoped would settle the tussle for the yellow jersey, a frenetic day of action culminated how stage racing in this decade generally does: a win for the fair-skinned, light haired and smiley boy from Slovenia.
Pogačar will be devastated that he’s not rolling into Paris with yellow on his shoulders - that honour has been justifiably earned by Jonas Vingegaard - but he has succeeded in what he set out to do in the immediate aftermath of his crumbling on stage 17: to win the final mountain stage.
All day UAE Team Emirates marked attacks and kept the breakaway at arm’s length, a distance that Pogačar could bridge across to in the latter stages. When that moment came, it broke the heart of Thibaut Pinot, but set up Pogačar to finish off the job. Led out superbly by the race’s MVP and third-place finisher Adam Yates, Pogačar unleashed his trademark uphill sprint and beat the race’s revelation Felix Gall to the win; Vingegaard, whose aim seemed to be not to let Pogačar to win, came home in third.
It was a largely inconsequential result - Vingegaard will still comfortably win the race by seven-and-a-half minutes on the Champs-Élysées and Yates will hold onto the final podium spot - but Pogačar’s win was a reminder, not that it was needed, of his prolificness, of his killer instinct and of his inexorable march towards Tour de France greatness.
When he won stage six into Cauterets in the Pyrenees, the 24-year-old joked - like he always does - that he was coming for Mark Cavendish’s joint-record of 34 stage wins. It was said in jest, accompanied by a giggle, but at what point do we start seriously contemplating if he could stake a challenge for the stage wins record?
He has already amassed 11 victories after just four participations, and assuming he continues to win two or three every year for the next 10 years, until the age of 34, that’s another 20 to 30 more to add to his tally. Injuries, illnesses, misfortune, calendar changes and everything else that affects a cyclist can obviously get in the way, but Pogačar wins bike races at a rate that few others do; only Vingegaard, his Tour nemesis, rivals him among the GC cohort.
Upon winning in Le Markstein, the cheesy grin was back, as were the short quips. “I’m me again,” he smiled. Three days before, he was distraught; this time he was euphoric.
It’s what makes Pogačar so likeable. He gives people the feels. He’s happy, he’s effervescent, he sees the joys in life, and he views the negatives as merely mishaps that can be righted. You watch him race, watch him get interviewed, and you want to be friends with him. It’s why his latest win was met with near-universal approval.
His dethroning at the 2022 Tour endeared him to a greater proportion of fans, for no sport wants a domineering and all-conquering figure. He may not have won this Tour de France but his disappointment this July adds an additional layer of humanity to his public perception. But, above all, it's not his incessant winning but his character, his never-say-die attitude and his beaming smile that really makes him the role model and the rockstar the cycling world wants, needs - and is lucky to have.