Two races, two winners that anyone could have predicted. Two very different viewer experiences.
Idly flicking through the weekend’s cycling results, a fan of the sport might see the names ‘Tadej Pogačar’ and ‘Demi Vollering’ topping the standings from the Amstel Gold Race and nod knowingly. Seeing ‘Lotte Kopecky’ in second place would likely elicit a further expression of the outcome having been inevitable. Yet one race was thrilling throughout, the other… not so much.
I wrote about last year’s World Championship races in Wollongong, which mirrored the Amstel Gold Races in many ways – two expected winners, on paper (Annemiek van Vleuten and Remco Evenepoel), but two very different ways to reach the finish line, one of which was thrilling and unforgettable, the other incredibly impressive, but ultimately rather hollow as a spectacle.
What was the difference between the men’s and women’s Amstel Gold Race? A peloton who wouldn't accept a preordained result? Who had the organisation, or strength, or plain belief, to keep trying, no matter how unlikely the result? Or simply a narrower margin between the best, and the next best? I would argue that perhaps it was down to hope, or lack thereof – of an alternative outcome. Not a predestined one.
How it went down
There was no 'one big move' in the women's Amstel Gold Race, rather a group of favourites all taking chunks out of one another on as the race hit the Ardennesian climbs. By contrast, in hindsight it could be argued the men's race was over before it really began. When Tadej Pogačar launched a move with 87km to go, no matter that 15 riders went with him, simply knowing the most formidable competitor of a generation was among the leading group was enough to stymie the coordination of a chasing bunch, despite the fact that it still contained many of the pre-race favourites. Where the women launched attack upon attack, the men's peloton failed to find the cohesion and drive necessary to close down a 30 second gap that held steady for the next 50km, every rider a rabbit in headlights, the breakaway working despite the presence of Pogačar, struggling with a flat tyre but still maintaining contact, the bunch not galvanised until, ironically, a crash split them into smaller groups.
It was too late by then. Pogačar, finally with a fresh bike, decided he was ready to go, so he kicked on, launching decisive move number two with 36km to go on the Eyserbosweg. The only two capable of staying with him were Tom Pidcock and Ben Healy, but when the Slovenian injected a third clinical surge of pace at 28.5km to go, it constituted the point of no return. This was despite the best efforts of Ben Healy, who got the better of Pidcock and managed to close the gap to within 19 seconds, at which point the commissaire’s car gave Tadej Pogačar a bit of helpful moto pacing (not that he would have needed it and apparently not that they did it knowingly).
The women’s race followed a more traditional Amstel Gold Race narrative of 'predictably unpredictable' with the breakaway pair being caught with just under 24km to go, and attacks beginning with 20km to go and continuing throughout the final lap. Kristen Faulkner (Team Jayco Alula) made the first effort to get away, but the most notable strike was that of Soraya Paladin of Canyon//SRAM, who ground out a gap which held for a while with Grace Brown going with her, but on the final ascent of the Cauberg the bunch exploded, with riders all over the road. In the end, the winning move was not made until 1.8km remained in the race, when Vollering pulled clear of the rest, winning in the end by just seven seconds from a storming bunch of strong riders.
Pogačar won solo but not only that, he won by 38 seconds from Healy, and 2.14 from the next closest riders. Who can argue with this level of supremacy? Or how utterly deserved the outcome was: Pogačar singlehandedly executed the three race defining moves, with his victory arguably as inevitable as sketchy TV coverage at the Giro from that first attack with just under 90km remaining, if not from the moment his name was typed onto the start list.
The dominance of the respective winners (and runner-up in the case of Kopecky) over the course of this year’s Classics season has been impressive, if not at times, a little predictable. Team SD Worx have been formidable too this season, with the dynamite pairing of Vollering and Kopecky occupying the top two spots on the podium at three one-day classics, the pair with six wins between them.
But they are not infallible: just last week Silvia Persico got the better of Vollering at De Brabantse Pijl, and no SD Worx rider made the top 10 of an unprecedented Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Although it’s highly unlikely, statistically speaking, that someone outside these two will win a race when either Vollering or Kopecky are present, perhaps these examples are fresh enough in the memory to offer that much-needed injection of ‘what if?’
Pogačar is a different animal. Far from team dominance, the Slovenian cannibal chewed through his team to ensure he was in the best possible position with almost half the race’s distance still remaining. He is comfortable to do it alone, and this is what sets him apart, and perhaps leads the rest of the peloton to struggle in finding a collective response. How do you beat the unbeatable? Yet his statistics suggest a similar success rate: Pogačar has won three out of five of his one-day races so far this season, and there’s only one of him. He’s not unbeatable: but it will take a considerable combined force, some brains, and a truckload of belief, to do it.
A spectrum of supremacy
Dominance in sport is unavoidable but not inevitable – someone always has to win, but for it to be the same person on a regular basis requires several interconnecting factors to be in alignment, such as (but not limited to) timing, consistency, and reaction. Timing is down to the individual being the best in their field in a period where no-one else can equal them, or at least not consistently – consistency being the factor that ensures the unequalled rider delivers again and again – leading to dominance. Reaction is the response from the rest of the field – highly dependent on the sport, it’s the factor that’s out of the control of the dominant rider, as their opponents, as a collective, figure out (a) how to beat them, (b) don’t figure it out, or (c) try, and find it’s simply not possible.
So where does Pogi sit in this highly inexact spectrum of dominance? And where do we stand, as fans, in our reaction to the ongoing shifts in the sport that affect our interaction with it as a spectacle? In short, when does dominance become boring – if indeed it does at all? For on this point there is already divergence among faithful fans. Should we revel in the display of supremacy and be glad to live in the time that such prodigal talents exist? Is that not, after all, what we are here for – to see the best excel at what they do best? Or should we commiserate the missed opportunities to see real, visceral, all-guns-blazing racing action, while we wait for the rest to get their acts together?
It boils down to how much of your personal enjoyment derives from the unpredictable nature of sport – simply put, knowing the result is all but decided with a great deal of the race still to unfold undoubtedly detracts from the suspense, the drama, the adrenaline-pumping excitement of watching a race. Of course, it is possible to feel two conflicting things and many cycling fans have expressed this over the past few weeks and years – while it’s completely right and proper to applaud an unrivalled performance, even feel awed by it, if your heartrate hasn’t made your Garmin tell you you’re working too hard, if you haven’t hung on the edge of your seat biting your nails, if you haven't experienced the raw visceral thrill of A RACE – has it really been worth it?
Pogačar as other sports
While it’s possible to imagine an era in which Pogačar isn’t winning consistently, it’s harder to imagine him not winning at all. In an effort to contextualise his current standings in the dominance league I tried to find inelegant but useful comparisons with other sports, to adequately convey the ambivalence that such dominance elicits in the invested fan, knowing the fate that quite possibly awaits.
At first I thought back to the huge serving ace-monsters of 1990s tennis, demolishing opponents 40-0 game by 40-0 game, but it didn’t seem a fair comparison, not quite. Those players chose to build their game around one facet – they chose to make it dull, and to ignore the many different nuances of the game. Pogačar is not making things dull by the way he rides. He’s just so good that the race ceases to be competitive. That’s hardly his fault - he's a racer, and his killer instinct combined with his immense talent and perfect physiology is what makes him a winning machine.
Football is always the sporting comparator I lean into most easily. I know the sport, I followed it for many long years, and supported a team that you might liken to EF, perhaps Lotto, depending on the season. Of course cycling is a team sport, and to push the comparison further, UAE Team Emirates would naturally be the Man City analogue, with Jumbo Visma and INEOS the other big dogs, whoever they may be at the time (Chelsea? Liverpool? I’m very out of touch). Pogačar, then, is the Erling Haaland of the team (OK maybe not so out of touch) – would they win without him though? Probably. UAE without Pogačar might, sometimes. But not always. Perhaps if Man City were composed of ten Pogačars, plus a goalie (let’s say Tim Wellens, he seems like a safe pair of hands) – the comparison might have legs. Otherwise, not really.
Perhaps if we compare his feats with an artistic sport like gymnastics, or diving – sports where we inevitably want to see the most beautifully presented routines, the most daring tumbles, the most athletic physiques proving their physical capabilities. People being their absolute best.
We come to these sports from a different place though – to admire, to marvel, to express sheer wonder at what can be achieved with the human body. You can do those things when you watch a bike rider solo 50km to the finish, sure, but at the end of the day, it’s just riding a bike, not performing a triple somersault. If you really examine your motives and discover that you’ve invested your time, love and emotions into bike racing to watch one person doing it alone, then fair play to you. We are all different. But unless he’s doing the below for 50km solo, it’s not for everyone.
Survival of the Fittest
If we’re searching for suitable comparisons, the solution might be a little closer to home. Cyclocross features a survival of the fittest race from the line, in which it’s full gas from the word go, quite literally, and a field is gradually whittled down over an hour to one, two, occasionally three of the very best on the day. Team-wise it's also a more apt comparison, as although cyclocross riders do race in teams, they don’t rely on one another in the same way that road riders do. They go it alone, more willing to freelance their way through the field, like the wonderkid himself. Who has also been known to ride off-road. Coincidence? I think not.
Nip them in the bud
Customarily on the road, in a race like Amstel Gold, the final selection doesn’t happen until the final climb, sometimes even the line. By making these race defining moves so early in proceedings, Pogačar – and other top riders, as has been borne out through the 'supergroup breakaway' trend of this Classics season – are turning racing on its head, breaking the expected pattern, and making things easier for themselves later in the race: nipping their opposition in the bud, to coin a phrase. Why? Because they can.
Is that wrong? Of course not. The gradual whittling process is happening earlier and earlier, but the difference is that where it's been a supergroup in most of the races, when it's just Pog for 30km, that's where the spectacle falls down. It’s on us to work out how to process it, and not lose interest in what might in many cases seem a foregone conclusion. And it’s on the collective of EVERYONE ELSE IN CYCLING, from riders to DSs to team managers, to try to work out a solution. It’s not going to be easy. And if anyone cracks it, like Jumbo-Visma did on stage 11 of last year’s Tour de France, or Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel did at E3 this year, the others must take note. Because until they do, there are many future foregone conclusions on the cards.
The love of watching bike racing is the sum total of the overall experience that’s made up of so many elements it’s hard to define: the thrill ride of a daring descent, the breath-taking scenery, the overcoming of hardship and suffering, the effort and the struggle of the unseen team members, the head-to-head battles and the heart-thumping, palm-sweating, edge-of-the-seat action, and above all, the competition. Because that’s what it is. It’s a race.
Until it’s not.