Tadej Pogačar. What CAN’T he do? With the entire narrative leading up to this year’s Tour de France focusing on the younger Slovenian’s defence of the title he’s won twice in a row, there’s no shying away from reality: UAE Team Emirates’ tufted prince and his apparent invincibility in the face of any and ALL opposition are here for all your yellow jerseys.
This year, Pogačar has been declared the king-in-waiting by many before a pedal stroke has been exchanged in anger; he is the centre of gravity around which every cycling fan’s mind eternally circles. Can he be beaten? Or will his omnipotence extend to total domination of the central race in the cycling calendar for years to come?
With arguably his closest rivals, Team Jumbo-Visma, divided over leadership and different coloured jersey goals, the hand-wringing has begun already: exactly what will it take to best the unerring all-rounder, who swept up three out of the four available jerseys at last year’s Tour, and most importantly: can it be done at all?
What CAN he do?
First, let’s consider Pogačar’s strengths. It’s not rocket science to work out why he’s been so successful at whichever races he’s set his sights on over the past couple of seasons. But what is it exactly that he has done to blow away the competition so comprehensively – what are the most resonant strings to his bow?
Go it Alone
There’s no fear of solitude for the young Slovenian, who has proven on a number of occasions that he’s quite content to ride unsupported for lengthy periods of time in order to gain an advantage over his demoralised adversaries. Take this year’s Strade Bianche as a prime example. Despite a difficult day in the saddle for the peloton, who were quite literally blown across the dusty gravel roads in Tuscany, Pogačar rode away from them all to produce a flawless performance and leave everyone scratching their heads about how it would ever be possible to overturn his utter dominance.
Of course, he doesn’t always have things his own way, but when he’s had enough of being part of the pack, Pogačar is more than capable of launching himself away from the best riders in the world using his incredible attacking ability. The ease with which he imposed himself on the climbs at the UAE Tour in February, leaving Adam Yates and Aleksandr Vlasov amongst others in his wake in the dunes of Jebel Jais and Jebel Hafeet, are just a couple of the many examples of his ability to kick when everyone else is out of gas.
You’ve always needed a decent time trial in your back pocket to be a serious GC contender, but it’s those riders who’ve mastered the discipline who have gone on to really dominate the grand tours over the years. Pogačar is no exception. His incredible ride on the final time trial to overturn Primož Roglič in 2020 was a statement of intent: Pog really can do anything. And he can do it better than you.
Long, relentless climbs
He’s the master of grim attrition. He holds on, and holds on, and when you think he must be done, he goes harder again, wearing down his rivals like sandpaper on rough walls. He’s not your purist’s climber – no sinuous hips swaying as the mountain goat dances on the pedals. But his somewhat mechanical style belies the raw power and bottomless well of endurance he seems to draw upon. Long story short, he’s bloody good at riding up big hills.
In the past, Pog’s team mates haven’t always been able to take him to where he needs to be, but as per point one, this hasn’t caused Pogačar any serious problems. He’s quite capable of surfing the wheels of his rivals’ domestiques to stay in contention, something he proved with consummate ease at the 2020 edition of the Tour, where he bought a three-week ticket to the Jumbo Visma train and enjoyed the fruits of their labour, rarely letting his elder countryman out of his sight.
The things he can do combine to make Tadej Pogačar one seriously intimidating competitor. What’s worse than his almost otherworldly physical abilities though, is the way in which he refuses to exhibit weakness. There’s rarely a grimace to be seen on his cherubic features, and where Mathieu van der Poel or Wout van Aert have the good grace to collapse dramatically from their bikes following a victory, Pogačar stays resolutely seated.
Does he even sweat? It’s questionable. Also he laughs and jokes with his rivals, insists on being a young man having fun doing his sport with the requisite insouciance and playful likeability that quite frankly makes it hard to dislike him on any level. Why could he not have just been a bit of a bastard, and made it easier on all of us?
It’s all a game to him. Quite literally, as he proved at the Tour of Slovenia recently, where he lost a game of rock, paper, scissors with team mate Rafal Majka to decide who would be the winner of the fourth stage. What damage, psychologically speaking, does it do to rivals, to see him goofing around not only after races, but also during them?
What CAN’T he do?
Having dealt with his strong suits – a full wardrobe of them – it’s now time to get down to business. If the other GC candidates want to find a chink in Pog’s armour, it’s here. Whether alleged by the media, observed during races or claimed by the man himself, it will be down to Jumbo Visma et al to work out which weaknesses are legitimate, and which they can expose and exploit to get the better of him. In short, exactly how is anyone getting around this infallible superhuman this July?
Let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s entirely possible given the fragile state of the peloton’s health that Pogačar could contract covid-19 or some other stomach or respiratory infection either prior to, or during, the Tour de France. Equally, there’s every possibility that he could be caught up in a crash, or have some other mishap befall him – consider for a moment the carnage of the first week of last year’s edition, which deprived us of the very battle we are hoping to see reprised once again this year, following various accidents for the Jumbo Visma team.
Yet however much cycling fans or rival teams might wish they didn’t have the Slovenian phenom to contend with, this isn’t the one. We want a fair fight. No hollow victories here. To be the best, you have to beat the best. And so on, and so forth. Plus, Pog seems impervious to such things, such is the nature of the man/beast – viruses run screaming from Pog. Bicycles bow to his superior skill and refuse to fail in any way. Etc. Moving swiftly on…
Here’s where we get into the truth of Pog’s weaknesses. However few they may be, they do exist, and his self-professed dislike of hot conditions could be the first way in which other teams might look to expose him in France. With Europe experiencing unprecedented heatwaves, there’s no indication that this July will be anything other than a scorcher in France, and this might present an opportunity for the likes of Roglič and the rest.
Sure, it was hot in Slovenia last week, as Pogačar and his team put on the expected indomitable performance on home turf, but with Matej Mohoric’s Bahrain Victorious the only really strong competition, the Tour of Slovenia is hardly an adequate reference point for Pog’s performance under hot conditions. The Tour de France is an entirely different proposition, and being put under real pressure for an extended period of time in high temperatures could, maybe, be his undoing.
One of the main criticisms levelled at UAE Team Emirates in previous seasons was the lack of infrastructure in place to support Tadej Pogačar. The oft-quoted example is that of Itzulia Basque Country 2021, in which Jonas Vingegaard marked him into oblivion as Primož Roglič stormed to victory.
The team went about seeing to this problem in the off-season, recruiting a raft of luxury domestiques to support him in the mountains – the likes of George Bennett, poached directly from the service of Roglič, along with João Almeida and Marc Soler. Rafal Majka has looked strong in recent weeks and will also be key.
Yet UAE have looked lost on occasion, in terms of uniting behind a leader. Without Pog they appear wayward and directionless, a collection of supremely talented individuals with no clear collective goal. Of course this won’t be an issue at the Tour – Pog is there, and we’ve seen him marshal his troops like a consummate general so far this season, as his confidence has grown, but with a brand new configuration of riders around him, it still may not be enough to provide the support he needs.
Ok, this one is a little tenuous. But with a hefty portion of cobbles on the menu as part of this year’s Tour parcours, there has been much talk of which GC guys are going to struggle on the unfamiliar surface.
The words ‘struggle’ and ‘Pogačar’ rarely appear together in a sentence though and it’s well-documented that Pog has experience off-road, racing mountain bikes as a young rider and taking part in cyclocross in the off-season. He elected not to ride Paris-Roubaix but coped admirably with the demands of the cobbles of Flanders, where his weakness wasn’t the pavé but simply being outsmarted by a man who’s ridden those types of finishes many, many times.
With the high potential for chaos on stage 5 into Arenberg, it’s likely that the only way the cobbles defeat Pog links directly back to point number 1, but there is also the slim possibility that he could get caught out in the tumult and lose some time.
Tactically, Pogačar could be argued to be a little naïve. He’s been smart plenty of times – but using a rival team’s train as a launchpad is nothing new, and in terms of the finer points of cycling strategy, let’s face it, he’s never truly been tested. When you know you’re the best in a race, it’s academic. Over three weeks, a couple of huge attacks, a strong time trial, and simply staying upright has historically been enough for Pogačar to deliver a win.
But he’s not been pushed to the limit on many occasions. Of the two notable losses in his recent history, tactics could be blamed in both cases. The aforementioned two-up sprint which somehow deteriorated into fourth place at this years’ Ronde (still an exceptional achievement in his first appearance), and the also aforementioned undoing at Itzulia constitute the best examples. But if teams are able to combine not only their own resources, but perhaps those of others too, and deploy military level strategy, there might be some hope of finding a way past Pogačar.
Once again, it’s not exactly a weakness – Pogačar can punch with the best of them, and usually does, but a stage which offers a chaotic reduced bunch sprint up a short, sharp climb also plays right into the hands of Roglič, who is a master of this discipline. There are plenty of other riders, too, who love these types of stages and won’t be involved in the GC battle. If the classics season and Pog’s performances at Milan-Sanremo and La Fleche Wallonne are taken into account, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he may not win that often on a stage like this. That’s before taking into account the number of summit finishes of all kinds on this year’s Tour route.
It’s dependent on many factors; if he’s in the mix it may not matter to the overall standings in terms of time gaps, but bonus seconds can add up and it’s just these kinds of gains that other riders and teams should look to take advantage of in order to win.
The Jumbo Visma lieutenant-turned-co-leader is the closest Pog has to an Achilles heel. Second on the Tour last year, despite working for his erstwhile leader Roglič for the first nine days, Danish Dynamite Jonas was able to stick with Pogačar on all of the long climbs in the second two weeks and even ride past him on Ventoux. Jonas rattled Pog’s cage at Itzulia earlier that year and you get the impression that he’s really the only individual who can occasionally get under Pog’s skin.
Vingegaard showed scintillating form at the Dauphiné, and while he does pose a potential obstacle to Pogačar, his head-to-head with the younger Slovenian may pose more of a threat to the order within his own team…
Pile on the Pressure
A grand tour is a long, arduous endeavour, and when you’re a marked man, there is nowhere to hide. In 2020, Pog followed in the wheels and was able to stay out of trouble, as all attention focused on Jumbo Visma, the then-favourites. Last year, the level of competition was simply not there. This year, the key could be to apply pressure from as early in the race as possible. Pogačar has not faced 3 full weeks of sustained pressure at any point in his career and if other teams can combine to make life difficult for him, there is the slimmest possibility that cracks may appear – but only time will tell.
The Rebel Alliance
‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’
Teaming up with your rivals is probably not a great way to go about winning, unless it represents your only viable option. Could INEOS and Jumbo Visma form a rebel alliance, to test UAE Team Emirates; pool resources and form a strategy to undermine the defending champion? Perhaps they might find support from other teams too; teams with designs on GC, or even those looking for stage wins, who may be willing to work for mutual gains.
It’s wildly speculative and the chaotic unpredictability of the first week at the Tour de France means anything could happen, and survival will be key, but over the course of three weeks, an entente cordiale might be a master stroke for any who hope to get past him.
So, can it be done?
Is there even the slightest possibility that Tadej Pogačar’s seemingly unassailable hold over La Grand Boucle can be shaken, or even that he might be forcibly separated from the yellow jersey he has been custodian of for so long?
Pogačar has broken the mould, and the only way to play him at his own game is to rip up the script and forge a new mould. If the teams around UAE follow the unwritten rules of grand tours and save themselves for late attacks in the mountains, or rely on time trial advantages and then sit on slender advantages, they are going to come unstuck. They must find a new way to ride a grand tour; spring surprises, attack at random, allow rivals up the road and force UAE to chase them down. They will need to be bold, and to be willing to lose, in order to win. Defence will most definitely NOT be the best form of attack.
Ultimately it will likely depend upon the curious combination of factors that prevail at grand tours – both manageable and those beyond the control of the peloton – to decide whether or not the almost imperceptible flaws identified here can be exploited. If they can, maybe, just maybe, we might see a deviation from the absolute inevitability that is Pog in the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees, come 23rd July.