Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
The two-time champion has started the race in typically agressive fashion despite being laid up by injury during the late spring. Is this just standard Pogacar fare, or is something else going on?
The opening days of this Tour de France were predicted, almost unanimously, to be the toughest in the race’s history. Saturday’s stage from and then back into Bilbao featured close to 3,500 metres of vertical gain. Sunday’s follow-up between Vitoria-Gasteiz and San Sebastián a touch more than 3,000, typical fare for the Itzulia Basque Country stage race that takes place in early April, but a significant increase in difficulty for the Tour.
It was designed, of course, to draw the yellow jersey contenders from relative sanctuary in the heart of the peloton and encourage them to throw a few early jabs at each other. On that basis, the weekend’s stages have been a huge success, the racing intriguing from start to finish, the late-stage action thrilling on both occasions, and all of it accompanied by exuberant hordes of Basques, who may well use this Grand Départ as a launch pad for the revitalisation of the sport in their region, just as they did when they last hosted it in 1992.
There’s plenty to discuss coming out of the opening weekend, but I was particularly intrigued by a little nugget of information that my RadioCycling colleague Chris Marshall-Bell provided during our latest podcast, recorded on Sunday evening. Chris had been chatting to a former UAE Team Emirates rider who’s still close to Tadej Pogačar. According to this ex-pro, the two-time Tour winner has gone into the race expecting to run of gas in the final week.
He went on to explain to Chris that, as a result his wrist break at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in mid-April, Pogačar hasn’t been able to complete the training load that had been planned during his preparations for the Tour. This we all know. While the Slovenian’s arch-rival Jonas Vingegaard were racking up 30 hours per week of hardcore training during May precisely to mimic the racing demands of a Grand Tour, Pogačar was restricted to a softly softly approach, limited to work on a home trainer and running up flights of steps around his home in Monaco. Even when he did return to on-the-bike training during a UAE altitude camp at Sierra Nevada in Spain in May, he had to ease in comparatively gently in order to ensure that his wrist continued to heal correctly. This, said Pogačar’s friend, has resulted in him arriving at the Tour in flying form, but with no idea how long he’ll be able to sustain it.
In this same situation, most Grand Tour contenders would bide their time in the bunch, aiming to preserve their resources for as long as possible, hoping that racing might compensate for some of the base training they’d missed. Pogačar, though, is not like most Grand Tour contenders. Rather than sit back, he’s done exactly the opposite, getting his UAE team to drive hard on the front of the bunch on both opening stages, before attacking himself, going clear with Vingegaard on both occasions.
After leading across the Côte de Pike on Saturday (pictured with Adam Yates leading Pogačar and Vingegaard) and the Jaizkibel on Sunday, Pogačar encouraged Vingegaard to collaborate with his attacks. Both times, the Dane responded with a curt shake of the head.
Following Sunday’s second stage, many were querying UAE’s tactics, saying it would have made more sense in the long term to let breakaway rider Neilson Powless ride into the yellow jersey in San Sebastián and lift some pressure off Pogačar’s team-mates. UAE manager Mauro Gianetti said that they didn’t do this because they wanted to honour their man in the yellow jersey, Adam Yates. “I think we had to do it to respect Adam and to respect his yellow jersey,” Gianetti affirmed.
This defence of UAE’s tactics holds some water, but Wednesday and Thursday’s stages in the Pyrenees could well sink it. The first features a finish in Laruns, where Pogačar claimed his debut Tour stage victory. That came after a slugfest between him and fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič on the steepling final 4km of the Col de Marie-Blanque, barely 1,000m high, but one of the toughest ascents in the Pyrenean chain.
Like the Jaizkibel, it’s a Bonus Point, with eight seconds available to the first rider to crest it. We should expect Pogačar and his team to chase this little prize and for Vingegaard to respond, but again hold off on collaborating if that scenario plays out. Thursday brings the Tourmalet and then a long but not especially testing rise up to the Plateau de Cambasque above Cauterets. Both of these climbs present Pogačar’s very in-form rouleurs with the chance to scatter the peloton and set up their leader for a stage win, and perhaps even the yellow jersey.
If this is UAE’s strategy, it harks back in some respects to Marco Pantani’s tactical playbook during the 2000 Tour de France. The 1998 Tour winner went into it lacking training and racing, but found his legs on Mont Ventoux, where he fought out that famous duel with Lance Armstrong, the latter suggesting he’d gifted the win to the Italian. Irked by what he saw as a lack of respect, Pantani then tossed the tactical guidebook away in the Alps, winning in spectacular fashion at Courchevel, then attacking with 120km left on the stage into Morzine. It was one of the very few times Armstrong was subjected to a long-range attack, and it almost finished him. Pantani’s goal wasn’t to win in Morzine, but to trigger Armstrong’s defeat.
By drawing this comparison, I don’t mean to suggest that Tadej Pogačar wants to lose this Tour, rather that he wants to do all that he can to sap the resources of Jonas Vingegaard and his Jumbo-Visma team because it might even up a contest that he’s gone into a little undercooked because of his broken wrist.
Whatever the UAE strategy is, it seems almost certain that the Marie-Blanque will see a repeat of 2020’s memorable battle.