Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Tadej Pogačar’s spectacular solo win in the Clásica Jaén could just be the start of an explosive spring. The Slovenian’s intention to dash from Siena to Paris in pursuit of a Strade Bianche — Paris-Nice ‘double’ and a sparring session with Jonas Vingegaard is a refreshing throwback
Tadej Pogačar has already stunned the peloton with a jaw-dropping performance to win his debut race of the year, the ‘Strade of Spain,’ the Clásica Jaén Paraíso. Now, his plan to race Strade Bianche (March 4) and then to start Paris-Nice, (March 5-12) only a few hours later may flummox his rivals again.
The Slovenian’s unexpected move to compete in both events is typical of a rider whose sustained exuberance is winning him increased respect as the seasons go by. After junking his initial plan to compete at the UAE Tour, as had been expected, the double Tour de France champion opted to start his season in Spain. That already looks to have been a smart call.
Skipping the trip to the desert, a decision attributed to a January illness, flew in the face of his sponsors interests, but opened the door to a different approach to a spring campaign intended to provide a foundation for his July challenge to reigning Tour champion, Jonas Vingegaard. Winning his first race of the season was an added bonus. Now, though, it seems that the Slovenian may be cooking up something far more intriguing than just another desert race: back-to-back tilts at the evocative Strade Bianche and the coveted ‘Race to The Sun’.
It may not quite rank with Jacques Anquetil’s famous 1965 Dauphiné Libéré — Bordeaux-Paris double, but Pogačar’s plan is a lot more adventurous than we have come to expect from modern Tour de France champions. In 1965, when the Frenchman tackled the 567km Bordeaux-Paris, Anquetil had a fast car and a private plane waiting for him, as soon as he stepped off the Dauphiné’s closing presentation podium in Avignon.
Having claimed the GC in that gruelling race, his flight from Nîmes landed in Bordeaux that evening around 7-30pm, allowing him time for a brief rest and an evening meal. At 2am, Anquetil was on the start line again, and fifteen hours later arrived tired but triumphant in the Parc des Princes velodrome, having relegated Jean Stablinski and Tom Simpson to second and third place, respectively.
Pogačar’s plan will probably also involve a fast car from the finish area in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, a private plane from Siena’s local airport, and a hasty pick-up to join his teammates in their hotel in the Parisian suburbs. These days that’s completely doable and he might easily be able to join them for dinner. Yet it still seems relatively daring compared to the risk-averse, highly-controlled team strategies of the past decade or so.
Back in 2012, in the sweltering sun of a Tour de France rest day in Pau, recovery, control and risk-aversion ruled.
Team Sky’s press huddle at their hotel, less than a well-hit wedge shot from the media centre, was held outside in the broiling midday heat. While the riders sheltered under an inadequate awning and Bradley Wiggins held court, the sun-struck media cooked in the heat. Asked why the team — or at least Wiggins — was unwilling to travel the 200 metres or so to the air-conditioned comfort of the Palais des Congrès, journalists were told: “Recovery is all-important.”
So it’s good to now have a Tour champion with daring, who relishes risk and adventure, and who has never uttered the phrase ‘marginal gains’.
We’ve seen it already in Pogačar: his near-miss at the Tour of Flanders after his wild sprint, his crash and burn tactics on the climb of the Galibier in last July’s Tour, his epic solo breakaways on gravel roads he barely knows, first in Tuscany and now in southern Spain. You may not like his sponsor or have warmed to his management team, but there is still something of the impetuous bike racer in the 24 year old, even if that aspect of his nature can sometimes be to his detriment, as it was last July on the Galibier, and subsequently, on the Granon.
For Pogačar it seems, experience sometimes trumps caution. Coming second in last year’s Tour wasn’t a catastrophe for him and he is clearly still very much in love with racing.
Take last summer. Only a few hours after celebrating his second place finish in the men’s Tour, he was sitting, bleary-eyed and anonymous, on an armco barrier at the start of the second stage of the Tour de France Femmes in suburban Meaux, supporting his partner, fellow pro, Urška Žigart. It was a million miles from the champagne corks and back-slapping of the previous evening on the Champs Elysées, yet, if anything, he looked even more at home.
Given his talent and the reinforcements now added to his team, you’d expect him to be even more eye-catching this spring and summer. Already he’s exploded onto the scene in his first race back and thrown down a gauntlet for the Italian classic, over the Tuscan white roads.
If he wins again in Siena, it will hardly be a shock. If he wins in both in Siena and Nice — which isn’t beyond the realms of possibility — it will be something of an exploit. What’s more, it will be a warning shot to Vingegaard and his team, in advance of the Tour. And even if Pogačar doesn’t, we all know that he will still be worth watching.