Words by Nick Bull | Photos by SWpix.com
There’s often a common thread that links the Tour de France wins of those who have claimed multiple titles in the race. Three of Chris Froome’s four victories saw him exert his authority on the race in the first true mountain stage, for example, while Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault used time trials as the basis for each of their five wins.
For Tadej Pogačar, it appears that a standout second Saturday is becoming his thing in the Tour. In 2020, stage eight into Loudenvielle saw him attack the depleted Jumbo-Visma mountain corps on the Col de Peyresourde and recoup some of the time he lost in the previous day’s crosswind-affected stage. But while that ride merely dragged the UAE-Team Emirates rider back into GC contention last year, what he did over the Cols de Romme and de la Colombière on Saturday was even more jaw-dropping than his time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles a little under 10 months ago. Confirmation of his dominance wasn’t needed after his performance in Wednesday’s time trial between Changé and Laval, nonetheless Pogačar’s aggressive display sets him on course to become the youngest two-time champion in the Tour’s post-war era, surpassing Laurent Fignon’s achievement in 1984 by over a year.
The time he put into world-class riders but arguably second tier contenders – 3:20 on former Giro winner Richard Carapaz, Grand Tour podium finishers Rigobero Uran and Wilco Kelderman, and Enric Mas – made Pogačar look as if he was competing against teenagers in a junior event. Tellingly, his dominant margin was gained without the Slovenian taking any obvious risks on the descent into Le Grand-Bornand.
Those fans who remain hopeful that there is still any semblance of a GC battle remaining best look away now. The combined winning margin of the last four Tours is 4:55. After nine days of racing, the defending champion’s lead over EF Education-Nippo’s Uran, his nearest bona fide challenger, is 5:18. Before today, the Tignes landslide referred to the chaotic, shortened stage that was scheduled to end there in the 2019 Tour. After today’s finish at the popular mountain resort, it’s an apt description of Pogačar’s advantage after week one. His late attack on Sunday saw him put another 32 seconds into his nearest rivals.
We can romanticise about a repeat of Fuente Dé from the 2012 Vuelta, but Alberto Contador only trailed Joaquim Rodríguez by 28 seconds before his Saxo Bank team wreaked havoc on that race. Based on the standings right now, Pogačar needs to be on the end of four of those to lose his grip on the maillot jaune. Some may also take hope from Simon Yates’ collapse in the Giro en route to Bardonecchia three years ago; the difference there was that Froome’s charge began six stages earlier. He was riding himself into form whereas, in this year’s Tour, opening week crashes suffered by the likes of Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas, Marc Soler, Jack Haig and Tao Geoghegan Hart have cruelly rid them of theirs.
In addition to the broken bones and lost skin aplenty, the numerous chaotic scenes that have played out since the race left Breast last Saturday appears to have impacted greatly on the thinking of sports directors. After all, what were Jumbo-Visma hoping to achieve on Saturday by trying to get Wout Van Aert into yellow, likely for one day only, as opposed to backing up Jonas Vingegaard’s podium hopes? Why did Movistar ride so aggressively in pursuit of Carapaz after the Ecuadorian attacked on the Signal d’Uchon? How poorly managed is a team when their riders not only miss a breakaway containing nearly 30 riders, but then get told to ride at the front of the peloton hopelessly for several kilometres as a punishment for missing said move?
Thankfully, this is the drama that will compel us to continue watching on when racing resumes on Tuesday. The Tour, as many riders will tell you, is the Tour. The battle for stage wins has already been thrilling, particularly with Bahrain-Victorious doubling up courtesy of Matej Mohorič and Dylan Teuns, and Ag2r Citröen Team’s Ben O’Connor’s solo heroics after a hideously wet day of racing on Sunday. Based on how the likes of Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) and Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) have raced in the two Alpine stages this weekend, the King of the Mountains competition looks set to become the prime jersey battle. If the wind blows en route to Valence on Tuesday, as some early forecasts indicate, L’Équipe should get ready to copy and paste their TOTAL CYCLING headline from Saturday’s edition. Then there’s the double ascent of Mont Ventoux on Wednesday and, of course, the record-held-by-a-rider-who-can’t-be-named-but-we-all-know-who-and-what-it-is could be equalled by this time next week. Essentially, what’s on offer between here and Paris is akin to a Pink Floyd compilation album: standalone stories that are perfectly enjoyable yet lack the coherent, start-to-finish narrative structure of the Dark Side of the Moon that we crave in a three-week-long GC battle.
Not that this is Pogačar’s problem. He is single-handedly rewriting modern stage race conventions, in particular this century’s fascination with and requirement for lead-out trains. Six of the last seven Grand Tours have been won by margins of 90 seconds or less, yet, at his current rate, the UAE rider could surpass the 7:37 gap Vincenzo Nibali beat Jean-Christophe Peraud by in the 2014 Tour. Remarkably, for somebody who only turns 23 in September, Pogačar is making cycling’s super teams, those with multi-million pound budgets, GC options aplenty and some of the strongest domestiques in the sport, look distinctly average and beset by confused strategies and outdated thinking. Perhaps, when it’s time to consider his legacy in years to come, that will be the standout feature of his Tour de France achievements.