Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Tadej Pogacar’s victory in the Tour of Lombardy — Il Lombardia — demonstrated the full range of his abilities, as he climbed, descended and sprinted his way to victory. Incredibly however, there are already other young talents, following hot on his heels.
It was about an hour after Tadej Pogacar had raised the roof in Bergamo after winning the 2021 Tour of Lombardy that, over one thousand kilometres away in the same autumnal setting sun, Alexandre Balmer sped under the kilometre to go kite in the Tour de Vendee French Cup race in western France.
The fresh-faced Swiss is 21, a couple of years younger than Pogacar, and, after 175 kilometres in the break, almost pulled off an even more remarkable coup in La Roche-sur-Yon, holding off a speeding peloton until he was swept away, with just 20 metres still to race.
It was a bitter denouement. Balmer, who had only found out last Wednesday that he would be riding Paris-Bourges and the Tour de Vendee, had been out on his own, fending off his pursuers, for just under 20 kilometres.
Balmer’s do-or-die lone move, spectacular though it was, does not compare with Pogacar’s explosion of his rivals on the climb of the Passo di Ganda, over 30 kilometres from the finish in Bergamo. Even an elite chasing group that included Primoz Roglic, Julian Alaphilippe, Alejandro Valverde and Adam Yates, could not reel in the double Tour de France winner. It was an exhibition of power, resilience and self-belief, that elevated him into a select club of Tour winners — Coppi, Merckx, Hinault — that have also won the Italian Monument in the same year.
Even better, was the old-school feel to his win. When was the last time a reigning Tour de France champion actively competed in Il Lombardia with an option to win? Okay, obviously, Vincenzo Nibali, but in the past decade, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas and so on, have ridden seasons that like the leaves, fall away as autumn looms on the horizon.
Fate will bring Balmer and Pogacar together again soon enough. Both are high achieving mountain bikers and accomplished climbers and their Junior and U-23 career paths shadow each other. The Swiss has maintained that he will compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics in mountain biking but says that he also dreams of racing in the Tour de France. That day drew much closer after his performance on the roads of the Vendee, despite his shattering defeat within touching distance of the finish line.
Like Pogacar, Balmer appreciates what mountain biking has given him. “It’s more simple in some ways,” he said in 2019. “You’re the only one responsible for your performance. It’s straightforward: you have to give it everything. It’s less tactical.”
That’s a sentiment that might apply to Pogacar’s racing instincts at times. His winning attack to claim his first Lombardia on Saturday echoed the violent acceleration that destroyed the opposition on the 2021 Tour de France stage to Le Grand Bornand. In both those attacks, he gave it everything and never looked back.
What about tactics? What if he fails and gets caught and then dropped? That is a scenario that never seems to occur to Pogacar, who commits wholeheartedly to those blistering accelerations.
There is a world of difference between their environments: Pogacar is the most highly-prized asset in the peloton and currently seen as almost invincible, has a sponsorship built around his talents and rides for possibly the most powerful of the super-teams, UAE Emirates. A wealth of future success now seems assured.
Balmer in contrast is with Groupama FDJ, a team that rarely challenges for Grand Tour success and whose image — acknowledged even by iconic star rider Thibaut Pinot — remains that of the plucky underdog. Despite his achievements in Junior and U-23 racing, you’d probably never heard of him until this afternoon’s heart-stopping finale.
While Balmer is still knocking on the door and finding his way, at just 23, Pogacar has already reached the sporting firmament. It’s hard to imagine his career becoming more stellar, but of course, others have been here before. Remember when Jan Ullrich, Egan Bernal and others were expected to dominate the Tour de France for years to come? There is plenty that can go wrong, as others can testify.
Who knows how many major one-day and stage races Pogacar will now win? He certainly doesn’t have the boom and bust vibe that characterised others. Anybody watching his exploit this Saturday would anticipate he’s here to stay.
Yet Balmer’s performance, quickly forgotten though it may be, only emphasised the quality of the peloton, even outside the World Tour. It’s incredible to think that at 23, you can already be starting to look over your shoulder at the younger talent coming through, but that’s how fast some of these fast-rising 20-somethings are developing. The churn of talent is accelerating.