Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Tadej Pogačar is accused of putting too much strength and focus on pre-Tour races, but we should relish the fact that he and others have targets well beyond July
Unfortunately, the many calculations that were made last week about whether it would be possible for Tadej Pogačar to race and finish Strade Bianche on Saturday 4 March and then line up for the start of Paris-Nice the following morning – including those done by La Course en Tête – have proved to be in vain. Attempting some kind of Jacques Anquetil-esque back-to-back success is, the Slovenian sensation has revealed, even beyond him at the moment.
Sadly, as a result of this rare show of racing moderation, Pogačar won’t be lining up in the spectacular Italian Classic over Tuscany’s white roads. However, the upside is that he is set to commit himself to a debut appearance at “the race to the sun” and its eight days of almost certain racing mayhem, during which he’ll square up to Jonas Vingegaard in the first major stage race reprise of their thrilling 2022 Tour de France duel.
While the Dane has yet to pin on a race number this season, his first chance to do so arriving in this week’s O Gran Camiño in Spain’s north-west, Pogačar has already been very busy extending the winning streak he began at the tail-end of last season, when he clinched Tre Valli Varesine and Il Lombardia in consecutive appearances. In six race days so far in 2023, he’s added five more garlands to that pair thanks to victory in Jaén Paraíso Interior, a Spanish equivalent of Strade Bianche in which olive grove tracks substitute for the white roads, and three stage wins and the GC title at the Ruta del Sol.
Pogačar’s storming ride, when he often seemed to be toying with his rivals, drew criticism from former team director Johan Bruyneel. Talking on the podcast The Move, Bruyneel commented: “It’s super nice to see, but I wonder: why? In the long run, killing everyone like this is not the best tactic. You want to keep some teams and riders on friendly terms, and that is also better physically. Now his teammates are riding themselves to pieces, so that Pogačar can win this race. Some of them now have to recover from that for two weeks.”
He continued: “It’s nice that you have such an enthusiastic rider, but I think that needs to be tempered in the support car. It must be calculating and cold there. As I see it now, there is a lot of passion there too. That reinforces the urge for Pogačar to show himself.” Bruyneel concluded: “July is what counts.”
When Bruyneel was behind the wheel of a team car, this philosophy of the Tour de France being the only race that counts was predominant. That was the one event that all of the sport’s leading performers peaked for. Yet, over the last decade or so, the absolute pre-eminence of the Tour has been tempered by the resurgence of other great races on the calendar. The Vuelta is arguably stronger than it’s ever been, the Giro has been revitalised, as have several of the major Classics, notably Il Lombardia.
The UCI can take a degree of the credit for this thanks to their finessing of the WorldTour calendar that has encouraged more frequent clashes between the peloton’s biggest names. Increasing TV coverage has also played a very significant part in spreading the focus more widely across the season. Yet, above all, it’s the riders who have boosted the profile of those races that take place outside July, by targeting and peaking for them.
Alberto Contador was one of the initial standard-bearers of this change. The Spaniard rarely lined up in a race with a view to do anything but challenge for victory. In recent years, Primož Roglič, Julian Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert and Pogačar, among others, have all followed a similar path, setting their sights on a number of objectives throughout a season, while of course saving a particular focus for the Tour.
It has ensured that the racing season doesn’t build towards July and then fade away after it, as had been the case in the 1990s and 2000s. We can now wallow in high-quality race action from February through to October. What’s more, the advent of van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock has also turbo-charged a renaissance of the cyclo-cross scene, resulting in close to year-round thrills for bike fans who want full racing immersion.
Turning to the question of the impact on Pogačar’s Tour hopes, it’s hard to see how they might be impacted by his pre-July programme bearing. He isn’t adding more racing targets, but different ones. Paris-Nice has replaced Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, partly because the French race is regarded as offering better preparation for the northern Classics, and specifically the Tour of Flanders (pictured), which is the Slovenian’s primary goal during the spring.
Where I do agree with Bruyneel is in the need for greater control of Pogačar from the team car during the Tour de France itself. In winning back-to-back Tours in 2020 and 2021, he seemed to think that he was unbeatable last July, that he could parry Jumbo-Visma’s attacks on the key mountain stages without leaning heavily on his own UAE teammates. To their huge credit, Jumbo exploited this chink in his armour perfectly.
Last year, though, Pogačar didn’t have highly experienced DS Allan Peiper guiding him through the Tour. Yet, having had further treatment for cancer, the Australian is set to be back in this role and his presence should ensure that the Slovenian star won’t allow himself to be goaded into reckless action by the relentless harrying of Jumbo’s big guns.
But that’s for July. There’s still a mass of races and contests that we can drool over before then, starting with Opening Weekend this coming weekend, followed by the Pogačar-less but still gripping Strade Bianche, and then the duel at Paris-Nice. Lap it all up, we’ve never had it so good.