Words by Nick Bull | Photos by SWpix.com
Helped by the absence of the penultimate day time trial drama that unfolded at last year’s race and a GC battle as uneventful as the 2014 edition, Tadej Pogačar will ride into Paris on Sunday to be crowned a two-time winner of the Tour de France.
Despite only moving into the maillot jaune at Le Grand-Bornand on stage eight, the 22-year-old Slovenian has been the champion in waiting since day five, when he won the race’s first time trial at Laval. Discussion surrounding the supposed weakness of his UAE-Team Emirates squad ultimately proved incorrect, while on the two occasions podium finishers Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz managed to distance him – Mont Ventoux for the former, Signal d’Uchon for the latter – Pogačar recovered and failed to concede a single second to his nearest challengers.
His palmarès is already spectacular: two Tour de France starts, two Tour de France wins. He already sits alongside the likes of Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Bernard Thévenet and Laurent Fignon, although he batted away what it means to be in that club in a post-race interview. “I will think about that in the future,” he said. “Now I’m just happy for the moment. I’ll enjoy this.” Add in his third-place finish in the 2019 Vuelta, achieved before he turned 21, and it’s hard to argue that the Pogačar era isn’t already underway. By comparison, Bernard Hinault won his first four Grand Tour starts before abandoning the 1980 Tour (while leading) with tendinitis. Pogačar has already eclipsed Eddy Merckx’s record – the Belgian only won one of his first three Grand Tour starts (the 1968 Giro) – although the Cannibal went on to win 10 in a row after that.
While some of Pogačar’s answers in press conferences during this year’s Tour were unsatisfactory – the “never tested positive line” on the first rest day left a bitter taste – he was sensible to play down talk of him becoming the dominant rider of this generation. “I don’t believe there is a Pogačar era,” he said after winning Thursday’s stage to Luz Ardiden. “We are already living through a very good period. We should see some great battles in the decade to come [with] Egan Bernal, Wout Van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mathieu van der Poel, Jonas Vingegaard.”
Such caution is advised for a number of reasons. Time may have neutered the venom somewhat, but the unsavoury manner in which a handful of spectators responded to Team Sky’s dominance during the 2015 race suggests appearing cold and calculated, perhaps even a little too self-congratulatory, is a strategy worth avoiding. Winning back-to-back summit finishes, as Pogačar did this week, is arguably not compatible with such an approach, mind. It’s also worth considering that the front cover of Cycle Sport magazine’s 1997 Tour review issue read ULLRICH TAKES OVER after Big Jan’s dominant victory. The German was only 23 at the time, had placed second a year earlier on debut in the race, and was also tipped to dominate. Instead, the 1999 Vuelta was the only other time he stood on the top step of a Grand Tour podium.
That said, two riders in Pogačar’s list, Evenepoel and van der Poel, are yet to finish a three-week race. Bernal is the only one with a comparable Grand Tour record (two wins from four starts). Pogačar has to be considered better than the Colombian, especially when it comes to time trials and, based on the INEOS rider’s back troubles, potential longevity. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen somebody as talented as him,” said Eurosport pundit Bradley Wiggins. “We can see him dominating this sport now. We said when Bernal won [in 2019] that he could win seven Tours – this kid really could. I think it’s harder to win your second Tour than your first and it’s not even been a year [since he won in 2020], but he’s defended his title with class. He picked up where he left off at La Planche des Belles Filles. He’s a brilliant winner.”
Pogačar, Bernal and Primož Roglič are set to go up against each other at this year’s Vuelta, on paper a tantalising prospect, although much depends on how well the two-time Tour winner recovers from the last three weeks. Any lingering fatigue may level the playing field and give us the most intriguing GC battle of 2021. It’s worth remembering that the last time the UAE rider was seen struggling in the mountains during a Grand Tour came on the Puerto de Cotos on stage 18 of the Vuelta two years ago. He’s now completed two Tours de France without a jour sans in the Alps or Pyrenees. Had he lost the 2020 Tour, it would have been down to his poor positioning approaching a crosswind section en route to Lavaur as opposed to any deficiencies in his climbing or time trialling.
The mix of Pogačar’s all-round ability and his age are his biggest strengths, even if they also add to the suspicion some have about his performances. Saturday’s edition of L’Équipe compared him to four former Tour winners: Merckx (in terms of his domination), Hinault (for being able to compete from February to October), Alberto Contador (capable of delivering race-winning attacks in the mountains) and Cadel Evans (backing up his climbing performances in time trials). Merckx has already seen Mark Cavendish equal his long-standing stage win record at the Tour and he’s already talking up Pogačar’s chances of joining the five-time winners’ club, too. “I see him as the new Cannibal,” he said on Thursday. “He is extremely strong – I can see him winning several editions of the Tour in the coming years. If nothing happens to him, he can certainly win [it] more than five times.”
Recent history suggests that Pogačar won’t have as comfortable a ride at future Tours as he had in this year’s; in the past decade, only the aforementioned 2014 race saw a bigger margin between the winner and third place. The rumoured signings of João Almeida from Deceuninck-Quick Step and Movistar duo Marc Soler and Antonio Pedrero for 2022 should strengthen his UAE team, of course. Being the defending champion will bring its pressures over the next 11 months, but imagine the soul searching that will be going on within Team Jumbo-Visma and INEOS Grenadiers right now. Will Roglič ever crack the Tour? Where do INEOS go from here? Their four-way leadership strategy still looks incredibly misguided, even if Carapaz is set to finish third. These are talking points for another day. As Pogačar said in his first interview after crossing the line in Saint-Émilion, today’s finishing location and famed wine-producing commune, “for the moment, I am just very happy.”