Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
Will there be a classier break this season? As Strade Bianche billowed towards its gripping conclusion, it featured a magnificent seven comprising defending champion Wout van Aert and his arch-rival Mathieu van der Poel, world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar, his predecessor Egan Bernal, one of the best talents around in Tom Pidcock, and, as the surprise package, the rather unheralded Austrian rider Michael Gogl.
Watching the race on French TV, the commentators were full of praise for the Qhubeka-Assos rider, although Jacky Durand admitted to an element of bewilderment. As the super septet hurtled towards Siena, the former Tour of Flanders winner and Tour de France yellow jersey pointed out that Gogl doesn’t look very comfortable on the bike, that the rangy Austrian often appeared ungainly and to be struggling. Yet, Durand added, Gogl’s style was extremely effective.
They also pointed out that the Austrian had finished ninth in the Italian white roads Classic in 2020. While that was an indicator of Gogl’s Strade Bianche potential, a more timely one came in the opening stage race of this season, the Étoile de Bessèges. Prior to the third stage, the most testing of the race, I wanted to speak to an experienced road captain about that role. I mentioned this to Qhubeka-Assos press officer Jean Smyth. “You want to talk to Michael Gogl,” he said. “He’s really good in that role.”
The first thing that surprised me about Gogl was his age. He’s 27, which is on the young side for a road captain. He arrived in the peloton in 2016 with the Tinkoff team and quickly impressed his new teammates with his ability to read how races would unfold and adapt his team’s tactics to suit. He made his Grand Tour debut that season alongside Tinkoff leader Alberto Contador at the Vuelta a España and followed the Spaniard in signing for Trek a year later. That season he made his Tour de France debut, acting as Contador’s lieutenant once again.
Gogl spent three seasons with Trek, mostly working in the service of others, but occasionally providing hints of untapped potential. He was eighth in the Amstel Gold Race in 2017, fifth overall at the Tour of Poitou-Charentes a year later. In 2020, he moved to what was then NTT Pro Cycling and gained a little more freedom to ride for himself, most obviously at Strade Bianche, where he was a very distant ninth behind van Aert.
Yet last month’s Étoile de Bessèges hinted at something even better might be around the corner. On that third stage, he was part of a 15-strong breakaway group that featured several of the race’s biggest names, including Lotto-Soudal duo Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, and Ineos Grenadiers Michal Kwiatkowski and, coincidentally, Egan Bernal. That lifted him to eighth on GC.
Stage four marked the start of the Filippo Ganna Show, the Italian taking the first of back-to-back wins at Saint-Siffret. Gogl slipped to 10th that day, but that didn’t tell the story of his courageous performance. The race went up a steep wall through Saint-Siffret three times. Prior to the second ascent, Gogl had a mechanical issue, got dropped and rode up the climb well down on the bunch, which was hammering along going into the final lap. Although Gogl didn’t manage to regain contact with the group that was vainly pursuing Ganna, he finished just eight seconds behind it. In the final day time trial, when Ganna was untouchable once again, Gogl moved up to sixth on GC.
On Opening Weekend, the Austrian was in the bunch that finished on the heels of Davide Ballerini at Het Nieuwsblad and was again the next day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne behind Mads Pedersen. His focus, though, was primarily on Strade Bianche.
Gogl’s always been at home in hilly races, indeed this was the reason why Trek signed him, and he was quick to move when Wout van Aert first raised the pace on the white roads, Qhubeka teammates Simon Clarke and Rob Power also joining him. When Julian Alaphilippe instigated the next major split, Gogl was quick and strong enough to make the move once again.
Gogl has yet to win a pro race and there was little likelihood that he would change that given the outstanding quality of the company he was in as this epic edition of Strade Bianche neared its conclusion. Yet, in finishing sixth and within a minute of the astonishing van der Poel, the Austrian suggested that success may not be too far away.
Reputed for his Stakhanovite approach to training, Gogl has thrived since being reunited with DS Lars Michaelsen at NTT last season, the pair having previously worked together at Tinkoff. “He’s not a Classics rider, he’s too slight for that,” Michaelsen told L’Équipe in the wake of Strade Bianche. “When he made his debut for Tinkoff in 2016… he could immediately see everything that was happening in the peloton. He seemed like a rider who had been a pro for five years. Alberto Contador noticed him and said, ‘He’s not bad.’ And he took him the next season to Trek-Segafredo.”
Gogl played the role of domestique very well for the next three seasons, but, added Michaelsen, he gradually began to want to see how far he could go himself. “I brought him with me to NTT. He didn’t want to hear about Strade Bianche when we initially put together his programme for 2020,” Michaelsen explained. But, when NTT held a training camp in Italy last July in preparation for the restart of racing following the Covid-enforced break, it was clear to the Danish DS where Gogl’s focus should be. “It was logical for him to be selected, even against his will.” As soon as he crossed the line in ninth place, Gogl affirmed, “Now I want to make this race an objective.”
So, after sixth place and a starring performance alongside the very best at Strade Bianche, what next for Michael Gogl? Tirreno-Adriatico might provide the answer and, if it does, this time no one will be surprised.
If you enjoyed this, why not try our review of the 2020 season
‘Racing in the Time of Covid’ – available to purchase here >