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 by: Bill Oetinger  10/1/2020

Youth Will Be Served

Tadej Pogačar: learn how to spell that name; learn how to pronounce it (ta-DAY po-GOT-cha). We’ll be talking about this young man for years to come. The reason we’re talking about him in this column should be obvious to any fan of bike racing. He just won the better-late-than-never 2020 Tour de France. Not only did he win it but he did so in just about the most dramatic and emphatic way anyone could have imagined, blowing everyone else away in the uphill time trial on the last day of real racing. 

PogacarI’m not going to analyze every pivotal moment of le Tour but this stage demands a replay and some context. He arrived at that time trial in second place, 57 seconds behind his Slovenian countryman and close friend, Primoz Roglič, one of the very best time trial riders out there. This 36-km time trial had a stinger in its tail: after a fairly moderate first 30 km, the final six km were uphill at an average of 8.5%, with the last pitch to the finish line at 20%. Ouch! But then Roglič is not just a good time trialer. He was in first because he’s also a superb climber. He and his Jumbo-Visma team had controlled the race, day after day, by dominating in the hills…by keeping the tempo so high almost no one could challenge them.

Okay, not quite true. The word “almost” is in that sentence to allow for that pesky kid Pogačar. He could and did challenge for the lead in the hills, often to good effect. More about that in a minute. But the fact remains that he was still down :57 when he rolled out of the start house on that time trial. 

His pro resumé in time trials was a little thin. (What can you expect? He was only 21…turned 22 the day after the tour ended.) I think I read somewhere he had only completed five of them in his career. He first came to our attention when he won the 2019 Tour of California, but that race contained no time trial. Then he really caught our attention by winning three stages of the 2019 Vuelta a España, climbing onto the podium after his last hilltop stage win. Roglič beat him pretty soundly in the one ITT in that race on his way to winning the overall. But Pogačar beat Roglič by a few seconds in the Slovenian national time trial earlier this summer. He didn’t kill him but he did win, and on a hilly course that might serve as a preview for the TdF course.

But still..:57 over 36 km against one of the best in the world? Most folks who pondered the auguries figured it might be close but almost no one thought he could pull back that much time. His own Directeur Sportif said that if he rode out of his skin and if Roglič had a bad day, he just might pull it off…and that’s pretty much what happened. Roglič did have a subpar ride, by his standards. He finished fifth overall behind Pogačar and three other riders, two of them his own teammates—Tom Dumoulin and Wout Van Aert, two more of the best time trialers in the world. But even if he’d ridden as fast as Dumoulin—a former ITT World Champion—he would have still ended up 1:21 behind the young kid, his :57 lead gone. Look at it this way…the time spread from Dumoulin in second down to eighth place—the other seven fastest finishers—was 1:20. All of them within that window. The distance from Pogačar to Dumoulin was 1:21. The gap to Roglič was 1:56. He pulled back the :57 and added another :59 to it. Astonishing, really. 

Along the way to the yellow jersey, Pogačar also took home the white jersey for best young rider and the polkadot jersey for best climber. No one has ever won all three jerseys at one tour before, although Eddy Merckx would have done so had they awarded a white jersey the first year he rode—and won—the Tour. Oh, and Pogačar’s the youngest winner since 1904.

Pogačar’s Tour didn’t start out all that well. During the first week it seemed like he found some trouble almost every day. He’d get a flat or get stuck behind a crash and would have to ride hard to catch back on. Then Stage 7 gave us one of those classic crosswind days where, out in the flats, the more aggressive teams put the hammer down…echelons quickly formed and if you missed the bus you lost time. Pogačar and Richie Porte—who eventually finished the tour third overall—both ended up about a minute and a half behind the top gun like Roglič. In the case of Pogačar at least it wasn’t a matter of not paying attention. He had just had a flat and had drifted back to the team car to swap out the wheel when all hell broke loose up at the front of the peloton.

He never whined about his bad luck. Just said he’d have to put in a little work to claw back the lost time. Which he did, pulling back :40 on the very next stage, then winning Stages 9 and 15 but only gaining a few bonus seconds because Roglič finished right behind him each time. Then on Stage 17 Roglič turned the tables and beat Pogačar in the best uphill finish we’ve seen in years. When the dust had settled from that slugfest, Roglič had padded his lead out to :57 and there it stayed until the Stage 20 time trial. After that epic battle on Stage 17, most people figured Roglič had it wrapped up. The strongest rider supported by the strongest team. A worthy winner. Uh…not quite…

RoglicRoglič is a classy guy. At the finish of his disastrous time trial, stunned and shattered, he still managed to find Pogačar and congratulate him on his winning ride. Of course he was disappointed (to put it mildly). But remember that in his last three grand tours he has finished third (2019 Giro), first (2019 Vuelta), and now second at the Tour de France. No one else has matched that level of consistent excellence over the same span. He’s 30 now but has a few more years to do good things.

And then there’s Richie Porte in third place…his first ever Grand Tour podium at age 35. I had written him off a couple of years ago. Said his best days were behind him. I had said he has a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and when he lost that time in the crosswinds on Stage 7, I was thinking: there he goes again! But he didn’t give up. In the highest, hardest hills, he was one of only a couple of riders to stick with the two Slovenians when things got serious. He couldn’t quite match their pace but he was the best of the rest. And then he too banged out an amazing time trial: third place, just a fraction of a second behind Dumoulin. He says this was his last year as a team leader. He’s moving over to Ineos next year but the official line is that he will now be a super-domestique riding in support of their nominal team leaders, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal. That’s the official line at this point but he beat the crap out of all the Ineos leaders at the TdF so don’t bet the farm on that official line. 

Speaking of Ineos… There are dozens of interesting stories one could distill from the Tour but the biggest one, aside from the tussle between Pogačar and Roglič, was the meltdown of the formerly unstoppable Ineos team (up until last year known as Sky). Winners of seven out of eight of the previous TdFs: one each for Bradley Wiggin, Geraint Thomas, and Egan Bernal, and four for Chris Froome. A great deal of second guessing has trailed along behind the team’s decision to not enter Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas in this year’s TdF, relying instead on Egan Bernal—last year’s winner—and Richard Carapaz—last year’s Giro winner—to lead the team. Thomas and Froome had not shown much in the way of form over this truncated, bifurcated season. But then, neither had Bernal or Carapaz. In fact, Bernal was quietly nursing a bad back during the Dauphiné tune-up. Once the Tour got moving, Carapaz dropped out of contention almost immediately. Bernal hung around near the front—third place through Stage 14—but on Stage 15, with its huge finishing climb to Grand Colombier, he cracked big time…terminally…as big a bonk as we ever see from a supposedly top-notch GC rider. He lost almost eight minutes and that was all she wrote for Team Ineos at this year’s Tour. Lo, how the mighty are fallen!

The team’s grand plan—what’s left of it—is for Thomas to lead at the Giro—starting October 3—and for Froome to lead at the Vuelta, running off into November. Now there are rumors that either Carapaz or Bernal might ride the Vuelta, presumably in support of Froome. But this is something of a swan song for Froome and Ineos: he is leaving the team and moving next year to the relatively unknown Israel Start-Up Nation team. Ineos declined to renew his contract for 2021 so he’s moving on. How will they support this lame-duck leader at the Vuelta? How will he perform after recovering from his horrific accident in 2019? If he falters, will they throw their team support behind another rider?

The rosters for the Giro are out now and it looks like a wide open rumble with about half a dozen riders capable of winning the GC: Thomas, Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, Steven Kruijswijk, Diego Ullisi, Simon Yates…and, just for the hell of it, Lawson Craddock. We’ll find out soon enough. No rosters yet for the Vuelta. That soap opera will have to wait until next month.

Finally, a round of applause for Jumbo-Visma’s last, best mountain lieutenant, Sepp Kuss of Durango, Colorado. That guy can climb with the best of them although he’ll need to beef up his time trial to be a serious GC rider. Still…a really interesting new rider, perhaps the best out of the USA in years.

Finally, finally…a tip of the French beret to the irrepressible Julian Alaphilippe, who won the World Championship yesterday, the first for a French rider since 1997. He did it the way he usually does these things, with an audacious attack over the last summit and then a gritty, grinding time trial to the finish ahead of an all-star cast of chasers…Van Aert and Roglič among them. He’ll look good in the rainbow jersey next year. Salut!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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