One week into Le Grand Boucle
Ben O’Connor won an epic mountain stage in the Alps, riding himself into overall contention in the process. © Getty Images Sport
Who can stop Tadej now? At one point, on the road to Tignes, it was looking like the answer to that question may well have been Ben O’Connor. However, with the way Pogaĉar has ridden this race so far, it seems that bar an absolute disaster the Tour has already been wrapped up and is now his to lose. Whilst O’Connor’s performance was beyond epic, and rightly deserved all the plaudits it gathered, Pogaĉar will no doubt now feel an urge to silence the Australian and any hope he had of pulling on that Yellow jersey in the process. At the time of me writing this, we’re at the first rest day and have already been treated to a masterclass from Pogaĉar in how to gain time as and when you can.
The ease with which he has continued to put seconds into the rest of the field is a phenomenon rarely seen in modern day cycling. One can’t help but wonder just how the first week would have unfolded had we been treated to the much expected three way duel, Pog vs Rog vs Geraint Thomas. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t distract from just how much of a revelation Tadej Pogaĉar is continuing to prove himself to be in this wonderful sport. It was probably best for all parties concerned that a battered and bruised Primož Roglič eventually abandoned. It was sad to see him struggling through in such a poor physical state, particularly after his big ambitions this summer. Roglič will be back and given his bad luck this year he will be even more fired up to finally add the Tour de France to his impressive palmarès in 2022.
Stage 9 was a fitting end to what has certainly been one of the most memorable opening weeks in recent years. The conditions out on the road were more befitting of a typical Giro d’Italia mountain stage. Through the driving rain, the TV pictures captured perfectly the drama of the battle between Ben O’Connor, Sergio Higuita and Nairo Quintana with other groups of riders scattered behind them. Decked out in winter kit, O’Connor overcame the freezing conditions to put the hammer down and catapult himself into contention once the lights had gone out for Higuita and Quintana on the final climb to Tignes.
Tadej Pogaĉar was isolated at times on Stage 9, but the reigning champion proved once again that he can more than hold his own. © Getty Images Sport
Meanwhile, further back down on the lower slopes of the mountain, the futility of attempting to attack Tadej Pogaĉar once again was about to be demonstrated. Like any sport, it is of course a fool’s game to claim an event is a forgone conclusion before it’s reached its natural climax. With that being said, the likes of Richard Carapaz really seem to be clutching at straws in an attempt to attack and then distance Pogaĉar. Like a true game of cat and mouse, it was almost painful to see Carapaz attempt to stay with the Maillot Jaune or attack him on both Alpine stages. Despite Carapaz’s efforts the inevitable was always going to happen when Pogaĉar put social distancing into practice and disappeared up the road to snatch yet more seconds over the Ecuadorian.
On the second day in the Alps, Pogaĉar consistently showed that he has no need for his teammates and is capable of decimating this Tour de France without them. If his key-domestiques, like Brandon McNulty for instance, glance behind and ride off the road into a ditch then all is not lost. Just like last year, Pogaĉar can just sit on the wheels of his rivals like a boxer on the ropes, then throw a knock-out punch just as they think they’ve got the better of him.
At times during the opening week Pogaĉar has simply looked like he’s having too much fun to kill the race off just yet. He clearly is capable of doing so, but like all, natural predators, will continue tormenting his prey until he gets bored and finishes the job. Whether that will occur on the Mont Ventoux stage this week remains to be seen, but Pogaĉar will almost certainly want the prestige of winning a stage or two with the Yellow jersey on his back before the race reaches Paris.
Not content with his time-trial victory earlier in the week, Pogaĉar snapped the neck of his rivals on Stage 8 to Le Grand-Bornand. © Getty Images Sport
With riders further down the general classification looking at deficits of roughly 5 minutes to make up, it’s beginning to look like going long with an attack on the Slovenian is the only option to dislodge him. It’s a feat that is often unachievable, but Ben O’Connor very nearly pulled it off in Tignes. The likes of Richard Carapaz don’t quite possess the same diesel powered engine as O’Connor, so are unlikely to attempt such a move, but as we have already seen in this edition of the race, anything is possible. Pogaĉar himself also showed just what a long range attack can do with his stunning performance on the way to Le Grand-Bornand. It was so good that the ITV pundits likened it to the great Fausto Coppi himself on their podcast.
“Attack is the best form of defence” said Tadej as he claimed the Yellow jersey on the first mountain stage of the race. However, with this sort of fire burning in the reigning champion’s belly, this may be a mantra that only the Slovenian himself will be able to put into practice. Another really noteworthy point in relation to Tadej Pogaĉar’s brilliance is his seemingly genius ability to avoid major crashes and other incidents. After all you make your own luck and Pogaĉar’s clever riding, astute bike handling and awareness of others is his way of keeping out of trouble. For all the scandal associated with Lance Armstrong it’s fair to say that doping aside, he too possessed the same ability to stay on his bike and therefore avoiding incidents on the road where possible.
Tadej Pogaĉar recovers after blowing the current race apart on stage 8 to Le Grand-Bornand. © Bettini Photo
Heading back to the current Tour, whilst it’s unlikely, it will take something special to topple Pogaĉar now. There is plenty of road left for riders like Carapaz, O’Connor and Uran, amongst others, to make a difference so I would be reluctant to fall into the trap of suggesting it’s all over.
Either way, the race so far feels like a throwback to the grand exploits of Tours long faded into the past, with daring long distance breakaways and exploits of riders on the most challenging of terrain. All the signs point to that continuing post rest day one, meaning that the next two weeks are shaping up to be two enthralling weeks of racing. Are we witnessing a new era in the Tour? Only time will tell, but the thought of Pogaĉar winning 5 Tours by the time he turns 25 is an impressive statistic. Being able to silence one of the greatest cycling teams of all time, INEOS Grenadiers, is a thing that only a true phenomenon could achieve, but Tadej has done it. The stifling INEOS mountain train no longer works, and Pogaĉar is making some of the best climbers in the world look like amateurs as he rips the race to shreds. Gone are the days of long drawn out sprints for the line on mountain stages, abolished are the days of mind numbing long stages. This is the era of new riders coming to the fore. Riders like Mathieu van der Poel and the current defending champion, Tadej Pogaĉar, whom are capable of ripping up the script of old and writing their names into history.