Will the 2020 Grand Tour Winners Find Success Once More?
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, 2020 brought three of the most enthralling Grand Tours that we have ever seen, with all three race races being decided by less than a minute, for the first time in cycling history. The Tour de France culminated in blockbuster fashion as Tadej Pogačar ripped up the Jumbo Visma playbook, though the Tour was actually the least close of the three 'Grandies'. Whilst the Slovenians were ultimately separated by 59 seconds, the defeated Roglic went on to win La Vuelta a España by only 24 seconds to Richard Carapaz. Arguably, the Giro d'Italia, falling between the races in France and Spain, brought the most thrilling encounter, as the leaders Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart went into the final day's time trial level on time. Never before had this happened in a Grand Tour and whilst Geoghegan Hart took 39 seconds in the time trial and looked comfortable in Milan, it was another example that 2020 was one for the record books.
Tadej Pogačar flies up La Planche des Belles Filles to shock the world. © Getty Images Sport
Prior to the three Grand Tours, only Primoz Roglic would have been tipped to win, with neither Pogačar nor Geoghegan Hart having won a Grand Tour prior to last year. Although Pogačar finished an impressive third in the 2019 Vuelta where he picked up three stage victories, the 2020 Tour de France was to be his first and Bernard Hinault (1978) had been the last man to win the Tour at their first attempt. Exciting and promising yes, but a Tour de France winner at his first attempt? The answer was... unlikely. As for Tao Geoghegan Hart, he had only finished two Grand Tours, both in Spain, with a 62nd placing in 2018 followed by 20th in 2019. Neither of the men were going into their respective Grand Tours as the sole leader of their team, further going to show that greatness was not expected of them. Geoghegan Hart was to ride solely in support of Geraint Thomas at the Giro, whilst Pogačar shared leadership at UAE Team Emirates with the 2015 Vuelta a España winner, Fabio Aru.
As we all now know, their lack of experience and leadership hampered neither of Pogačar or Geoghegan Hart, with both taking incredible victories in their respective races. Primoz Roglic provided a surprise nonetheless; going into the Tour de France, the Slovenian had won the National Championship Road Race, Tour de l'Ain- which had a blockbuster startlist- and looked set to win the Critérium du Dauphiné before injury on a descent into Ugine. Although the crash had left him bandaged going into the Tour's opening week, stage victory on day 4 eased any concerns over his form. This was a dominant uphill win to Orcières-Merlette, with the Jumbo Visma team seemingly invincible. The surprise eventually came on stage 20 when the aforementioned Pogačar stole the show to La Planche des Belles Filles. It was not to be for one Slovenian, as the elder statesman Roglic reared his head to the Vuelta instead. Bravely fighting off a terrier-like Richard Carapaz (constantly nipping at his heels), Roglic took his second Vuelta title in succession, becoming the first man to win back-to-back titles since Roberto Heras in the early 2000s.
The question lingers then, how well will the three men perform in 2021? They are all Grand Tour champions and have all remained on the same teams, is it possible for them to achieve the same success this season? The answer to that question is a resounding no, as none of the men are racing the Giro d'Italia, therefore at least one of them will be missing out on a Grand Tour title this season. The last time that two of a season's Grand Tour winners went on to both win Grand Tours the following year was 1995, when Miguel Indurain took his fifth Tour de France title and Tony Rominger followed up his Vuelta a España win with victory in the 1995 Giro d'Italia. I am going to stick my neck on the line and say that both Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogačar will win Grand Tours this year and in doing so, will follow in the legacy of Indurain and Rominger.
Tao Geoghegan Hart takes stage 15 at the 2020 Giro d'Italia, his first Grand Tour stage victory. © Getty Images Sport
In rather unsurprising news, Tao Geoghegan Hart announced that he would not be returning to the Giro d'Italia this year, instead he would line up at the Tour de France for the first time. His Ineos Grenadiers teammate Egan Bernal will be the man to watch at the Giro, whilst Geoghegan Hart will slot alongside Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz at the Tour. Both Thomas and Carapaz are previous Grand Tour champions themselves and Dave Brailsford has already voiced belief in the Welshman to repeat his 2018 success.
"Given the time trialling, the nature of the climbing, the first week and the crosswinds, that element lends itself well to his skills and atrributes. On paper: it's a great Tour for Geraint."
Brailsford hints at Thomas being the prioritised leader in France
The combination of crowded leadership at Ineos and a lack of experience at the Tour will play against Geoghegan Hart, as he bids to prove himself on cycling's biggest stage. It would be highly surprising, albeit pleasant, to see Geoghegan Hart win the Grand Boucle at his first attempt. As previously mentioned, Bernard Hinault was the last man before Pogačar to take the Tour at the first attempt, and an argument could be made that just like the Badger, 'Pog' is also a generational talent. Prior to the Frenchman's debut success in 1978, Merckx had taken victory at first attempt in 1969. Both of these men are legends of the sport, both are generational talents. Where Geoghegan Hart may find solace and hope, is with the case of Felice Gimondi, who won the Tour de France on his first ride in 1965. Gimondi recalls that he even had to ask his mother for permission before venturing off to France. Let us not be stupid here, Gimondi also had a fine career himself and finished with five Grand Tour victories, including three at the Giro, but he is not in the upper echelon of cycling's greats. Let us ignore for the moment that he rode in the era of Eddy Merckx and thus was denied many more victories, Gimondi provides hope that Geoghegan Hart may be able to equal Pogačar's achievement and win in France this year.
However, whilst it does not belittle his achievement in any way, we must recognise that Geoghegan Hart's Giro d'Italia success came in a race with a weakened startlist, due to the nature of the 2020 WorldTour season. If he is to taste success in France, it would be through toppling riders such as Roglic, Pogačar and Thomas, rather than Jai Hindley, João Almeida and Wilco Kelderman. He may very well enjoy a successful Tour, which would constitute helping a teammate to victory; after all, the pressure is not on the shoulders of Geoghegan Hart this season. But, it would not be wise to put money on him achieving Grand Tour success this season, he should not be expected to win the Tour de France at the first attempt. If one of last year's victors is going to fail to repeat their success, it will be the man from Hackney.
Tadej Pogačar was the revelation of the 2019 Vuelta a España. © Gruber Images
In my opinion, the man most likely to enjoy Grand Tour success (meaning overall victory in this context) this season is Tadej Pogačar, with the 2020 Tour de France champion being a good bet to retain his title. He will have two bites at the apple to find such success, with the young Slovenian in line to race both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España.
This year's Tour de France presents a time trial heavy parcours, giving us three stand-out candidates for victory in Paris- Tadej Pogačar, Primoz Roglic and Geraint Thomas. There are other men to keep an eye on, Steven Kruijswijk and Vincenzo Nibali, but it is hard to look past the aforementioned trio. Kruijswijk will be plan B for Jumbo Visma and will ride in support of Roglic if needed, whilst Nibali's fourth place in 2015 was the last time he had a successful crack at the GC in France.
If we were discussing a battle between 'Rog', 'Pog' and 'G' this time last year, the advantage would be given to the men from Jumbo Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, however, this is 2021 and times have changed. Firstly, Pogačar has proven that victory is possible without having the strongest team at the Tour. Secondly, UAE Team Emirates have strengthened with the additions of Rafal Majka, Matteo Trentin and Marc Hirschi. Initially, one may look at Marc Hirschi and be confused with how his signing helps Pogačar, but it is my belief that he may prove crucial in France this summer. Hirschi will help the Slovenian by proving a thorn in the side of Roglic when it comes to bonus seconds. Perhaps an area of the competition that was slept on a few years back, 2020 showed how crucial these bonuses can prove, with Primoz Roglic winning the Vuelta a España on time bonuses alone, not by taking time on the road from the poor Richard Carapaz. These bonuses will again be a target for Roglic this year, and Marc Hirschi could be the secret weapon deployed by UAE Team Emirates to rob the Jumbo Visma man of any 'easy time gains'. Furthermore, Pogačar should have the advantage over Roglic in the time trials, having proven himself twice last season when competing with the Jumbo Visma leader- the National Time Trial Championships and stage 20 of the Tour. Admittedly, both courses were remarkably hilly in their nature, but most of the time taken back on Roglic on last year's stage 20, was actually taken on the flat run in to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Geraint Thomas is arguably a better time triallist than both of the Slovenians, but will have to prove himself once more, with the 2019 Tour de France being his last completed Grand Tour. Given Thomas' crash-marred 2020 and Roglic's defeat at last year's Tour, the smart money is on Pogačar to retain his Tour title in July and if he does so, he will be establishing the sport's latest dynasty.
© Getty Images Sport
No, that is not the famous Slovakian pictured above, it is the Slovenian winner of the past two Vueltas a España. It feels weird doesn't it? Seeing a green jersey not worn by Peter Sagan, even if it is a different race. Donning the points classification jersey that he would win overall, Primoz Roglic was celebrating his stage 8 success atop Alto de Moncalvillo, en route to winning the 2020 Vuelta. He has won two Vueltas in succession, and my money is on Roglic to take the 2021 Vuelta to match. If he were to do so, he would be the first (uncontested) winner of three Vueltas in a row since Tony Rominger, with the record setter taking victories in 1992, 1993, and 1994.
Let us get the formalities out of the way first, Primoz Roglic has not confirmed himself to even ride the Vuelta this season, with his primary goal being to take a maiden Tour de France victory. Indeed, according to The Cycling Podcast, Roglic has gone as far as saying he will not be riding the Vuelta this year. However, we have ascertained by now that Tadej Pogačar will be winning this year's Tour- that's how it works right? I have predicted it and so it must happen... sounds like a plan. Therefore, coming off the back of yet another defeat to his national compatriot, Roglic will be determined once more to taste Grand Tour success in Spain. Yes, we are deep in conjecture territory now, but as a famous Mancunian once said, you've got to roll with it...
Tadej Pogačar has never ridden two Grand Tours in the same season, in fact, he has never ridden two major (week-long) stage races in the same season. It appears a remarkable stat for a reigning Tour de France champion, but the Slovenian placed sixth at the 2019 Tour of the Basque Country, before finishing third at that year's Vuelta a España. Later, in a COVID-interrupted 2020 season, he only raced the Critérium de Dauphiné before tasting success at the Tour. As a result, it is hard to predict how he will perform at this year's Vuelta, having confirmed himself to be riding both the Grand Tours in Spain and France. Whilst it would be silly of us write off this remarkable young athlete, it is best to have low expectations, rather than having too high expectations. It will be a challenge enough retaining his Tour de France title, without worrying about winning the Vuelta as well. Chris Froome (2017) is the only man to have won the Tour-Vuelta double since the Tour of Spain was moved to its current slot in the calendar. The reigning Tour de France champion is still remarkably young and to expect such a feat would be burdening him with enormous pressure.
In the absence of a victory for Pogačar, in swoops Roglic to take our conjecture-filled 2021 Vuelta a España. As ever, many riders who fail in their initial goals of the Giro or the Tour will be lining up at the start in Burgos, but the current confirmed starters should not cause Roglic any sleepless nights. Rigoberto Urán is the most distinguished GC starter, having placed second at the 2017 Tour de France, but his sights are set on a podium place to complete his trio of podium finishes at each of the Grand Tours. Alongside Urán at the Vuelta will more than likely be Almeida, Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas and Adam Yates as the main contenders for overall victory. Again, none of these men have won a Grand Tour, but keep your eye on Adam Yates who will be determined to make his mark at Ineos Grenadiers.
The Vuelta route features 41.7km of ITT, which is not a lot compared to 12 days which are 'hilly' or 'mountains'. Whilst Roglic is also good time triallist, he has shown himself to be a great climber over the past few years. At last year's Vuelta, he took four stage victories, only one of which being against the clock. Should Roglic head to the Vuelta this year with the aim of winning the general classification, he would be in the top 3 favourites no matter who was on the startlist. I would not be surprised to see him win back-to-back-to-back titles in Spain, which would create quite the legacy for the Slovenian.
Whether it be Pogačar, Roglic, or both of them, I am confident that one of the Slovenians will take a Grand Tour this season. Both men are in the sport's current upper echelon, with arguably only Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz currently being on equal footing. One thing is for certain, this season will provide a showdown between Jumbo Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, with UAE Team Emirates determined to turn this dual into a three-way. It would be wrong to say that Geoghegan Hart cannot win a Grand Tour this season, but it is more the case of allowing it to come as a pleasant surprise. The most exciting Grand Tour will arguably feature none of 2020's Grand Tour champions, with the Giro d'Italia lining up as a contest between Egan Bernal and Thibaut Pinot, both on the road to redemption, along with Simon Yates and Remco Evenepoel, amongst others. Ultimately, predicting the future of 2020's champions is simply a matter of conjecture, but if neither Roglic nor Pogačar end the season with a Grand Tour victory, it will have been another year full of surprises at cycling's 'Grandies'.