For the twelfth day in a row, Tadej Pogacar has donned a yellow jersey, had a lion and a bouquet of flowers pressed into his hands and removed his yellow mask to show his smile when Eddy Merckx steps on stage and starts clapping.
The Belgian cycling great – five-time Tour winner, nicknamed ‘The Kannibaal’ – was invited by the organization on Friday to attend the nineteenth stage. The start place is Mourenx, once the finish place of a legendary stage in the 1969 Tour in which jersey wearer Merckx decided to attack on the Tourmalet and crossed the line after a solo of 105 kilometers. In honor of that memorable achievement, the velodrome next to the starting spot was later named after the Belgian.
On the podium, Pogacar looks aside for a moment. “It’s great to be next to Merckx,” he says shyly after the ceremony. “He is a cycling hero.” What about you, the interviewer from the Tour organization asks. Pogacar does not want to know anything about a comparison. “I don’t see myself that way yet.”
It will be modesty, because the dominance with which the Slovenian has ridden this Tour de France is undeniably of a Merckxian allure. Three stage wins, thirteen days in yellow, and an unbridgeable lead over the competition of more than five minutes since the Alps.
For the second year in a row, Pogacar will take home three jerseys on Sunday, as best climber, best youngster, and leader of the general classification. It is that a combination jersey is no longer awarded for the best all-round rider, as was the case in the 70s and 80s, otherwise it would also have been for the Slovenian. Pogacar is the complete rider, he doesn’t seem to have a weak spot.
He is only 22 years old, and he already has his second Tour victory. This puts him on a par with riders such as Lucien Petit-Breton, Fausto Coppi, Bernard Thévenet and Alberto Contador. Pogacar has shown that his victory in the previous edition, when he became the youngest post-war Tour winner, was no fluke. According to critics, he could have hitched a ride with the Jumbo-Visma team, had ridden the stage of his life during the final time trial, had benefited from the lower temperatures in the Tour that was driven by the corona virus in September.
It has been like gasoline on a burning fire for the Slovenian. Pogacar had the pee that everyone thought he owed his first Tour to one time trial. To make short work of that criticism, he worked for months towards this Tour. He missed preparation races such as the Critèrium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. His priority was some rest and a good exploration of the Tour stages.
To start with, he wanted to show that that one time trial was not a whim. In order to improve himself in the discipline, Pogacar experimented in the run-up to the Tour with a new time trial position, which had to be more aerodynamic. But his results were bad, he couldn’t transfer his power to the pedals. He decides to return to the attitude he had on the Planche des Belles Filles. He immediately wins the first time trial. On Saturday, when the yellow jersey was already in, he slowed down and finished eighth.
Pogacar also admits that he is less when temperatures rise above thirty degrees. But he comes through the heat of the Mont Ventoux and the Andorran Pyrenees unscathed, thanks in part to his team, another alleged weakness of his. This year Pogacar was given a team that had to be able to control the race for him. That only works somewhat in the second half of the Tour; for that, early flights are successful in just about every leg.
It doesn’t bother Pogacar. If his team can no longer assist him, then he will do it himself, right? Physiological research has shown that he recovers faster than others – a genetic gift from his parents, as he likes to say. This allows him to train harder and perform at a higher level for longer.
Those genes come in handy on days when it’s tough, such as in the pouring rain on the two mountain stages in the Alps. There he gives a demonstration in climbing. Attack once, twice, nobody can take it, then he’s gone. Pogacar takes more than three minutes on the rest in the eighth stage to Le Grand Bornand, something that has not happened since Marco Pantani. A day later he does the same in the final climb to Tignes; Whoops, another thirty seconds.
Questions and Suspicions
Deciding the Tour in a single attack; such a performance is followed by expectations and pressure, questions and suspicions. But it all slides off Pogacar, he shrugs.
For three weeks he politely answers all questions. Yes, he understands that questions about doping are part of it, just look at the history of cycling. But he has nothing to do with it. Are there controls for that? There are days when he has to turn in his pee three times.
Also read: Tadej Pogacar’s only weakness? Probably his team
That his sports director Mauro Gianetti worked at Saunier Duval more than ten years ago, when rider Riccardo Riccò was caught doping, that is also in the past, says Pogacar. “I can only speak for myself. He has always been good to me. The new cycling is a much nicer sport than it used to be.”
When asked about technological fraud, following a publication in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, who writes that riders hear strange noises coming from UAE’s bicycles, he reacts with surprise: “I don’t know what to say. We don’t use anything illegal.”
Which is not to say that Pogacar is resigned to everything. When asked about the weakness of his team for the umpteenth time, he reacts fiercely. “I’m riding in the leader’s jersey. So which team is stronger than us?”
Above all, Pogacar shows himself to be a 22-year-old boy who enjoys what he does. He jokes with teammates, sits cross-legged in the team bus as if he were meditating. He hugs Mathieu van der Poel when he wins a stage and takes the yellow jersey, because he is genuinely happy for his friend. He compliments his competitor Jonas Vingegaard on his development after a mountain stage in the Pyrenees and predicts a bright future for him.
Even when he’s on his bike, Pogacar seems to be smiling all the time, even if that’s apparent, he says during one of his many press conferences. He just grimaces when he suffers. But he’s really enjoying himself this Tour, he says more than once. „Since my win last year, I have lived a life beyond my childhood dream, I am very happy. The whole point of playing a sport is that you enjoy what you are doing. I try to do that every day.”
The question is how long Pogacar can continue to perform at this level. After participating in three big rounds (Vuelta ’19, Tour ’20 and ’21), the counter is on two yellow jerseys, a third place in the general classification in Spain and nine stage victories. Pogacar refuses to speak of a ‘Pogacar era’ after the time trial on Saturday. “I don’t think about records, I enjoy this moment. Right now my next ambition is the Olympics, and then a good holiday. And then we’ll see.”
Pogacar said he has been lucky in avoiding falls this year, unlike his rivals Primoz Roglic and Geraint Thomas. Due to their injuries they were unable to continue or did not play a significant role in the standings.
Don’t let that take away from how well Pogacar rides, says the only rider in the peloton with the same experience, four-time Tour winner Chris Froome. “He is very complete. Climbing, time trialling, everything you need to be a good GC rider. No one is going to get close this way.”
Merckx does see similarities between the young Slovenian and his former self. In the eighteenth stage, Pogacar was able to leave the victory to one of his rivals, but he did not let them go and sprinted for the victory, to the surprise of his mother who stood watching on the mountain. “I thought he would be social today,” she told NOS afterwards.
Just as merciless as Merckx, who always wanted to win. The Belgian predicts years of success for Pogacar. “I see in him the new Cannibal,” he told Sporza on Friday. “He can certainly win the Tour de France more than five times.”