The Road to the Tour: Pogačar Rules Volta a Catalunya

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Tadej Pogačar is using the 2024 season to make a statement – several statements, in fact. One of them is that 2023 was an aberration in the career of one of the greatest cyclists of all time. The UAE Team Emirates leader’s victory in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya wasn’t merely dominant; it was extraterrestrial. The final GC standings show that he won the race by 3:41 over second-place Mikel Landa (Soudal Quick-Step) and 5:03 over Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers), but big as the gaps were, they don’t really tell the story.

Pogačar won four of the race’s seven stages, including the bunch sprint in the final stage, though he could have won five but mistimed his late run after stage 1 winner Nick Schultz (Israel–Premier Tech) and came up inches short. The 25-year-old Slovenian was untouchable on the mountain stages, and was so strong on the ascents that he slapped a security motorcycle that was slowing him down as he surged up the final climb on stage 6, to the summit finish at Queralt (6km @ 7.2%). That grueling stage had five categorized climbs on its 154.1km route, including the Beyond Category (HC) climb of the Col de Pratell (14,6km @ 7%, with the final 5.5km at 11%). Pogačar won the stage by 57 seconds over Bernal and Landa, with Enric Mas (Movistar) and a small group of other excellent climbers finishing more than 2 minutes behind him.

The race was good news for Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) and his hopes for a good showing in the Tour de France. Landa, who will be his super-domestique in the Tour, looks in terrific form and was very much the second-best climber in the race. The Catalunya was also good for Bernal, who looks to be returning to form after suffering horrific injuries in a training crash two years ago. He may be INEOS’s best climber now, but still no match for Pogačar. So his team has to decide how and in what race he could be most useful.

As for Pogačar, when the crossed the last finish line of the race, he held up four fingers to let everyone know what they already knew: That he had won four stages, that right now there is no better road racer in the world and that last year – when a crash in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège cost him the Tour de France, and he ended the year without a Grand Tour win – was a fluke. He finished second in the Tour, won two Tour stages, won the Paris-Nice and several Classics, so it could be considered a very good year for any cyclist – but not for Pogačar, who clearly is not any cyclist.

That is one reason he has set himself such an ambitious schedule: the Giro, the Tour, the Paris Olympics and the World Championships. If he wins three of those races, he will stamp his name forever on the history of the sport. If he wins all four, people will name their children after him.

But is he that much better than everyone else? Because to win the Tour he will have to beat Jonas Vingegaard (Visma –Lease a Bike), who beat him the last two years and is presumably also better this year than he was in 2023. And to win the World Championship road race in Zurich and the Olympics road race, he will have to be better than Wout van Aert (Visma–Lease a Bike) and, especially, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceunick), who are both suited by the hilly courses and will have danced fewer dances than the Slovenian and will be fresher.

If he stays healthy, Pogačar will almost certainly win the Giro, where his biggest rivals are likely to be the quality of climbers he defeated in the Catalunya (though the final starter’s list has not yet been made official) and the strongest rival cyclist is likely to be van Aert, who will be going for stage wins, not the GC. But if Vingegaard beats him again in the Tour and he is beaten by one or both of the ‘vans’ in the Olympics and the World Championships, his year could be considered a failure.

So he is taking a huge risk – for which all cycling fans should be grateful. To have a rider of Pogačar’s superb talent put himself on the road in the most important races of the year is a gift to all cycling aficionados and fans of sports in general. Let’s cross our fingers and hope he stays healthy the entire year.