If Pogačar stays healthy in the next five to ten years, he will break many of the records set by the (so far) greatest of them all, Eddy Merckx. That’s not only my opinion. The Cannibal himself has said so. “I see him as the new Cannibal,” five-time Tour champion Merckx said after last year’s race. “He is extremely strong. I see him winning several editions of the Tour in the years to come. If nothing happens to him, he can certainly win the Tour de France more than five times.”
That’s good enough for me. Merckx was 23 years old when he won his first Tour de France in 1969. Pogačar is 23 now. That is truly mind-boggling. I usually like an underdog to win a sporting event because it is more interesting than having the favourite win. But I have to root for the freakishly talented Slovenian UAE Team Emirates rider because watching him race in the Tour is like watching a ballet dancer on a high wire: breathtaking and beautiful.
Back when I was a small kid with big dreams 😁
— Tadej Pogačar (@TamauPogi) June 30, 2022
By now, every cycling fan knows that he is a marvellous climber, a nonpareil time-trial rider and very, very smart. Though he won the 2020 Tour on his own, with little support from his team, last year Team Emirates came of age and provided excellent support. There’s no reason to believe that the team hasn’t made even more progress. Which is good because Pogačar’s primary rivals are no longer individual riders but teams. Both Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers have nominated teams with multiple GC contenders, hoping that way to defeat him and, at the same time, acknowledging his superiority.
Jumbo-Visma is led by two yellow jersey contenders, three-time Vuelta winner and Pogačar’s compatriot Primož Roglič and 25-year-old Dane Jonas Vingegaard. Roglič was neck and neck with Pogačar in the 2020 Tour but was destroyed by his countryman in the time trial in the penultimate stage. Watching him struggle up the time trial’s final ascent, desperate and well beaten, was one of the saddest sports images of the year. Roglič is a terrific rider but he is no Pogačar.
Last year’s Tour was supposed to start in Denmark but Covid put an end to that. Still, Vingegaard had trained to impress with the race starting in his home country, and he rode impressively to finish second after Roglič abandoned the race following a series of crashes. But Pogačar finished the Tour 5 min 20 sec ahead of Vingegaard. The Dane will certainly be stronger this year but so is Pogačar.
Finally, Ineos Grenadiers will have no fewer than three GC contenders in this year’s Tour: Geraint Thomas, Dani Martinez and Adam Yates. Thomas won the Tour in 2018 and has had an excellent spring, winning the prestigious Tour de Suisse. The 26-year-old Colombian, Martinez, won this year’s Tour of the Basque Country and finished fifth in last year’s Giro. Yates finished fourth in the 2016 Tour and last year’s Vuelta. And Ineos has a strong team this year, which includes Tom Pidcock and this year’s Paris-Roubaix winner, Dylan van Baarle. But I don’t think they have a chance.
Still, the competition for the yellow jersey will be fierce and exciting, especially in the mountains. If the situation isn’t clear after the last mountain stage, the stage 20 time trial, over 40 km, should decide. In either case, there can only be one winner, and, barring accident, his name is almost certainly Tadej Pogačar.
However, this year there is a joker in the pack: Covid. In the Tour de Suisse, more than 40 riders caught the illness and had to abandon. It’s a little like playing the Russian roulette: impossible to predict. But let’s hope that the virus has run out of bullets.