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Opinion: Does Tadej Pogačar Bite off More than He Can Chew?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

This has been a mixed year at best for UAE Team Emirates leader Tadej Pogačar, though it started off brilliantly. The now 24-year-old Slovenian won the Vuelta a Andalucia in February, and followed that up by taking the yellow, green and white jerseys and three stages in the Paris-Nice in March. Then, also in March, he finished fourth in the Milan-San Remo and third in the E3 Saxo Classic.

Then came victories in the Tour of Flanders (April), the Amstel Gold Race (April) and the La Flèche Wallonne (also April). Tragedy struck when he crashed and broke his wrist in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which was also run in April. He didn’t race again until the Slovenian road race and ITT national championships two months later.

The Vuelta a Andalucia comprised five stages and Paris-Nice was eight stages, which with the one-day races adds up to 15 race days in February and March, followed by three long and intense one-day races in April before the crash in the fourth. I can’t recall Pogačar crashing before the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, though he must have, because everyone crashes at one time or another in competitive cycling, especially when the weather turns lousy. But the two-time Tour de France winner seemed incapable of falling off his bike because he has a rare awareness of what goes on around him during a race. But in the Liège he was caught out when the rider beside him hit a pothole and fell, taking him down as well.

I think it’s generally accepted in all sports that fatigue is a major cause of injuries. The body is weakened, the mind not as alert as it is at its best. And it takes just a momentary lapse in concentration to lose control of events or your bike. It’s definitely possible that the current UCI top-ranked rider in the world was riding in one race too many and the fatigue had left him vulnerable.

This is not to blame Pogačar for the crash. One of the characteristics that make him such an entertaining and popular rider is his unbridled ambition and his desire to win everything and live up to the near-impossible standard set by the great Eddy Merckx. But road racing is very different today than it was in Merckx’s day. There are more races and the races are faster and more intense, due to faster bikes, improved training methods and the demands of television, which now follows a race from beginning to end. Back in the old days, the riders generally took it easy until the cameras appeared, usually in the second half of a stage.

Tadej Pogačar
Pogačar at the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships.

Because of the forced layoff due to the injury, Pogačar was almost certainly not at his best when he appeared at this year’s Tour de France. Though until that fateful final climb on stage 17, when the Slovenian cracked on the ascent to the Col de la Loze (28.1km @ 6%), he had looked very much in form. But it was an illusion. At his best, Vingegaard is the best climber in the world, and he was certainly at his best in this year’s Tour. But I find it difficult to believe that even at his best, the Dane could finish nearly 6 minutes ahead of a fully fit Pogačar in any race. “I’m gone,” he famously told his team radio as he fell inexorably behind. “I’m dead.” This surprised even Vingegaard, who kept looking down the slope, perhaps thinking his rival had crashed.

Two weeks later he was back on his bike and racing in the UCI World Championship Road Race, on an extremely testing course. He finished third, 1:45 behind the winner, Mathieu van der Poel, and outsprinted by Wout van Aert for second place. Pogačar was so tired afterwards that he nearly fainted from exhaustion and had to be assisted out of the press area. But less than two weeks later, he took part in the ITT world championship race and, no surprise, finished well down in 21st, more than 3 minutes behind the first-place Remco Evenepoel.

The Slovenian had suggested earlier that he wanted to ride in this year’s Vuelta, but after the worlds he said that “there’s no chance” he would ride in the year’s final Grand Tour and called the year “probably one of the best seasons of my career.” And it was a very good year for him, with 16 races won, including two stages of the Tour. But I find it hard to believe that the ambitious Pogačar could be satisfied without a Grand Tour win. From the time he came to our attention in 2020, as the second-youngest Tour de France winner of all time at age 21, he seemed to be a Tour rider for the ages, with the potential to win more than five yellow jerseys in his career. But after his second Tour win he met his match in Vingegaard.

The Dane and his Jumbo-Visma team make the Tour his primary objective for the year (though he is also riding in this year’s Vuelta). He does not ride the one-day Classics, but prepared for this year’s Tour by riding in four stage races in the runup, including the Paris-Nice, where he finished third to Pogačar, and the Critérium du Dauphiné, which he won. He came into the Tour in probably the best form of his life, surprising even himself with his performance in the ITT.

If Pogačar still harbors Tour de France ambitions – of course he does! – then it may suit him to limit his racing days leading up to that race, to cut back on his ambitious schedule and save himself for the three weeks in July. And perhaps he understands that. “It is not the last time I will feel I am past my limit,” he said in Paris after the Tour. “I can learn something from this. For the future, I know better what I can expect from myself.”