Now that we’re into the serious part of the early season it’s clear that the major stage races are looking like a repeat of 2021, and that more importantly, the Slovenian dominance hasn’t subsided.
The winning prowess and constant high levels of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič ought to have become tiresome, and although it seems to be almost totally predictable their exploits remain entertaining. That said, there are questions facing Jumbo-Visma’s and UAE Team Emirates’ rivals if they are to truly challenge over the coming months, and at the Tour de France.
I was pondering why Pogačar’s and Roglič’s dominance hasn’t become tiresome, and then it came to me: they seem to be working their way through a list of all the dreams and maneuvers of the racing cyclist.
The differences between the top two GC riders being that Pogačar is on the individual pathway and Roglič is the focal point for team tactics and potential setbacks. Sitting at the top of the hierarchy in their respective squads they may seem to enjoy similar levels of support but how that’s been achieved has come about through a combination of different circumstances.
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At UAE, there’s no debate on who their designated leader is for GC riding. Pogačar has won eight of his last nine stage races. His first Tour de France victory might have been a bit of a surprise but since then there’s no denying that the young prodigy is the real deal.
That he has won two monuments, and now Strade Bianche, just adds to the growing feeling that we’re seeing one of the greatest riders ever. The amazing part of how he goes about racing is that he’s not afraid to take risks if he feels good, or as he says, “just to see what happens.”
The scary thing for the other teams is that UAE has taken note of the relative weaknesses the squad had that exposed Pogačar to potential tactical threats and they’ve gradually reinforced their lineup to cover most scenarios.
They already had guys like Marc Hirschi, Davide Formolo, Brandon McNulty, and Diego Ulissi who could be counted on, however with the arrival of George Bennett, Marc Soler, and João Almeida they’ve added the ability to not only control races if they have to but also animate them and force others to respond.
One of the big things when you look at types of riders, especially in terms of the grand tours, is do you have the guys that you know can set a really high pace for a whole mountain pass or two? With the reinforcements for this season, UAE has the riders who can do exactly that, and that leaves their leader to concentrate on the final with a degree of serenity.
There’s also the opportunity for some insight into what Jumbo-Visma was doing from Bennett and the same with Almeida and his experiences at Quick-Step. Soler will probably be glad to have escaped the underlying chaos of Movistar and have a leader in Pogačar who won’t mind sharing opportunities.
Whilst UAE has established a solid core to the GC projects the team hasn’t completely forgotten that there are lots of days when it’s going to be a sprint, so Pascal Ackermann and Alvaro Hodeg take some pressure off of Fernando Gaviria in that area. Long-term development hasn’t been neglected either because McNulty and Alessandro Covi have been allowed to mature and they’re seeing the fruits of that now. It has Juan Ayuso and Finn Fisher-Black to come fully up to speed in the coming years too.
It’s always easier when you have the number one rider, which Pogačar undoubtedly is for grand tours but to construct a squad around that rider is a complicated matter and the UAE management has also had to step up its game to achieve a balance of youth and experience, and have most scenarios covered. With Pogačar is still to discover where his limits are, it has to be inspiring for those around him and truly intimidating for everyone else.
Jumbo-Visma raising the standard
I think it’s fair to say that Jumbo-Visma has raised the standard for stage racing that used to be the preserve of Team Sky for so long. The Dutch-based squad has taken the level of each element of GC racing and refined it to such a point that the only fly in the soup is a certain Pogačar.
Technically, the team has moved things on so that only the biggest budget rivals can compete with it in terms of preparation on subjects like aerodynamics or the programming of altitude camps. Having the talent it has helps a lot, but when you look at the results they speak for themselves.
It’s no fluke that Wout van Aert won his first race of the year, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Primož Roglič wins Paris-Nice with only two days of racing under his belt, and then there was the three up team trial that put Christophe Laporte in the leader’s jersey on the opening stage of the ‘Race to the Sun’.
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Like van Aert, it was Laporte’s second outing of the year, so clearly their prep beforehand left nothing to chance. The team turned up totally ready to race and they did for the whole week – producing another stranglehold of the top three places in the time trial too.
Tactically it was a bit of an exhibition: saving riders for specific tasks like Rohan Dennis and van Aert for the final days when it got a lot harder to control events. Save for the customary last-minute wobble from Roglič on the Col d’Eze’s steepest slopes, the result never looked in doubt.
Jumbo’s style of racing is much more conventional than UAE’s but it doesn’t make it any less entertaining because it is as capable of the exceptional as it is of the tried and tested method of riding hard to put everyone in the red, and then whoever is the chosen one for that situation finishes it off.
As a core group, it’s probably stronger than anyone when it comes to stage racing and with the van Aert option for one-day events it rivals Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl. But it hasn’t achieved that by just buying in the strongest riders and putting them to work.
It has been slowly bringing on riders like Sepp Kuss, building them up so they can race as individuals and contribute to the cause if they have to. Signing Rohan Dennis from Ineos was a smart move, Tom Dumoulin was given time to refocus, Tiesj Benoot is another option for the classics, and in the background, Jonas Vingegaard is quietly doing his thing whilst the others take most of the limelight.
Jumbo-Visma has taken riders like Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk and shifted them from being team leaders into trusted domestiques, and as I pointed out before, riders that can pace a mountain or two day after day.
When you look at Jumbo-Visma it’s only missing the big-name sprinter but Olav Kooij could be filling that role soon. The interesting thing will be how van Aert approaches the shorter stage races and how the team manages riding for both the yellow and green jerseys at the Tour de France.
It has the option of Roglič and Vingegaard to fight with Pogacar which gives them a chance of overall victory on paper at least. Out in the wild, it might be a bit harder.
A rebuilding phase
Where does this leave Ineos Grenadiers with reportedly the biggest budget, the most stars, and the previous history of being the benchmark at the Tour de France? It is in a rebuilding phase is probably the best answer I can give.
Egan Bernal’s accident hasn’t made its job any easier if it is to seriously challenge the two Slovenians. Richard Carapaz for the Giro removes the three leaders dilemma at least, but if the races so far are an indication of the hierarchy then Adam Yates and Dani Martínez are just slightly below where they need to become proper contenders in July.
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I like Martínez as he’s a fighter, however, I think he still needs another year or two to reach full potential. Tao Geoghegan Hart showed some sparks of his 2020 form so there’s hope there too, however tactically a change is needed in how they go about stage racing because what worked before – the high tempo into the climbs – isn’t having the same effect any longer.
Everyone else has caught up, and as we see with Jumbo-Visma, moved it on further.
It was telling that on the final stage of Paris-Nice the front group was reduced to 30 riders. Ineos had three guys, Jumbo had four but Roglič had three domestiques at his service whilst Ineos had Omar Fraile as the sole helper to Yates and Martínez. There’s a balance of who is riding for who, and that still needs to be figured out somewhere in the British squad.
In the meantime, they’re relying on Filippo Ganna and Tom Pidcock to do the spectacular, which is fine for now, but as a group, there’s definitely a rebuilding going on as it discovers where it is and where it would like to be.