How do you Pog-proof the Tour de France?
That’s the question Christian Prudhomme and his honchos have been scratching their head over for the past few months.
The answer they came up with? Prime the race for chaos and hope something sticks.
The 2022 Tour de France has been stacked with traps that could throw a wrench into the works of two-time defending champion Tadej Pogačar’s ride next summer.
Consider this: 19 kilometers of cobblestones, a swathe of stages with threatening crosswinds, an extra-long final TT, and a strip of gravel all sit waiting to derail Pogačar as he pedals his way toward his yellow jersey hat-trick in 2022.
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“I’ve won two Tours, so I’m more confident, but every year is different so it’s back to zero,” Pogačar told AFP after the Tour de France route was presented Thursday. “There are lots of tricky stages with either wind or cobbles or little climbs where you can make a mistake, and the Alps look tough the Alpe d’Huez would be the big one.”
Here is is, the of the #TDF2022!
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) October 14, 2021
Every year, the pressure is on race organizers ASO to produce a route that plays against the reigning champion in order to keep the race fresh and encourage sponsor-pleasing eyeballs toward television screens.
The problem Prudhomme and race director Thierry Gouvenou have is that Pogačar can do almost everything. The 22-year-old won this year’s yellow jersey at a canter with dazzling long-range attacks, short summit sprints, and unflappable strength against the clock.
And then there’s Pogačar’s compatriot-turned-comparator, Primož Roglič, who has a near-identical skillset, albeit with a tweak here and adjustment there.
Laying banana skins
With the two Slovenians looking bulletproof, Prudhomme and Gouvenou had one option available – leave banana skins and trapdoors in as many places as possible.
The promise of blustering winds through the Danish Grand Départ and in several stages later in the race can’t be trained for in the off-season or mitigated in a team briefing. The 19km of cobbles – one-third the volume found in Paris-Roubaix, albeit squashed into a stage 155km long – can unseat even the most adept GC racer in the space of one flat tire.
Pogačar lost a stack of time in the 2020 Tour when a puncture left him out of position before the race shattered in crosswinds during the stage into Lavaur. The 22-year-old was wary of similar losses next summer, particularly on the peloton’s trip across the hulking Great Belt Bridge in Denmark.
“The windy stages are always tricky. Everyone is nervous for those stages. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens,” Pogačar said. “I hope for no wind, but it’s hard, when you have a 20km bridge that nothing happens. It’s going to be scary.”
The nerves won’t stop there. Pogačar hasn’t hit the pavé since riding the Paris-Roubaix juniors in 2016 and has little experience of the northern classics. Roglič hasn’t raced the Roubaix cobbles in his life.
The Tour’s third player, Egan Bernal, may have the best history of riding off-road thanks to his MTB background and blazing ride across the “strade bianche” of this year’s Giro.
Whether by accident or design, Prudhomme could have levelled the playingfield for the peloton’s high-altitude climber.
Rattling Pogačar’s cage
Pogačar’s two Tour titles were marked by the way he took the stress and scrutiny of the yellow jersey in his stride as much as by the dominance of his racing. Time-losses on the Ventoux this summer or in the crosswinds the year before were met with an easy acceptance that evening and crushing counter the next day.
The confidence isn’t going away. Book-end monument victories this season see Pogačar as unrelentingly confident as ever.
By pulling in pavé, crosswinds and gravel, Prudhomme and Gouvenou’s 2022 Tour won’t allow Pogačar the room to get comfortable. Instead, a constantly varied parcours offering little room for rhythm will squeeze Pogačar into a veritable pressure pot.
Route recons, team selection, and equipment testing could be more crucial than ever in steadying pre-race nerves. The cobblestone sectors will need more than one scouting trip, and Pogačar’s recently reinforced crew of climbers at UAE Emirates will need a strong set of rouleurs to see them through the first week.
The cobbles are returning to #TDF2022…
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) October 14, 2021
Time trial turnarounds
Like Roglič, Pogačar is the template of modern grand tour riders, but in super-high definition. Like Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin and Geraint Thomas before, they can both climb and time trial.
Although Pogačar won one of the two ITT’s in this year’s Tour, Prudhomme’s final play in his 2022 Pog-proofing could actually be the penultimate stage time trial.
Pogačar hasn’t suffered the third-week slump in the way that Roglič infamously has in the past. He crushed Roglič’s dreams with the final uphill TT in 2020, and had such a huge buffer by stage 20 this year that he could almost freewheel down the start ramp of the Saint-Émilion test this summer.
But at 40km long and with around 400 meters of ascent, the stage 20 TT on tap for 2022 breaks the mold of modern grand tour time trialing. It’s the longest since 2014, hillier than normal, and sets the stage for drama.
Pogačar will be spending as much time on his TT bike as he will be on his cobbles-machine this winter.
“The first TT is completely flat, the second is quite long and difficult,” he said. “It’s at the end of three weeks and you never know what could happen next. You can then completely sink through it because you have bad legs. I will have to train for the time trial.”
The 2022 Tour is far from Pog-proof. But Prudhomme has sure tried.
What do you think of the #TDF2022 route?
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamEmiratesUAE) October 14, 2021