Jonathan Vaughters of EF Education-Nippo believes Tadej Pogačar’s early lead in this year’s Tour de France can be explained by the twin factors of uncharacteristic weather conditions and chaotic, uncontrolled racing dynamics.
And Vaughters, the longtime U.S. team manager, told VeloNews that he disagreed with suggestions by Pogačar’s coach that the race’s other GC favorites had made errors in their preparations for the Tour.
Pogačar’s dominance has been one of the standout stories from this year’s Tour. He won the stage 5 individual time trial and then pulled clear of his rivals during two days in the high mountains. He launched a 32-kilometer attack on a wet and cold stage 8, putting 3:20 into rivals like Richard Carapaz and Rigoberto Uran. Pogačar then added 32 seconds with another surge on stage 9.
The early aggression saw Pogačar lead the GC standings by more than five minutes before the race’s 10th stage, and he has not relinquished the lead.
“Pogačar so far has proven to be the best rider in the race, and that is that,” Vaughters told VeloNews in a phone call from the Tour. “However I am sort of taking issue with the assertion that all the other teams screwed up their preparation, and that normally the riders go faster in the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse or whatever else. And that on stage 8 everyone else was just slow and that is the reason why Pogačar rode away.”
“There is a very valid reason why all the other contenders were at 5.8 W/kg [on the climbs]. Simply put, that the race was so aggressive all day long, along with really the race as a whole on the flats, that basically by the time the peloton was taking in the climbs, they were cooked. This was further exacerbated by the wet conditions.”
In a long interview with VeloNews, Pogačar’s coach Dr. Iñigo San Millán pointed to the slower-than-expected climbing speeds of the other contenders on stages 8 and 9. Vaughters acknowledges that riders such as Jonas Vingegaard (Team Jumbo-Visma), Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and his own team leader Úran (EF Education First), displayed lower watts-per-kilo numbers than usual on the early climbs.
Vaughters said there was a logical reason for this.
“When you are wet, your core temperature is obviously lower,” he said. “With a lot of riders — not everybody, but with lot of riders — you burn sugars and glycogen stores more quickly when you are cold and wet, and it is also more difficult to access lipids or fat stores.”
“What happens is that basically a lot of the time your ability — your turbo charge — to go through carbohydrates as fuel depletes much more quickly in a wet race then in a dry race.”
Pogačar is known to perform strongly in such weather conditions. Vaughters said that some riders in the peloton are able to shrug off the cold and wet better than others.
“For example, the biggest rider on our team — in fact I think it might be the biggest rider we ever had on this team — Jonas Rutsch, who is a German neo-pro, has been climbing the first 30 on the cold days, which makes no sense [laughs],” Vaughters said. “Well, I shouldn’t say it makes no sense, but it was unexpected. And you could also see that on stage nine where Sonny Colbrelli finished third.”
“There are certainly some riders who handle cold much better, as there are riders to handle heat much better. Some riders are really great at handling super high temperatures.”
Vaughters said that those conditions help explain the gulf between Pogačar and his competitors. Still, he believes there is another factor that compounded the gap between them on stage 8.
“What happened was that people’s legs were broken as a result of a hyper-aggressive stage that day,” Vaughters said. “This year there is no Team Ineos or whatever that is controlling the race and keeping it steady. So the style is much jerkier and it is taking 80, 90, 100 km for the breakaway to finally get off the front. Because of that jerky style of racing, that depletes glycogen stores much more quickly.”
“The combination of the start/stop start/stop start/stop aggressive racing, where people are having to make accelerations over and over and over again plus the cold weather is probably a type of racing that is particularly suited to Pogačar. So, what is happening is that he is just not fatiguing,” he added. “Everyone else is basically going into their glycogen stores and then fatiguing as a result of the style of racing and the weather, whereas he is able to be at 100%. So his climbing speeds haven’t come down whereas other people’s have.”
‘A once in a generation champion’
Dr. San Millán worked with Vaughters’s Garmin team in the past, and joined UAE Team Emirates towards the end of 2018. Pogačar signed for the team around the same time, and the two have worked together since then. The Spanish coach has stated several times that he believes the rider is particularly gifted; this is something that Vaughters agrees with.
“I remember watching the finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Before the riders finished someone asked me, ‘well, who do you think is going to win?’ I said, ‘I think Pogačar is going to win.’ They replied, ‘but Alaphilippe is a better sprinter.’ And I said, ‘…yeah, but Pogačar is a once in a generation champion,'” Vaughters said. “I don’t know enough about him other than it seems like he is very much a once in a generation type of talent. Now, I can’t say that [for sure]…but he won in February and he won in March and he won in April. So it seems like he is a rider that when he hits a big race, he wins.”
“With this stop/go style of racing [in the Tour], maybe it is just that he is sort of a level up on the other riders. So therefore it is not hurting him, it’s not suiting him particularly, but he is just better,” he added.
Pogačar’s dominance has seen him face a degree of scrutiny from the media and from fans of the sport. The difficult history of pro cycling means that such questions are almost inevitable for whomever is leading the Tour’s GC battle, and particularly so if they are far ahead of their rivals. Being five minutes clear at the end of stage 9 brought with it questions, which is why Dr. San Millán sought to clarify why he believed Pogačar was stronger.
He suggested that other teams had made errors in their buildup; however, as Vaughters explained, he believes weather and racing styles were the determining factors. He points to what happened when temperatures were higher and racing less chaotic.
“When you get to a hot day, like the Ventoux, which was also a steadier day, as far as the racing went, then things were different. All of a sudden Pogačar wasn’t at his very best [compared to others],” Vaughters said. “Perhaps if temperatures went to 40 degrees, maybe that is his Achilles heel. We are not going to find that out this year, with the way the weather has been. But maybe another year.”
Data – to release or not to release?
The debate about climbing speeds have led to renewed calls for a release of power data from riders. Dr. San Millán told VeloNews that he has concerns that this would achieve little as he believes those who doubt riders may in turn doubt the numbers.
Vaughters too has reservations of releasing data. The fact that he and Dr. San Millán have come to such different conclusions — despite their long experiences in the sport — may point to even bigger debates, should the power figures be made widely available to the general public.
“Well, you have to know how to interpret the data,” Vaughters said. “Honestly, Iñigo is an expert in this, and in my opinion he interpreted the data wrong. So if we are looking at two people who all they do is look at data, power data, and we are actually disagreeing over the meaning of the power data, then if you release all the data, now you’re going to have 500 armchair experts or 5000 armchair experts disagreeing.”
“I have no idea how a broader audience would interpret data if it was just released. I don’t really know. But the climbing speeds are open and available to anyone who is interested,” he added. “[As for power data], I don’t really know whether it would be positive or negative. It is really hard to say.”
Vaughters elaborated on what he said he and Dr. San Millán did differently in their assessment of the data. He said that in assessing the race, Dr. San Millán appears to be looking primarily at shorter segments of data, whereas he favors a broader approach.
“My interpretation is based on the race as an overall. I’m not putting as much emphasis on the 20 minutes snippets. So it is a very different interpretation,” Vaughters said. “To me, what is more interesting is what is happening outside of the climbs, because with that it is much more difficult to make the calculations of what the data is, or what the power output is, on those flat sections. Because it depends if it is a small road, if it is a big road, if it is a headwind, if it is a sidewind, if there are a lot of corners, if there are not a lot of corners, etcetera etcetera.”
“Anyway, long story short, I have no idea whether it [greater availability of numbers] would help or hurt. I mean, we have got no problem releasing whatever data any wants to see. It is just…I don’t know whether it would help the speculation or not, but there is certainly not any secrecy about it,” he added. “No one has ever asked me for Rigo’s data.”