There are some things that can only be gleaned from being at a bike race. It’s true that if you watch on television, you can micro-analyze everything that transpires in every kilometer better than I, the person stuck on the top of a mountain with no signal. I missed, for example, Rafal Majka and Tadej Pogačar playing rock, paper, scissors on the slopes of Velika Planina and only saw such footage on Twitter after the race was long over, e.g. after I vacated the mountaintop with no signal.
However, at the Tour of Slovenia, I witnessed firsthand the emotions at the start and the finish every day, and got to ask questions of the big guns uncontested as I was the only English-speaking journalist from the written press present. While they can be annoying interruptions while you’re watching Eurosport, for journalists, those two minute in-person interviews are necessary. The point of them is simple two-fold: hearing what cyclists actually have to say, and watching them as they say it. Sometimes more is said with the body than anything else.
There’s a Slovenian word, lahko, which means, like, fifty different things and works in fifty different ways. A common one is ‘easily’ and another more nuanced definition within certain contexts is light-hearted. This word pops up in Tadej Pogačar’s Slovene interviews quite a bit, and not just because it’s a filler word and a grammatical Swiss army knife. If we wanted to talk about someone who’s easy-going and lighthearted, it doesn’t get more easy-going or lighthearted than Tadej Pogačar at the Tour of Slovenia.
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Every day at the start and after the finish, Pogačar was relaxed. His body language was the epitome of unconcerned. He was happy to be home. He spoke as a man who knew the world was his for the taking, but also as someone who’s just racing to have fun, which is unusual, if not unique only to Pogačar, in the sport of cycling, which tends toward the utmost seriousness in everything. His teammate and partner-in-crime Rafal Majka was also in a good mood – chatty, amiable, just hanging out, along for the ride. The whole of UAE Team Emirates showed up every morning as if punching their daily meal ticket on a luxury cruise line. Lahko.
You could reasonably say that Pogačar and by extension his team had no real competition at the Tour of Slovenia. Or that Pogačar’s closest competition came from Majka and instead of an inter-team rivalry, the two played rock paper scissors for a stage win. However, there was still the matter of Bahrain Victorious, which remains one of the most tactically improvisatory and successful teams in cycling. At the Tour of Slovenia, Bahrain Victorious was the opposite of easy-going. The only time any of their riders seemed optimistic was when Matej Mohorič gave his answers at the press conference before the race even started.
Bahrain, generally speaking, had one feasible goal, which was to beat Tadej Pogačar on at least one day. Just one. They assembled a team with no fewer than four Slovene riders to do so, including their newest acquisition, Matevž Govekar. On paper it was a bit of an odd team – Heinrich Haussler was there coming off of the Dauphiné, for example, and the squad thrust long-time domestique Domen Novak into a GC role in which he would ride against the best cyclist in the world. Mohorič said in the press conference that he also expected to ride for GC but this was put to bed on stage 1 when he was dropped on the final climb.
On that very first day, things really did start to disintegrate for Bahrain, and there’s a lesson in it. It was a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen, too many scattered goals: two conflicting GC contenders who sometimes appeared to be riding against each other, a new sprinter expected to contest in a bunch sprint at a level he’d never experienced before with a team he’d just met, a breakaway man extraordinaire who was not allowed to go into the breakaway for a stage win because he was distracted by tilting at time gap windmills.
Indeed even for stage wins, the Bahrain tactics were confused, as if Pogačar’s very presence fried the brains of every sports director with beams of raw energy, a boyish supervillain in a cheap comic book. Mohorič’s best chance of winning against Pogačar on the final stage to Novo Mesto was to tank in GC in Celje or Velika Planina and have enough junk minutes to go in a breakaway or on a long range attack from the peloton, which are his two most successful win conditions.
Regardless of the time gaps, if we look at what actually happened, Mohorič, for some reason I do not understand abstained from an earlier attack and stayed in a trio with Pogačar and Majka until the line and decided to try his luck against Pogačar in a match sprint even though Mohorič was riding the ten kilometers beforehand outnumbered. Pogačar’s match sprint is underrated – consider the fact that he came up from far behind and strongly contested Wout van Aert in their sprint for second in the Olympic road race last year. When Pogačar easily beat a beleaguered Mohorič even on this final day, after Pogačar had won so much, it took on an almost merciless sheen. Make no mistake: Tadej Pogačar does not gift wins to rivals. If he gets a whiff of victory, that’s it. The announcer at the finish line called him the Cannibal, Eddy Merckx’s old nickname. On that day, it was a fitting gesture.
In the end, Bahrain won nothing. Novak held out for third in GC behind Majka and Pogačar, which, to be honest, is a feat attained through his individual resilience rather than a team effort. If they had perhaps put all of their resources in service of Novak, it’s possible he could have at least been in play on the queen stage of Velika Planina. But they did not do this. Every morning at the start, I would interview Novak and Mohorič and both would give me different answers as to what their and the team’s goals were. Give a team too many options and no plans for executing them, especially in the face of a great foe and they will ride against one another trying to salvage themselves.
And every morning, Pogačar simply smiled.
One rider, one goal at the Tour de France
Like I said, there is a lesson in this. In the Tour of Slovenia, Pogačar’s team was devoted to Pogačar. The one exception perhaps was on stage 2, where they switched gears to go for Pascal Ackermann in the sprint, but even then Ackermann was mostly left to his own devices – including when he was dropped and had to bridge back on his own because Bahrain were trying to shake off the pure fast-men in order to thin the competition for Govekar who has a more Colbrelli-esque sprinter profile.
This is how it will be for UAE in the Tour de France: one rider, one goal, that’s it. The lesson for Bahrain Victorious is that if you divide to try and conquer, tough luck. Even if you replaced Novak with Mikel Landa and had a fresh rider instead of Haussler to domestique I don’t think the tactics would have worked.
If we look, for example, at Jumbo-Visma in the Dauphiné, on paper they were successful. Wout van Aert came away with the green jersey, Vingegaard won a stage and Roglič won the overall. But this is the macro view. In miniature, the team’s goals were quite unclear every day. In fact on the first stage, I even wrote on Twitter that I was not sure what Jumbo Visma were doing – it all seemed rather disorganized, like they were trying to solve a Rubik’s cube instead of win a bike race. With the team that they brought, which was like their Tour team in miniature, they should have been visibly dominating a race with such a weak GC start list similar to how they so utterly dominated Paris-Nice earlier this season. In the Dauphine, one got the feeling on a few stages that they just barely eked by.
The main difference between the showing at Paris-Nice and the showing at the Dauphiné was the presence of Vingegaard as co-leader. The introduction of Vingegaard meant that there were now four goals (stage wins, stage win/GC of Vingegaard, GC of Primož Roglič, and green jersey of van Aert) instead of two (stage wins/ GC of Roglič) There are only seven riders on a team – if three of them are leaders, dividing the remaining four among them makes the whole thing more brittle. To me, this should be fairly obvious, but because the results on paper were successful, who knows.
However, the Criterium du Dauphiné is not the Tour de France. David Gaudu and Tao Geoghegan Hart are not, with all due respect, Tadej Pogačar. The field at the Dauphiné – as has been the case with all of the pre-Tour stage races – was relatively weak, as though all of the teams are scared of one another and are avoiding conflict. This is frustrating as a viewer, but it also creates a difficult situation for sports directors who have to size up their enemies from afar, who can’t try out differing tactics on the riders and teams they actually want to fight.
Technically, Jumbo-Visma walked away with the Dauphiné. But a one week stage race cannot be scaled up to a three week grand tour. If, to name just one example, Jumbo-Visma expect Roglič to do pulls for Van Aert in sprint stages, they can’t possibly expect him to be as fresh in the third week as Tadej Pogačar who has not done such a thing, who has not touched the wind in 14 days. If Jumbo-Visma refuse to decide between Roglič and Vingegaard as leader; if they are micromanaging stages of the race for each instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket, there is no chance that they will actually pose a threat to Pogačar who has everything he wants and needs. Whither the Movistar “trident,” a tactic so bad it has become a meme? Whither the 2021 Tour de France of Ineos Grenadiers with Carapaz, Geoghegan Hart, and Geraint Thomas and the best they could do with such an overhyped super-team was to put Carapaz third on the podium?
Either Jumbo-Visma trust Roglič or Vingegaard to win the GC, or they don’t. It’s that simple. And Van Aert’s green jersey only adds another complication, as there will also be specialized sprinters teams going to the Tour solely for that goal. UAE Team Emirates, meanwhile, don’t have to make such decisions. I’m not even going to get into the nuances of the different mountain stages of the Tour de France, the spacing out of the different sprints and whether there’s enough time for Jumbo to realistically recover; or the weird stages that could be for crosswinds, cobbles, breakaways, et cetera, because I don’t think any of that matters in the grand scheme of things, which is that a grand tour is three weeks and one side has amassed an entire army at his disposal and the other is still trying to figure out which gun to use.
The rest of the teams, realistically, are aiming for third place, a top-10, the green jersey, or stage wins at this point. The white jersey and KOM jersey are also realistically off the table. I will say what no one else has said but is otherwise universally felt: whether you’re talking about fans or teams, there is a palpable air of defeatism in the run in to this Tour de France. It only took one year for Pogačar to establish his dynasty, which he looks fit to continue indefinitely. And yet, the only team who can realistically defeat Pogačar is still Jumbo Visma. The only way they can do this is by throwing all of their firepower behind one rider, whether that’s Roglič or Vingegaard.
At the Dauphiné and the Tour of Slovenia, it seemed as though Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates were doing a kind of call and response. Jumbo Visma one-twos, a GC with Roglič and Vingegaard, UAE Team Emirates one-twos, a GC with Pogačar and Majka. Jumbo-Visma one-twos, a stage win with Vingegaard and Roglič, UAE 1-2s two (if not three, if we’re counting stage 1 even though Pogačar rolled in third) with Pogačar and Majka. Pogačar said of his rivals at the Tour of Slovenia press conference, that they were watching him. If they did watch him, they should see right away that Pogačar has the power to disrupt entire teams, that he is unconcerned by them or by anyone or anything.
Perhaps rightly so.