There is more than one way to skin a cat, so the slightly grotesque saying goes.
Cycling tradition dictates that the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse are the best way to hone your form ahead of a Tour de France GC bid. Even if you count winners that have had their victories taken away, you have to go back to Marco Pantani in 1998 – when he did the Giro-Tour double – to find the last Tour de France winner who didn’t do either of the two races on the road to winning the title.
Defending Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar used the Dauphiné to polish his form ahead of his win last year, but if there is one thing youth can bring you it is the ability to not get bogged down in so-called tradition and find your own path.
So, this year, Pogačar flipping the script by using his home Tour of Slovenia – which kicks off on June 9 – to knock off the rough edges before the Grand Départ on June 26.
After a year where the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world off-kilter, the 2021 season seems to an opportunity to try something new for many with fellow Tour contender, and compatriot, Primož Roglič choosing not to race at all in the build-up to the French grand tour.
Pogačar will lead a list of the who’s who of Slovenian racing – minus Roglič – at his home race, including Jan Polanc, Matej Mohorič, Jan Tratnik. It’s a race where he showed his capabilities against WorldTour riders as an up-and-coming rider back in 2018 and it’s the second time he’s ridden it since turning professional.
“I’m really looking forward to come home to race the Tour of Slovenia. I’ll be racing against friends, old teammates and it will be a real buzz to be home on familiar roads,” Pogačar said. “It’s going to be nice having the local support too.
“It’s an exciting time for Slovenian cycling now and I’m sure we can look forward to a great race. I think our team is very strong and we hope to be fighting for the victory.”
Pogačar brings with him two of his key lieutenants for the Tour de France in Polanc, Rafał Majka – a former winner of the race – and defending champion Deigo Ulissi, who recently finished the Giro d’Italia.
Smaller field and shorter climbs
While it is great of Pogačar to honor his home roads at its national race, can the five-day event give him what he needs ahead of the defense of his Tour de France title?
After a busy period of sponsor and media obligations following his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April, the Slovenian has been putting in the hard miles in training over the last few weeks, doing recons of many of the Tour de France’s key climbs and its time trial stages before an altitude camp in Sestriere.
The Tour of Slovenia will be an opportunity to dust off the cobwebs of those weeks of training in a less pressurized environment, even it if is his home race. If he has done his training right, then the races he chooses to use for his final preparation should not really matter.
There is no doubt that the field he will face in Slovenia is far less stacked than the ones he would find in France or Switzerland. Indeed, the race has attracted just four WorldTour teams to the startline in Ptuj on Wednesday.
Rob Stannard (Team BikeExchange) and Giovanni Visconti (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) are among the biggest non-Slovenian names outside of Pogačar’s own team.
The overall race route is also much less demanding with the third category Suhi Dol on stage 5 the longest climb of the week at 7.8km. Meanwhile, the toughest ascent of the race is the 2.5km ride to Nova Gorica, which averages a mean 13 percent gradient.
It is nothing against the event itself, which should provide some exciting racing over its five days with a parcours well-suited to the punchy riders.
Even though he’s unlikely to be pushed as much as if he’d ridden the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, Pogačar could still find some tough competition in the GC contest. Meanwhile, the smaller field and easier parcours could actually be beneficial for the Slovenian and his team with fewer risks and more say in how the race is ridden.
Pogačar may arrive at the Tour de France with less zing in his legs than some of his key rivals, but with the Olympic Games road race in Tokyo also on his radar, it might not be a bad thing. Grand tours are long and Pogačar does not want to come out of the Tour on his knees if he wants to take home Olympic gold.
Only time will tell if it was the right choice or if Pogačar should have stuck with tradition.
Who knows, if Pogačar can convert a Tour of Slovenia ride into Tour de France glory then maybe we’ll see more riders and teams thinking outside of the box.