How do you solve a Tour de France problem like Tadej Pogačar?
That’s the question facing Ineos Grenadiers who must be scratching their heads as they looks for weaknesses in the Slovenian’s armor or hoping that two-time winner makes a pivotal error in the Alps in the Pyrenees.
Unfortunately for the British squad Pogačar doesn’t look like he is going to make a mistake any time soon, while the entire cycling world is still awaiting his first real bad day on the bike since moving into the WorldTour. His only weakness appears to be in thinking that his teammates can pedal with the same power and application as he does. That’s surely not enough to turn the tide?
Ineos, meanwhile, claims that the team is biding time until either Adam Yates or Geraint Thomas physically overturns their deficits or Pogačar has an off-day. After nine days of racing neither of those scenarios appears to be on the cards.
- Tour de France: Adam Yates rises to Jumbo-Visma challenge in early flare
- Geraint Thomas: ‘I think everyone senses a little vulnerability in Pogačar’s team’
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Both Thomas and Yates are well placed on GC, Thomas third at 1:17, and Yates a further eight seconds in arrears. Every other rival, bar Jonas Vingegaard has lost more time.
However Yates and Thomas have both lost time consistently during the race, and not once have they gained even a single second on Pogačar. The British pair conceded time in the opening time trial, again on the cobbles and then on during the three uphill finishes on which Pogačar opened the throttle. Biding your time would imply that you’re tied on the same time, or close, but ultimately Pogačar has been one step ahead throughout the race. If Pogačar finds another 20 or 30 seconds on the next mountain finish will Thomas and Yates still play the waiting game?
“He hasn’t shown any sign of weakness yet,” Yates said of Pogačar on the race’s second rest-day in Morzine.
“Even on the flatter stages he’s stayed near the front and out of trouble. So far he’s not shown any weakness but these next weeks, especially this week when we do the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez, it’s going to be a really tough week. From now there aren’t many easy stages, and there’s always something in the final that’s tricky or could happen. We just have to bide our time and hopefully an opportunity will come our way.”
Hope is a big word in professional cycling and of course there is always the possibility that the race can be flipped on its head. At some point in his career Pogačar will crack, and like all humans, mistakes can be made. A botched rest-day, a missed feed, a crash or a lack of concentration could all factor but right now the Slovenian doesn’t even look like he’s in fifth gear.
“He’s just a level above,” Thomas said when asked to compare Pogačar to some of the most complete riders he has faced over the last two decades.
“Obviously Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali were great climbers. Chris Froome could climb and time trial but Pogačar has everything else. Sprint, we saw him in Flanders, and he can ride the cobbles. He’s phenomenal. I can’t see how he won’t continue to be the biggest favorite for the next five or six years.”
If you’re reading a hint of pragmatism emanating from Thomas’ words you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The Ineos rider isn’t throwing in the towel but for context he is arguably in the best form since 2018, some say even better, and he still hasn’t landed a glove on the Slovenian.
“With the time gaps, that little crash in the Roubaix stage didn’t help. It felt like I was in a place to do something,” Thomas said.
“Obviously the gilet incident wasn’t ideal but that’s the thing with grand tours. There’s lots of little things where you might lose time here or there but then there are days when other guys might lose time and make little mistakes. It’s about looking forward and staying positive but Yates and myself are still in a good place. Tom Pidcock is still up there. It could be worse.”
It could definitely be worse. Thomas wasn’t even sure of a Tour spot, let alone leadership, in the build up to the race but after a slow and steady build up through the spring he has rediscovered his climbing legs. He doesn’t look as decisive or aggressive as he did in 2018 when he took the race by the scruff of the neck but his experience and steady temperament have shone through so far.
When asked if he would be willing to risk his current third place overall for a win, the veteran backed himself to still win the race but added an element of caution to the hypothesis.
“If it’s just some crazy long range thing.. I’d still be proud to be on the podium, especially after the last couple of years that I’ve had. To prove a few people wrong. But I’ve also won it and finished second. To finish on the podium would obviously be an achievement but I want to try and win the race as well. I want to have no regrets in Paris for myself or the team.”
It’s a long way to Paris and there’s enough road between Morzine and the Champs Elysees to cause one or two surprises. But if Ineos has real designs on winning this year’s race, they can’t afford to sit back.