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Tour de France

Tour de Hoody: Will Tadej Pogačar smother the Tour de France?

The rise of a possible 'Pogačar Era' might be great for racing, but Tour de France owners might be worried.

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VALENCE, France (VN) — Someone asked Tadej Pogačar after Saturday’s exhibition if he had just killed the Tour de France.

The young Slovenian demurred, and said the Tour is very much alive and kicking, and offered the cliché the race ends in Paris.

And he’s exactly right, but so was the questionnaire.

Pogačar did, in fact, kill the race with his Saturday evening special. There’s no other way to look at it.

Also read:

His sledge-hammer move Saturday was one of the more audacious long-distance attacks in recent Tour history. Some compared it to Merckx in 1969, others to Chris Froome and the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

Who’s going to stop him? Right now, no one in this race.

Richard Carapaz is the only one brave enough to try so far, but Pogačar slips it into over-drive and drops everyone. Ben O’Connor drove back into podium range at a little more than two minutes back Sunday, but even he admitted that Pogačar is in another league.

There are only a few things that can stop Pogačar in this Tour, and none of them involve a rival dropping him.

Among them are getting caught out in echelons or a “jour sans.” Add on bee strings, a tangled-up feed bag, or perhaps a case of COVID-19 that sends him packing. You get the idea.

Even Froome in his heyday didn’t have a five-minute-plus lead to his principal rivals by the end of week one.

Like it or not, we are entering the Pogačar Era.

But there’s a second level of “killing the Tour” worth considering: will an emergent Pogačar smother the race and its broader appeal?

It didn’t take long after Thursday’s time trial drubbing last week for jokes to start among the press corps: “Oh, it’s going to be a long Tour, ” quickly turned into, “uffff, it’s going to be a long 10 years!”

Nothing against Pogačar — he races like an unbridled stallion — but fans and media are fickle. They want drama, suspense, and above all, a good story.

If Pogačar is going to emerge as the next Tour dominator, the race will have none of the above. The Slovenian Slayer is slicing through the peloton uncontested right now, and who’s waiting in the wings to beat him? Maybe a revived Primož Roglič? Egan Bernal? It’s pretty thin behind them.

Pogačar is a bit like Lionel Messi; he’s an absolute artist on the pitch, but doesn’t bring a lot of bravado and drama along with it. What fans want is a cycling version of Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who not only hits the clutch goal, and then rub it in everyone’s face with celebratory panache to incite and divide the mob.

Let’s see if Pogačar’s personality and character will develop in the coming years. After all, he is still barely out of his teens, and it’s worth pointing out that he is more comfortable and commanding with the media compared to less than a year ago.

ASO must be worried, though. They’ve had it too easy for too long.

Love him or hate him, Lance Armstrong made a lot of money for the Tour organization. Along with Armstrong came the massive US market, Hollywood, bicycle tours, sponsors, TV rights, and a true global reach.

After the tarnished Armstrong era, ASO was lucky to hitch a ride on the UK wave, with Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and the Sky/Ineos juggernaut.

And with that came extra races, a few Tour “grand départ,” and hordes of fans crossing the English Channel to race in gran fondos and fill VIP tents. And in between came Cadel Evans and Egan Bernal, and two entire continents of new fans.

ASO enjoyed more than two decades of dominant riders that brought unprecedented global interest in the Tour, and a huge financial windfall for the privately held company.

Will there be a similar Pogačar windfall? Probably not.

Slovenia’s population is roughly 2 million people. That’s about the same as Marseilles, France’s second-largest city. Before COVID-19, a few bus loads of Roglič fans made the trek to Italy when he was going well in the Giro d’Italia. It was nice to see, but it’s not going to move any financial needles.

What ASO would love to see if it could pick its ideal yellow jersey would be a German, a Black African or, if we’re really dreaming, a Chinese rider to emerge to win the Tour.

ASO and the Tour de France organizer could use a boost.

With the Tour coming off back-to-back COVID editions, and no true French contender in the pipeline, the prospect of a Slovenian on a team backed by a Middle East country is hardly one that will get the larger public, media, and sponsors too excited.

ASO has already milked the Middle East, with now-defunct races in Oman and Qatar. Rival organizer RCS Sport, which runs the Giro d’Italia, has deep links to the United Arab Emirates, the backers of Pogačar’s team.

That’s not to say that Pogačar isn’t the best rider to come along perhaps in 25 years, or to take anything away from his value and merit as a rider.

Every true cycling fan respects how he races without fear, but for a sport that’s just as much a moving billboard and commercial enterprise as it is a sporting feat, things like geography and charisma count.

So, yes, the questioner wasn’t too far off when they asked if Pogačar just killed the Tour. The Slovenian is certainly doing it in a real-time, 2021 level, but perhaps even more.

Mark Cavendish won’t need to worry about time-cut if he wins twice before the Pyrénées

Cavendish celebrates with his teammates after making the time limit Sunday. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Another stunning victory by Mark Cavendish brings him just one win short of equally Eddy Merckx and two from setting the all-time mark.

Thirty-four is the magic number, and the Manxkster could even beat it this year.

One big worry remains if Cavendish will be able to make it over the double-ascent of Mont Ventoux and three hard days in the Pyrénées. Seeing Cavendish make it safely to the line Sunday at Tignes was as big as a win for him.

Also read: Cavendish beats brutal time-cut in Tignes

Wednesday’s double-climb of Mont Ventoux will be another hurdle for Cavendish. If he safely makes it over the top, he could top the Merckx mark even without having to worry about the Pyrénées.

Stages 12 and 13 both could end in bunch sprints, and if Cavendish continues on his tear, he could equal and better the Merckx milestone without having to climb over the Pyrénées.

That assumes he wins both. So far, no one’s come close to seriously challenging Cavendish and the Deceuninck-Quick-Step lead-out train.

Double Ventoux ascent delivers mid-week delight

A double ascent of Mont Ventoux on Wednesday should spice up what’s already been a thrilling first week of the 2021 Tour.

Anyone’s who’s biked up the flanks of the “Géant de Provence” knows how punishing it can be. The average grade on the climb is deceiving. A few things about Ventoux stand out; its exposure, heat and wind, but mostly it is unrelenting.

Fans will be allowed up on the course, so it should create as close as a “real” experience we’ve had on a mountain stage since the 2019 Tour. Climbs last weekend in the Alps were a bit soggy, keeping some fans away.

The last time the Ventoux featured in the Tour was the famous “Froome Walk” up the side of the lunar landscapes.

That was one of the craziest and bizarre moments in modern Tour history. I dug what Froome said about his decision to run:

“It was one of the craziest stages, it was definitely one of the craziest moments of racing I’ve been in. Only in moments like that do you really find your true desire how much you really want to win,” Froome said. “That day obviously I didn’t want to lose, and it seemed logical in my mind to keep moving forward, even if it meant running.”

Classic stuff. What’s going to happen Wednesday?

I spoke with Neilson Powless at the start Tuesday, and he expects a big fight to get into the breakaway, and then the GC fight coming from behind. Pogačar is in such an enviable position, all he needs to do is mark the wheels and not take risks.

His rivals have to try something, and with time running out, they cannot leave Ventoux without at least trying.