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Analysis: Tadej Pogačar’s ‘almost perfect’ season in 2022 is his best yet

'Finishing second in the Tour is going to give me motivation for next year,' Pogačar says to close out season with a win.

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Tadej Pogačar capped his best season yet as a professional with an emphatic victory Saturday at Il Lombardia.

The 24-year-old closes out 2022 with 16 victories, the most since he exploded onto the UCI WorldTour in 2019.

“It’s been a great season for me and it’s ended in the best possible way,” Pogačar said in trademark aplomb.

How would he describe 2022?

“Almost perfect.”

That accurately sums up his season, because he almost won nearly every race he started.

Pogačar is the rare rider who can win from February to October. Built for speed and endurance, he can win out of reduced bunch sprints, take on the best against the clock, and climb like a mountain goat.

Even if he was second overall at the Tour in 2022, he was never worse than fourth on GC at any given day across 21 days of racing in France.

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His DNA is hard-wired for racing bikes, and still not even 25, he vows he’s racing for fun.

And fun for Pogačar is usually misery for his rivals.

In 2022, he broadened his already “almost perfect” skillset by taking on the northern classics, with starts at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Tour of Flanders. He won Strade Bianche in blazing authority, but was schooled a bit on the roads of Flanders when Mathieu van der Poel outflanked him at De Ronde.

Pogačar came enticingly close to adding Flanders and Milano-Sanremo, where he was fifth, to his already growing monument’s trophy case that now includes one Liège-Bastogne-Liège and back-to-back editions of Lombardia.

As his team boss Joxean Fernández Matxín recently said, he can imagine Pogačar winning just about every race on the calendar except perhaps Paris-Roubaix.

The wheels came off ever so slightly at the Tour de France when Jumbo-Visma outfoxed him on the Col de Galibier. With UAE Team Emirates hobbled by illness, Pogačar could not overcome Jonas Vingegaard when it counted in the mountains.

Second at the 2022 Tour was a minor blip in the grande boucle that included three stage wins, second overall, and the white jersey for the third year running.

Pogačar didn’t bat an eye after “losing” the Tour.

In fact, he didn’t seem phased by it at all, at least not publicly. The Slovenian has the ability, at least so far, to shake off pressure like water beading off a duck’s plumage.

“When I look back on the Tour, it was a great Tour. We won three stages and I was second. You always want to win, but finishing second meant to me a lot more than almost winning in some sense,” Pogačar said. “It’s going to give me motivation and a lot to think about next year.”

UAE wisely pulled Pogačar out of a planned start at the 2022 Vuelta a España, and promptly returned to action with a string of one-days after a short break in winning fashion.

Victories at GP de Montréal, Tre Valli Varesine and Lombardia put an exclamation mark on Pogačar’s most successful season yet, at least in terms of the number of wins. A run at the worlds ran out of gas, but there’s an inevitability that Pogačar will be road world champion before his career is over.

While 2021 might have been a touch better in terms of quality — with his second yellow jersey and two monuments — he won more races this season since he turned pro.

Also in 2022, Pogačar kept his streak alive of winning three stages in every grand tour he’s started. Dating back to his telling debut of third in the 2019 Vuelta a España, he’s brought home three stage wins and at least one jersey in every grand tour start.

What’s next in 2023?

Pogačar defended his title at Il Lombardia to close out his best season yet as a pro. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Going into the off-season, Pogačar’s career hits an interesting crossroads.

For the first time since his explosion onto the scene in 2019, he sees a legitimate GC rival in Vingegaard and the Dutch brawn of Jumbo-Visma.

On paper, Jumbo-Visma is a deeper, more experienced team than UAE, and with the rise of Vingegaard, a rider who can match Pogačar directly in all terrain, Pogačar will face a new puzzle to unravel in 2023.

The uncertainty of Egan Bernal’s future and Ineos Grenadiers’ bet on youth means the once-mighty British team might be relegated to second-tier status in the heavyweight match between Vingegaard and Pogačar in 2023.

Faced with a rival like Vingegaard, it will be interesting to see how much “fun” racing will remain for Pogačar if it requires a dramatic change in the blueprint that’s worked so well so far. Living is easy when wins fall like dominoes.

Cycling history is full of young über-talents riding high on pure talent only to succumb to injuries, motivational issues, and the rise of unexpected challengers.

For the past two seasons, Pogačar’s taken a similar approach to the Tour, with a debut on the team sponsor’s home roads at the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Slovenian tour, and then off to France.

Pogačar’s calendar for 2023 remains to be finalized. UAE Team Emirates is meeting later this month in the team’s Arab base and will start to sketch out the season highlights for Pogačar.

The arrival of such riders as Adam Yates and the slow but steady progression of the likes of João Almeida, Brandon McNulty, and Juan Ayuso means UAE will bring multiple options to every stage race and grand tour.

There is no question that Pogačar will remain the sun in the ever-growing galaxy of stars at UAE Team Emirates.

Pogačar has yet to start the Giro d’Italia, and there are already suggestions he might take on the rare Giro-Tour double, a feat not matched in modern cycling since Marco Pantani won both in 1998. Or he could target the postponed Tour-Vuelta double, the preferred road for many Tour stars over the past decade.

No matter what races he decides to target, Pogačar will be the favorite every time he toes up to the line.

Cycling hasn’t seen such a diversely talented and ambitious rider in generations. That much won’t change in 2023.

Pogačar never stopped fighting in the 2022 Tour, and won three stages for the third year in a row. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Tadej Pogačar: victories per season 2019-2022

2022: 16

Stage races: 1st UAE Tour, 1st Tirreno-Adriatico, 1st Tour of Slovenia, 2nd Tour de France (three stage wins)

One days: Strade Bianche, GP de Montréal, Tre Valli Varesine, Il Lombardia

2021: 13

Stage races: 1st UAE Tour, 1st Tirreno-Adriatico, 1st Tour of Slovenia, 1st Tour de France (three stage wins)

One days: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Il Lombardia

2020: Nine

Stage races: 1st Comunitat Valencia, 1st Tour de France (three stage wins)

One days: National ITT championship

2019: Eight

Stage races: 1st Volta ao Algarve, 1st Amgen Tour of California, 3rd Vuelta a España (three stage wins)

One days: National ITT championship