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Analysis: Tadej Pogačar’s Merckxian GC winning streak

Pogačar has won 50 percent of the stage races he's started since turning professional in 2019.

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Tadej Pogačar reeled off another stage-race victory Tuesday by clinching the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico with laser efficiency.

The 22-year-old started as the hot favorite in the Race of Two Seas, and fended off a who’s who of rivals to claim his second GC title in two starts so far in 2021.

“It’s a fantastic start to the season,” Pogačar said. “But now I already need a bit of a rest before continuing the season. I felt good today, maybe a little bit fatigued after all the racing. It was a fast race, I was well-prepared, and I’m super happy to take this win.”

Despite this season being only his third in the WorldTour, Pogačar is quickly emerging as the most consistent and successful stage racers in a generation.

Also read: UAE: ‘We have not seen the best of Tadej Pogačar’

The statistics speak for themselves: In 12 career stage race starts, he’s won six, and twice finished in second or third. Of the four others, he was no worse than 13th in his professional debut at the 2019 Santos Tour Down Under. He twice finished fourth — at the 2019 Tour of Slovenia and 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné — and was sixth in the 2019 Itzulia Basque Country.

His consistency is even more telling. He’s never crashed out or did not finish a stage race he’s started. In fact, since turning pro in 2019, he’s recorded a DNF at just two races — the Amstel Gold Race and Clásica San Sebastián — both in 2019.

And, oh yeah, he won the 2020 Tour de France in his first try.

Comparing the numbers

Pogačar is quickly rising to the top of the peloton alongside such riders as Primož Roglič, a pre-crash Chris Froome and Egan Bernal among active riders who consistently deliver in every stage race they start.

Of the above riders, perhaps only Roglič is on equal footing to Pogačar right now. So far, Roglič has avoided serious crashes or illnesses that have beset such riders as both Froome and Bernal over the past few seasons. Roglič has won 12 career stage races, and 10 since joining the WorldTour in 2016, but it took him until his 11th GC start to win for the first time, at the 2017 Volta ao Algarve. Since then, Roglič is consistently battling for victory in every stage race he starts.

Also read: The flawed brilliance of Primož Roglič 

Alejandro Valverde is the most successful GC rider active in the peloton right now, with 26 career stage-race victories. Froome is next, with 17 stage-race victories from 2011 to 2018, a number which includes seven grand tour victories. Yet since his near career-ending crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné, Froome has not yet returned to the level to contend for overall victory.

Bernal shares the most in common with Pogačar’s meteoric rise. Since winning the Sibiu Cycling Tour in 2017, Bernal has a total of seven GC victories, including the 2019 Tour. Since joining the WorldTour in 2018, Bernal has won six out of 16 stage races he’s started, but he too is suffering from health issues associated with his back.

Bernal looks to be on track, and capped off a strong Tirreno-Adriatico with fourth overall.

https://twitter.com/INEOSGrenadiers/status/1371843732643971075

Of course, the best measure is head-to-head racing. Slated to target the Giro d’Italia, Bernal likely won’t cross paths with Pogačar again this season in a stage race. Froome is scheduled to race the Volta a Catalunya next week. The Dauphiné is the next time Pogačar, Froome and Roglič will square off before the 2021 Tour.

Comparing to Eddy Merckx

Of course, no one compares to Eddy Merckx.

And it’s all but impossible to compare across generations, especially from Merckx’s era to today’s highly specialized and concentrated racing calendar. During his peak, Merckx would race about 75 days per season, and his winning percentage is a whopping 35 percent of all races he started.

The Cannibal tops just about every list in cycling history. With 11 grand tours and 46 stage-race victories, Merckx’s marks will stand the test of time.

Could Pogačar make a run for Merckx’s all-time marks?

Maybe.

If Pogačar stays healthy, and if he keeps up his 50-percent winning percentage, and if races an average of six stage races per season and wins three, Pogačar could hit 46 stage-race wins in 2035. Pogačar would be 37.

Tadej Pogačar and his stage-race record

2019 — 6 races, 2 wins, 1 podium

Wins: Volta ao Algarve, Amgen Tour of California

Podium: Vuelta a España (third)

Others: 4th Tour of Slovenia, 6th Iztulia Basque Country, 13th Santos Tour Down Under

2020 — 4 races, 2 wins, 1 podium

Wins: Volta a Valenciana, Tour de France

Podium: UAE Tour (second)

Other: 4th Critérium du Dauphiné

2021 — 2 races, 2 wins

Wins: UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico

Up next: Itzulia Basque Country, Critérium du Dauphiné, Tour de France, Vuelta a España