The Tadej Pogačar era officially began Sunday afternoon in downtown Liège.
With one Tour de France victory and now one monument on his rapidly expanding palmarès, Pogačar is quickly emerging as the best and most versatile rider in a generation.
“I am almost speechless. I really love this race,” Pogačar said Sunday. “Winning here was a dream of mine and it is incredible to have achieved this goal, and finish ahead of these big names.”
Big names, indeed.
That monument/yellow jersey combination immediately puts him in elite company. Among active riders, only Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) shares that designation.
The 22-year-old Slovenian is a throwback to an earlier era, when cycling’s major stars excelled across all terrain, as well as a prototypical modern rider who races to win in every race they start.
Tadej Pogačar joins elite company
With his cunning victory Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the young Slovenian became just the fourth reigning Tour de France winner to win La Doyenne since World War II.
And he’s the first since Bernard Hinault, who won his second of five Tours in 1979, was first into Liège in 1980.
To put that in a generational context, Hinault’s Liège victory — the last by a French rider — came the same year Alejandro Valverde was born.
Moving forward in cycling’s time continuum, the Spanish rider, who was fourth Sunday behind Pogačar, won the last of his four Liège titles in 2017, when Pogačar was 18 years old, racing his first full season for the continental team, ROG-Ljubljana.
Valverde, who turned 41 on Sunday, is a bridge of sorts between the cycling heyday of the 1980s to Pogačar and today’s finely tuned race machines, who are blowing out the peloton just as soon as they roll off the assembly line.
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Last summer, Pogačar already became modern cycling’s youngest winner — about six months younger when he won compared to when Egan Bernal won in 2019 — and it appears almost no one, except Primož Roglič on his very best, can stop him.
This summer’s Tour de France will be important challenge for Pogačar.
If last year’s route was ideal for his explosive style, this year’s course could be called the “anti-Tadej” course. There are only three mountaintop finales, and two relatively long time trials. That doesn’t leave much ground to make differences before and after the ever important tests against the clock.
Of course, Pogačar is no slouch against the clock — just ask Roglič — but on paper at least the route could favor the likes of Roglič or even 2018 winner Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers).
If Pogačar can win this summer’s Tour on this course, well folks, we are probably looking at the next five-time winner.
In many ways, Pogačar is reminiscent of Greg LeMond. Both won the Tour de l’Avenir, and both won the Tour early. Like LeMond in his early years, he’s young, spontaneous, unnerved by traditional, and an absolute freak on the bike.
If Pogačar can stay healthy, and keep the right attitude and not get burned out, there is no putting limits on what he can accomplish.
He’s already proving Merckxian in his win-to-race ratio.
And what’s scary, at least for his rivals, is that he’s only getting started.
What’s even more intriguing is Pogačar’s interests and ability to extend beyond the Tour de France.
In interviews this year, he’s already hinted he would like to race the Giro d’Italia sooner than later. With third in his grand tour debut at the 2019 Vuelta a España, he will return to the Vuelta this fall for another crack at the Spanish grand tour.
Among active riders, only Chris Froome and Nibali have won all three. It seems it’s only a matter of time before Pogačar joins that club.
Pogačar’s ambitions don’t start and end with the yellow jersey. One-day racing will be a big part of his agenda as well. It’s easy to imagine him winning Il Lombardia, and perhaps even Giro di Lombardia or Milano-Sanremo under the right scenario.
“I’ve said before, I really like one-day races, from Ardennes classics to Italian classics,” Pogačar said. “I really enjoy it. It’s a different style of racing than stage racing, a different rhythm.”
Since the Eddy Merckx era — the Belgian won a record 19 monuments during his career — only four other Tour de France winners have won a monument.
That’s somewhat surprising, considering that Tour winners often won Olympic medals, world titles and other one-day races, but it also reflects just how grueling the monuments can be, even for Tour-caliber riders.
That low haul also reflects the growing dominance of the Tour in modern cycling at the expense of some of cycling’s other events. Riders like Miguel Indurain, Chris Froome, or Alberto Contador rarely raced the monuments, and when they did, never won.
Tour de France/monument winners
(since Eddy Merckx era)
Bernard Hinault: 5x TdF, 2x Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 1x Paris-Roubaix, 2x Lombardia
Laurent Fignon: 2x TdF, 2x Milano-Sanremo
Andy Schleck: 1x TdF, 1x LBL
Vincenzo Nibali: 1x TdF, 2x Lombardia, 1x MSR
Sky is the limit for ‘Pogi’
How far can Pogačar go?
If he stays healthy, keeps his mind fresh and doesn’t burn out, and sees his team grow even stronger, it’s hard to imagine anyone out there who can stop him.
Egan Bernal remains an enigma. Older riders such as Thomas or Nibali cannot match his explosiveness. Maybe Tao Geoghegan Hart if he continues to improve. Let’s see what Remco Evenepoel can do in the grand tours.
Right now, the only rider who can match Pogačar is Roglič.
Time is on Pogačar’s side.
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⭐️ Final 5 étoiles à Liège ! 💪
— Liège-Bastogne-Liège (@LiegeBastogneL) April 25, 2021