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Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič tread tightrope of form toward the Tour de France

Does the Slovenian duo's red-hot start to 2021 point toward a risk of peaking too soon?

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Primož Roglič marches on, relentless as ever. Tadej Pogačar continues to be the cannibal of the general classification.

The Slovenian duo is at the forefront of the battle for GC at this week’s Itzulia Basque Country as they extend their unrivaled run of stage-race dominance. But how long can it be sustained when their true prize – the top step of the Tour de France podium – is still more than three months away?

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“Pog” steamrolled through the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico to make it two-from-two in 2021, and “Rog” added four more leader’s jerseys to his brimming wardrobe before his wheels were whipped from beneath him at Paris-Nice. The pair are odds-on favorites for this week’s Basque race, with Roglič currently leading the overall. And despite the collective might of Ineos Grenadiers, it’s hard to look past the Slovenians for Tour de France glory.

But with racing this season proving so intense that classics heavyweights Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel fizzled when they needed to flourish at the Tour of Flanders, do Roglič and Pogačar need to tamp things down?

Logic would suggest that matches burned now may not be replenished in time for the Tour’s Grand Départ in 11 week’s time, but history suggests otherwise. UAE Emirates is working a model long tried and tested by Tour de France champions.

“If you have a look back at least the last 10 years of how the Tour winners built a season towards the tour, it’s not just based on wins but also on confidence. Confidence gains wins,” UAE Emirates sport director Allan Peiper told VeloNews. “You can see a pattern of winning Paris-Nice, winning Tour of Romandie, winning the Dauphiné and then winning Tour de France. That’s happened so many times in the last 10 years with the guys from Team Sky, and I don’t think that that has changed.”

Bradley Wiggins took his lone yellow jersey after following Peiper’s pathway of victory at Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, and the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2012. Chris Froome and Egan Bernal followed a similar template of cranking out a winter GC win before rubber-stamping their form to win more classification honors through late spring and early summer.

What worked before does not necessarily roll forward that easily.

Lessons from the low countries

Mathieu van der Poel rides up the Paterberg with Kasper Asgreen
Van der Poel was on his last legs while Asgreen was hitting his stride at Flanders. Photo: James Startt

Racing in 2021 is not racing in the “Fortress Froome” era of five or six years ago.

“Ever since last year’s Tour and then onwards, racing has been more aggressive, and training numbers have been elevated from prior,” said UAE Emirates performance coordinator John Wakefield. “The overall intensities and training loads are up. Guys are hitting PBs a lot earlier in the season, and we’re seeing overall performance data from races way higher than before.”

The sight of van Aert and van der Poel running on fumes at the Tour of Flanders could ring alarm bells for Roglič and Pogačar. The twosome placed a Slovenian-like stranglehold over the 2020 season, and after the shortest of winters, have continued where they left off this year.

Van Aert and van der Poel were victims of the new intensity of early season racing at the Tour of Flanders. In early March we were debating how many monuments “MvdP” would win and cooing over van Aert’s multi-faceted skillset. This week we’re picking the bones of a Flanders upset that saw van Aert blow at 17km to go, and van der Poel lose his legs with the finish line in sight.

Also read: Why van der Poel and van Aert didn’t dominate spring classics

The staffers behind van Aert were confident that their pathway from Tenerife through Tirreno-Adriatico to the cobblestones was watertight. This week, the Belgian’s coach admitted the plan had sprung a leak.

“Physiology is not an exact science. I still support the trajectory we have outlined,” Marc Lamberts told Het Nieuwsblad. “But, Tirreno-Adriatico was so tough that you could not label it as a build-up week. If we had known it would be so hard, he might have ridden Paris-Nice instead.”

Van der Poel was similarly ruing an intense spell of Italy before turning his attentions before his A1 goals on the cobbles, telling reporters last week that he had burned one match too many as he romped through otherworldly performances at Strade Bianche and Tirreno. Meanwhile, his Flanders foe, Kasper Asgreen, had been keeping his Danish champ’s jersey out of the limelight with quiet rides through the “opening weekend” and Tirreno ahead of cranking the cadence when it mattered most – at the E3 Classic and De Ronde.

Should Roglič and Pogačar be concerned as they contemplate their true finish line on the Champs-Élysées of Paris?

While neither still have the mud of a cyclocross season in their cleats, they will both race a stacked schedule in the Ardennes before returning to altitude ahead of the final tune-up of the Dauphiné. The schedules do not pack the same week-by-week intensity of van der Poel and van Aert’s, and the chess-match strategizing of stage racing is not the all-or-nothing demands of the classics.

Yet their prize of the yellow ambitions could be a lot more important for teams, sponsors, and reputations than a win in the Belgian spring.

The Itzulia Basque Country could be a make or break of Tour de France chances

Pogačar will no doubt be comforted by his team’s unrelenting faith in his unrivaled capacity for recovery and boundless confidence. However, the 22-year-old has not yet raced the Tour de France in a typical season, instead winning his debut Tour just two months after last year’s COVID season restarted.

Also read: What Itzulia Basque Country could tell us about the 2021 Tour

Jumbo-Visma will take courage from the tenacity and consistency that saw Roglič winning from February through October in 2019, and his domination of almost all of last summer’s post-coronavirus racing. Yet Roglič also has the monkey on his back of repeatedly fading at the key moment, ceding victories at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the final days.

Roglič and Pogačar roll out for a testing hilly stage in the Itzulia on Wednesday, and it would be no surprise to see one of them taking the win on the Emaulde hilltop finish.

Whether “Rog” and “Pog” chose to race for the confidence and kudos of victory or spare their bullets for bigger prizes come July, this week in Spain could make-or-break their Tour de France campaigns.