The biggest shock of 2020? Tadej Pogačar and his yellow jersey raid rank right up there in a season packed with surprises at every turn.
By the time the race neared its climactic crescendo in the Belles Filles climbing time trial, there was quiet confidence the Slovenian could indeed pull off the biggest Tour heist since Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989.
That confidence grew during the course of the Tour with each passing stage. But what were the true expectations when the race started in Nice?
According to sport director Allan Peiper, a clinical appraisal within the team saw Pogačar making a respectful confirmation of his grand tour chops.
“I thought it was realistic to get a top-5,” Peiper told VeloNews. “That changed as the race unfolded, of course, but the Tour de France is where the big hitters go. The course suited him, with climbing right from the start and the time trial in the end, after what he did in the Vuelta the previous year, we knew Tadej could go well. We just didn’t know how well.”
Considering Pogačar had never raced the Tour de France before, the team didn’t want to pile on unrealistic expectations on their unpolished gem.
The team was certainly encouraged by his performance in his grand tour debut at the Vuelta in 2019, when he won three stages and finished third overall capped by a spectacular third week.
Pogačar came roaring into the 2020 season, with some early wins, only to see everything come to a grinding halt with coronavirus.
In hindsight, the forced stop seemed to favor the younger riders in the bunch. Older veterans, from Alejandro Valverde to Vincenzo Nibali, seemed to be missing the traditional build-up to the grand tours, while younger riders across the peloton excelled in 2020 in the uneven, abbreviated calendar.
“There were a lot of unknowns going into the Tour this year,” Peiper said. “Were riders going to be prepared enough? Could we hold camps? Would riders be under-prepared, over-prepared? All the underlying factors of a normal Tour were thrown out the window. We had to make a new game-plan for the post-lockdown calendar.”
Before the Tour, Pogačar raced a pair of one-days at Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo before the Critérium du Dauphiné. Riders like Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Egan Bernal (Ineos-Grenadiers) were flying high early, and Pogačar seemed to be a pedal stroke or two behind them in those early races.
At the Dauphiné, there were hints that Pogačar was on track to be strong at the Tour when it counted. After Roglič crashed out, Pogačar finished fourth overall by finishing stronger as the race unfolded.
It was close, but would it be close enough when it really counted in the Tour?
“I was a bit concerned about the whole team and how the team would get ready for the Tour,” Peiper said. “I was a bit concerned at the Dauphiné when he lost one minute in stage 2, but he wasn’t worried at all. He said, ‘I will get better.’
“I still wondered if he was going to be ready for the Tour,” Peiper continued. “On the final day of the Dauphiné, the GC was wide open for quite a few riders. [Thibaut] Pinot was strong, but had no team to defend. Tadej just ran out of gas a bit when [Sepp] Kuss went, and if he had gone with Kuss, he would have won the overall.”
Pogačar came out of the Dauphiné stronger and more confident, and that was mission accomplished for the team.
“Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t win the Dauphiné,” Peiper said. “It took the spotlight off him at the Tour de France. For us, that was the real confirmation that he would be ready for the Tour.”
Still, there was a kernel of doubt within UAE-Team Emirates about just how far Pogačar could ride as he pedaled into the untested realm of the Tour.
Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma started as the top favorites, with Pogačar seemingly lost among a host of other pre-race contenders.
That would be a blessing in disguise for the team as Pogačar could ride without undue pressure in the first half of the race.
“We had different expectations from within the team,” Peiper said. “[Fabio] Aru was also on for the Tour, and wanted Tadej to go to the Tour with no stress. So when we looked at what was realistic with a guy who in the previous grand tour won three stages and finished on the podium, for a first-year pro and who was 20, that was pretty crazy.
“If you take all those circumstances and you put them all together,” Peiper said. “If he confirms it, we thought a top-5 would be realistic.”
There was always quiet confidence that Pogačar could shine at the Tour de France. Insiders at the team marveled at the youngster’s power numbers and innate ability to recover.
As Pogačar emerged in the Pyrénées as a top challenger for yellow, the team quickly pivoted to support their surging Slovenian.
Those pre-race expectations also quickly evolved from a top-5 to a run at the podium to a full-on assault on the yellow jersey.