Even though his UAE-Emirates team was sidelined Wednesday by health authorities, Pogačar is hoping to race Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
The prospect of seeing two such dominating Tour de France riders fully committed to racing to win across the Ardennes is a boon for cycling fans.
Their presence and commitment to race the Ardennes is both a throwback to cycling’s past, but also a tilt toward how modern cycling is rewriting the script on the racing calendar.
As cycling became more specialized in the modern era, it became an oddity to see a Tour de France winner line up in the one-day spring classics. And it was even more surprising to see them in the mix for the podium.
In fact, the last outright Tour winner to win Liège was Bernard Hinault, all the way back in 1980 (Andy Schleck was awarded the 2010 Tour). That was the year from the famous Neige-Bastogne-Neige edition, when the Badger battled through cold, wind, and snow to win “La Doyenne.”
By the mid-1980s, Greg LeMond heralded in cycling’s first million-dollar contract, which coupled with the emergence of the Tour de France as the most important event for fans, media, and sponsors.
Tour-caliber riders would occasionally dip their toes into the classics — Andy Schleck won Liège in 2009 — but the major winners over the past two decades would largely steer clear of the monuments. Chris Froome often raced Liège, but never finished better than 36th. Bradley Wiggins only raced Liège only once in his career, and Alberto Contador largely avoided the major one-days after he emerged as the Tour dominator.
One exception is Vincenzo Nibali. The 2014 Tour winner boasts two monuments on his palmarès, with Milano-Sanremo and Il Lombardia.
Back in the day, riders like Eddy Merckx or Laurent Fignon would race almost everything, from the one-days, to the one-week stage races and the grand tours. Why? They not only had the engines to win across a variety of terrain, but they also needed to race to make money.
Last Tour de France winners of the five monuments:
- Milano-Sanremo: Laurent Fignon, 1989
- Tour of Flanders: Eddy Merckx, 1975
- Paris-Roubaix: Bernard Hinault, 1981
- Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Hinault, 1980
- Il Lombardia: Vincenzo Nibali, 2017
By the 1990s and into 2010s, however, winning the Tour de France is what mattered. Winning a race like Liège-Bastogne-Liège might pad out the palmarès, but if a star rider didn’t deliver in July, the season would be viewed as a loss. Many non-European fans know what the Tour de France is, but they’ve never heard of Flèche Wallonne.
Entire teams were built around racing and delivering the Tour de France. There was barely any bandwidth left for anything else.
Another reason why top grand tour stars were frequently bypassing the classics was the growing obsession with altitude training camps. Long gone are the days of racers riding into peak form with a busy spring calendar. These days, when they’re not racing, most of the major stars of the peloton are decamped on the top of the Teide volcano or at the Sierra Nevada altitude training center in Spain.
If you ever want an autograph from one of the Tour de France stars, head to the parador on the top of the Tenerife.
Training camps and racing calendars have become so calibrated there simply isn’t room for anything else.
That’s why it’s so intriguing to see riders like Pogačar and Roglič really put a focus on the classics.
Of course, it helps that both have the explosive engines and staying power to race and win the grueling demands of a race like Liège. You’re not going to see whippet-thin Pogačar racing Paris-Roubaix anytime soon.
🏆 Un final inoubliable et un monument pour @rogla ! A 2 semaines de la Doyenne, retour sur son incroyable dénouement en 2020 !
— Liège-Bastogne-Liège (@LiegeBastogneL) April 11, 2021
It’s not as if they’re putting Ardennes week on their respective calendars by mistake or obligation. According to team sources, both riders are insisting that they race the one-days. Both also have the fall classics, and Il Lombardia, on their radars as well.
I asked Pogačar about it the other day in a Zoom call, and he said he simply loves the all-in, combative style of racing of one-day racing. Roglič, too, is a fierce competitor who wants to win everything he can on the calendar.
Even though the Tour remains the ultimate goal, teams are also putting more importance on more dates across the season. The top WorldTour teams now have the depth and maturity of a program to race to win every race they start.
Even Ineos Grenadiers — long the standard-bearer for grand tour obsession over the past decade — is showing newfound ambitions in one-day racing.
Part of it is money. Teams have the financial muscle to hire enough top talent to field competitive teams in nearly every major race. No longer is an entire team resting on the shoulders of a Merckx or a Contador. If Roglič isn’t winning a race like Amstel Gold Race, the team has Wout van Aert ready to pounce.
There’s something else — riders want to race, and they want to win. For a rider like Pogačar, winning the Tour de France isn’t enough.
There’s no question that the Tour remains the gravitational center of the sport, but more teams and riders are broadening their reach.
And it’s great to watch.
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