The photo that sums up the Giro (so far), Tadej Pogacar in pink with daylight second. Image: Sirotti
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Spin Cycle: If Anyone Can, Tadej Can

Only seven have done it and the last was more than a quarter of a century ago. But this man is all about creating history, wrote Anthony Tan a month ago.

If ever there was a year when Tadej Pogacar should attempt the Giro-Tour double, this would be it.

By the time the 25-year-old Slovenian rocks up to Venaria Reale on the outskirts of Turin in the country’s northwest, the start point for this year’s Giro d’Italia, he will have raced just 10 days. Compare that to 16 days’ racing at the same calendar date the previous year, or the 19 days he raced in 2022 or the 23 days in 2021, the last time he won the Tour de France.

So complete is his palmares, it feels like this impetuous kid who just seems to love racing his bike for fun has been around for donkey’s years. But the fact is 2024 is only his sixth year as a professional cyclist and the Giro will only be his sixth Grand Tour.

Other than Le Tour Pogacar has, to date, rode only one other Grand Tour. It was the 2019 Vuelta a España, which he did in his neo-pro season and, when nothing was expected of him, remarkably, for a guy just shy of his 21st birthday, he finished on the podium along with a hat-trick of stage victories. “It’s really incredible. I don’t think I was ever imagining this. I think I will need a few days to understand what I did,” he said on the penultimate day, after snagging his third stage victory and leapfrogging to third overall.

The 2024 Milano – Sanremo podium with Jasper Philipsen, Michael Matthews and Tadej Pogacar.

How to solve a problem like Tadej?

Since then it has all been about Le Tour and only Le Tour, and his 2020-23 GC results have respectively been thus: first, first, second, second. In the 2020-22 Tours he also managed three stage wins, while last year he ‘only’ scored two.

Unlike the Belgian wunderkind Remco Evenepoel, who I wrote about in my previous Spin Cycle, Pogacar appears, for the most part, to be unburdened by expectation. (Then again, Tadej doesn’t have to deal with the insatiable appetite that is the Belgian sports media, who began comparing Remco to a guy called Eddy even before he turned pro.) He’s often smiling, likes to play jokes, is friends with rivals from other teams (such as Jasper Philipsen and Michael Matthews, the two who beat him in this year’s Milan-San Remo), and doesn’t seem to take things too seriously. A testament to his character as much as his personality, he’s often one of the first to praise his rivals moments after defeat.

“…that is precisely what makes Tadej Pogacar so fascinating: you never know what he might do…”

As I’ve mentioned a number of times before, the greatest issue for Pogacar and his management is holding him back. He really is like the British Bulldog pup Rubble on Paw Patrol. (If you don’t have a toddler or sometimes look after one, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about – just Google it.) It might seem counterintuitive to race back-to-back Grand Tours – particularly the Giro-Tour double, less so the Tour-Vuelta – but as things stand, from what I can see from the preliminary start-list, crashes, injuries or sickness notwithstanding, he may be able to get through the Giro relatively unscathed – and still win.

The man of the moment, and one of the standout riders of a generation, Tadej Pogacar. Image: Sirotti.

You see, The Pog is that good there’s only a couple of guys who can beat him over three weeks – and none are racing this year’s Giro. Given what can go wrong over the course of 21 days it’s awfully premature and perhaps slightly disrespectful of me to suggest a lay-down misère by the Slovenian superhero. But if things turn out that way, then he has a full 33 days to recover and get ready to take on defending champion Jonas Vingegaard, countryman Primož Roglic et al. at the Tour.

Classics program slashed

Last season Pogacar was already on fire at Paris-Nice and then went on a rampage in Flanders and the Ardennes in April before fracturing his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It became a race against time to be ready for Le Tour and, as good as he was there, we didn’t see the best version of The Pog last July.

It is also worth noting that from last year, Vingegaard cut out all one-dayers from his program and will do the same this time around. Management at UAE Team Emirates has clearly taken a leaf out of the Team Visma-Lease a Bike playbook and restricted Pogacar’s schedule to just three one-day events pre-Tour: Strade Bianche (1st, thanks to a crazy 81km solo break), Milan-San Remo (3rd) and L-B-L (by the time you read this you’ll know the result; I’ll say first or second place).

The big difference, however, is in the number of race days pre-TdF.

In 2022 and ‘23, Pogacar did 24 and 22 race days prior to the Grand Départ; this year it will be 31. Vingegaard undertook 26 race days in both ‘22 and ‘23 and will do 25 this year. Roglic, who has become somewhat of a master at hiting peak form in the final week of Grand Tours (particularly after his agonising loss to Pogacar at the 2020 TdF), will have 24 race days under his belt by the time he rocks up to Florence on June 29.

Taking pink will be good for The Pog

If anything, the extra week’s racing compared to his likely two closest rivals at the Tour will benefit The Pog. Why? Because he’s a racer at heart, and if he does take the maglia rosa at some point in the Giro, he and his team will switch to riding defensively – as opposed to emptying his tank every time he entered a single-day race last year, which happened on nine occasions prior to the start of the Tour.

You might be wondering why, until now, I haven’t mentioned anything about the route of the Giro or Tour this year.

To be frank, it matters but far less than those who ride it. The Giro percorso is almost always brutale and the Tour is, well, the Tour; it’s equally hard, if not harder, because everyone who races it aims to be at their best for those three weeks in July.

The top dogs aiming for a spot on the podium will recon key stages so, unless there is a last-minute course change due to the weather or the Tour roadbook is factually incorrect (which happens but very occasionally) there will be no surprises. The greatest variability, therefore, comes down to the individuals, the whims of them and their teams, and after a fortnight’s racing, what’s left in the tank.

And that is precisely what makes Tadej Pogacar so fascinating: you never know what he might do.

If he does do the double, he’ll probably mutter something along the lines of what he said five years ago at the Vuelta, but perhaps with one word tweak: “I think I will need a few years to understand what I did.” 

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