Tadej Pogacar rises above rivals and obstacles to cement status as king of cycling

UAE Team Emirates rider lives up to expectations to dominate the Tour de France

Tadej Pogacar describes himself as a “nice boy” but there was nothing friendly about his decimation of his Tour de France rivals over the past three weeks.

When the UAE Team Emirates rider made history 10 months ago as the Tour's youngest winner in 116 years — and first from Slovenia — it was both a culmination and a seminal moment. After a podium at the Vuelta a Espana and tour wins in California and the Algarve in 2019, Pogacar's results had been trending towards a big breakthrough at a Grand Tour.

It came in remarkable style, too, by snatching the yellow jersey from compatriot Primoz Roglic following a blistering performance in the penultimate stage's time trial.

Reaching cycling's pinnacle only propelled Pogacar to even more success — with victories at the UAE Tour and his first classic at Liege-Bastogne-Liege — and he returned to defend his Tour title no longer as one of the contenders but undoubtedly as the man to beat.

Such was the fear Pogacar struck into his rivals that Ineos Grenadier — winners of seven of the previous nine editions — assembled a team of intimidating depth, comprising four general classification contenders, designed to outnumber the 22-year-old champion. “He can't follow all four of us,” Ineos rider Richie Porte had said.

Ultimately, though, nothing and no one stood a chance against the irrepressible Pogacar. Not superstar line-ups, nor mass crashes; not inclement weather, nor the Tour's notoriously brutal terrain.

After coming through largely unscathed from crashes in each of the first three stages — the last of which put paid to chief rival Roglic's race — Pogacar laid down his first marker with a blistering time trial on Stage 5 to catapult himself into general classification contention, eight seconds behind leader Matthieu Van de Poel.

Like a lion stalking its prey, Pogacar pounced three days later with a performance which will go down as one of the great stage rides in Tour de France history. On the first day in the mountains, he delivered a jaw-dropping long-range solo to leave his title rivals trailing in his wake as he hunted down the breakaway in the final 4km. Pogacar would finish Stage 8 in fourth but most importantly he had taken control of the yellow jersey and opened up a gap of almost two minutes at the top.

“I haven’t killed the Tour,” Pogacar said. Perhaps not, but he had knocked it unconscious and after a rest day he returned to put it in a coma on Stage 9. Once again, Pogacar bolted away from his GC rivals around the 4km mark and while stage winner Ben O’Connor ate into the Slovenian's overall lead, the champion pulled more than five minutes clear of his legitimate challengers.

Further stage wins on 17 and 18 — following Herculean efforts in a pair of summit finishes where he twice beat nearest GC challenger Jonas Vingegaard — added to Pogacar's dominance. The Tour had long been wrapped up by then; Pogacar was almost showing off at this point.

So as Pogacar cruised down the Champs-Elysees in the final stage to begin his coronation as a multiple Tour de France champion, all that was left was to marvel at his accomplishments. If last year's triumph saw Pogacar emerge as cycling's latest star, this year's victory cemented his status as the undisputed king of road cycling.

Of course, Pogacar would not have been able to achieve victory alone. His team of Mikel Berg, Marc Hirshi, Rafal Majka, Rui Costa, Davide Formolo, Brandon McNulty, and Vegard Stake Laengen provided the physical and tactical support required for Pogacar to launch his attacks and defend his overall lead.

“I couldn’t have done this without the support from my teammates,” the Slovenian said after becoming the youngest rider in history to win the Tour de France twice. “They’ve been fantastic this Tour and I am very proud to be a part of such a great team.”

There is no time to celebrate, though, and very little time even to rest as Pogacar makes his way to Tokyo for the Olympic Games, where he is part of a strong Slovenia team comprising Roglic, UAE Team Emirates colleague Jan Polanc, and Bahrain Victorious rider Jan Tratnik.

Only one rider has ever won Olympic road race gold immediately after winning the Tour de France - Bradley Wiggins in 2012 — but as Pogacar continues to demonstrate, creating history on the bike is what he does, so Wiggins may soon have company.

Updated: July 20th 2021, 3:39 AM
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