As a tactician, Tadej Pogacar is the match of riders a decade or more his senior. Physiologically, when he is at his best, none are his equal.
It should simply not be possible to claim victory in any race as easily as the Slovenian managed to win the 115th edition of Il Lombardia, but the total of these two characteristics take us 90% towards understanding how he could do it. The other 10%? Bumbling in the bunch behind.
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In stark contrast to last weekend’s Paris-Roubaix races, both of which were fast and furious from the flags, the 2021 Tour of Lombardy was something of a slow burn. Attacks which were anticipated failed to materialise; early opportunities were not taken advantage of, even when they presented themselves well in advance.
Partly that might have been due to the unusual route. Although historically not uncommon for the race to travel from Como to Bergamo, rather than the reverse, before today it had not done so since 2016. Lack of familiarity will constitute part of that, but moreso will have been that the climbs in the Como direction are generally steeper, more explosive. Certainly unfamiliarity was no hindrance for today’s winner, who was himself a debutant in this race.
The early morning roll-out went as the formula dictates. Many fought to make the break, which took a while to form, but in the end there could be only ten. None could be seen as true contenders over such a hilly course. Belgians Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Victor Campenaerts (the latter of whom also rode Paris-Roubaix) were the highest profile riders in the group.
As the race rolled towards the hills, over the relatively gentle side of the iconic Madonna del Ghisallo climb, the lead of the escapees was permitted to rise to just over five minutes. The teams of the favourites, Jumbo Visma, obviously, and Deceuninck Quick Step, but also Israel Start Up Nation, for whom Chris Froome was making his Lombardia debut, in a supporting role for Michael Woods.
The second climb of the day, the Roncola, an approximately twenty minute effort, saw a minute sliced from the breakaway’s lead. The fast, furious and highly technical descent of the same took out AG2R’s Benoit Cosnefroy in a crash that left him looking dazed and confused.
By the halfway point in the race, at the completion of the Berbenno, the break’s advantage had been reduced by another minute, thanks largely to the work of Deceuninck Quick Step’s Pieter Serry. Either the Dossena, the longest climb of the race, or the Zambla Alta which followed not long after, ought to have been where the real racing would kick off, where at least someone from the set of second favourites would try their luck. Yet still the peloton stayed largely together. A satellite attack led by the youngest rider in the race, Ben Tulett of Alpecin-Fenix, was the most promising but survived only a few kilometres before Marc Hirschi (UAE Emirates) reeled it in. By the top of the penultimate climb, the break still had 50 seconds over the bunch, which itself still contained 50 riders.
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It was as the race entered its final phase, on the steep slopes of the Passo di Ganda that heralded the run-in to Bergamo, that the remnants of the break were absorbed. DSM’s Tiesj Benoot, riding for Romain Bardet, led the race through the narrow streets of Gazzaniga and onto the early slopes of the Ganda.
With 37km of road remaining, the shark attacked. No longer in his prime, but never to be counted out, Vincenzo Nibali’s move off the front had all the makings of a serious dig. And so it was, though not for Lo Squalo himself but those riders who had the legs to go with him.
They included Tadej Pogacar. They did not include pre-race favourites Primoz Roglic, Julian Alaphilippe or Adam Yates.
For his part Yates later denied it was a tactical calculation to let the Tour de France winner go: “If I had the legs I would have gone with him, but I was suffering,” he said.
Pogacar went solo just two kilometres later, and soon established a lead of thirty seconds over his rivals. With the descent and another ten kilometres of flat to follow that ought not to have been insurmountable - if the riders behind could organise themselves.
Whether on instruction or impulse, Deceuninck Quick Step’s Fausto Masnada, a Bergamo native, went off on a solo hunt. A couple of wobbles on the descent for Pogacar aided the catch for Masnada who, with a team-mate in the group behind, could then afford to sit on Pogacar’s wheel and be towed to the finish.
For most riders in Pogacar’s place would have been hindered by having a passenger, but Pogacar is, as we well know, not most riders. He kept pushing the power on the approach to Bergamo, allowing the local boy no opportunity to come past him.
While the road rapidly ran out, the riders behind continued to dither.
“Tadej was really, really strong,” Masnada said afterwards. “He pulled all the time and on the final climb he tried to drop me.”
When the road opened up the Italian tried his one attack, but the UAE Emirates man did not even have to rise out of his saddle to latch onto the wheel.
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And in the final few hundred metres it barely seemed like he had to sprint to beat Masnada to the line, becoming the youngest Il Lombardia champion since Jean-Pierre Monsere in 1969. In reality no race wins are easy, but few Monument victories will ever look easier than this. Adam Yates would make up the podium as he beat Roglic, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and Alaphilippe to the line.
There’s a lot of talk of Remco Evenepoel being the next Eddy Merckx, but the only rider who is actually beginning to match the Cannibal is Tadej Pogacar. Adding today’s result to his Liege-Bastogne-Liege title taken back in April, only Pogacar, Merckx (1969, 1971, 1972, 1973) and Fausto Coppi (1949) have now won two Monuments and the Tour de France in the same campaign.
“One of the most talented human beings to ever ride a bicycle,” declared Eurosport’s Rob Hatch.
At just 23, at the end of only his third season in the WorldTour, Tadej Pogacar is rightly being talked about as an all-time great. Not a future Hall of Famer, one who has well and truly arrived.
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