Tour de France can only be a Primoz Roglic v Tadej Pogacar showdown, Ineos in deep trouble – Blazin’ Saddles
Unlikely to face each other in stage races until July’s Tour de France, Slovenians Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic showed just why they are in a league of their own by winning Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice respectively. Felix Lowe rounds up the main talking points from an exciting week of racing in both France and Italy, including Ineos’ hunt for a genuine Plan B sans Egan Bernal.
Highlights: Yates wins Stage 8 as Roglic survives in yellow jersey
Two hard-fought stage races over the same time period amounted to manna in the musette for cycling fans, although the final results – a commanding victory for Tadej Pogacar and a slender breakthrough win for Primoz Roglic – will have many fearing for the inevitable later this summer.
Here are 10 talking points from an absorbing week of racing both sides of the French and Italian border…
When UAE Team Emirates channelled their inner Gewiss and pulled off an uncanny one-two-three in the Trofeo Laigueglia at the start of the month, no one expected their clean sweep to be replicated just days later and on a far greater stage – and by their big rivals, no less.
With less than seven kilometres remaining of the opening stage of Paris-Nice, Jumbo-Visma looked to apply the pressure on the final climb of the day, the short but sharp Cote de Breuil-Bois-Robert. On any usual day, this was a climb which would have perhaps separated the wheat from the chaff ahead of a reduced bunch sprint. But Roglic’s team had other ideas.
Highlights: Jumbo take control on Stage 1 of Paris-Nice as Laporte takes stunning victory
It was new arrival Christophe Laporte who turned the screw with a long, unseated surge which blew the pack apart. Soon, the reborn Frenchman only had team-mates Roglic and Wout van Aert on his wheel, plus a grimacing Zdenek Stybar. Once the sole representative from Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl was jettisoned (and with it any chances of a Fabio Jakobsen win) the Jumbo-Visma trio rode off into the sunset.
A nice touch saw the more illustrious duo usher Laporte to the front to take a first win since his move from Cofidis – a win of the kind you’d be hard pressed seeing again in quite some time. Both Roglic and Van Aert would add stages of their own before the end of the race – a race which, if taken in isolation, saw the pendulum shift back from UAE to Jumbo-Visma on French soil, five months before the big rendez-vous of the season.
The Tour can only be a two-horse race between Pog and Rog
Of course, it’s impossible to take Paris-Nice in isolation when, over the border, Tadej Pogacar is racing with the kind of relish and indomitability rarely seen in the sport since – well, there’s no point naming him, is there?
With the two Slovenian superstars in such stellar form, it's hard to see beyond another tussle between Pogacar and Roglic this July. A crash for the former winter sports professional last year meant it was largely one-way traffic en route to a second maillot jaune for Pogacar – but we all hope for a tighter contest this time round.
The rider who finished alongside Pogacar on the Paris podium last July, the Dane Jonas Vingegaard, once again came second; a five-minute deficit over three weeks reduced to just under two minutes over one week in Italy. As good a prospect Vingegaard is, he’s not yet at the level to challenge Pogacar (almost two years his junior) for yellow, nor will he be expected to with team-mate Roglic at the head of Jumbo's challenge.
'Machine' Roglic will rival Pogacar at 2022 Tour de France - Wiggins
Roglic gets the French monkey off his back
You can only beat the riders lining up alongside you – and Roglic did just that in Nice. Although only just, the 32-year-old needing support from that man Van Aert, in green, to keep his yellow from the blue shoulders of Simon Yates.
Having eased himself into the season without any of the pizzazz of his compatriot and rival – with two going-through-the-motions appearances in lowly one-day French races – Roglic returned to Paris-Nice determined to avenge his last-day collapse from 2021, when a crash ended his chances of the overall win.
That Jumbo-Visma one-two-three on the opening day set the tone and it was perhaps fitting that his two team-mates from the coup – Laporte and Van Aert – both kept the yellow jersey warm for their leader before he took over at the top after the first mountains test in Stage 5. His grip on the overall victory was strengthened with a clinical display of uphill efficiency to win on the Col de Turini in Stage 7 – and although he did not crash on the final day, he still had to weather the storm.
When Simon Yates piled on the pressure on the Col d’Eze, Roglic was able to rely on the man he later described as “half-human, half-motor” to limit his losses and help him secure his first ever WorldTour stage race victory on French soil. In short, in a week that started with a 1-2-3, Jumbo-Visma only needed a 2-3 to get them over the line.
'My type of day' - Roglic relishes 'hard racing' at Paris-Nice
“I don’t go without a bit of drama,” Roglic said after his latest wobble. “It was super hard this last one, but I have to admit, it was easier and I’m more happy than the final stage last year.”
Whether this symbolic win on French soil will mean much in the grand scheme of things is unclear. But it was an important personal milestone for Roglic and one that puts him in good stead ahead of his next tranche of races.
But, really, no one can stop Pogacar
Let’s be brutally honest, though. No one – not even Roglic accompanied by his hybrid super-domestique de luxe Van Aert – can come between Tadej Pogacar and a third successive Tour crown at this rate.
The 23-year-old has won all three of the races he’s ridden so far this year in dominating fashion: the UAE Tour after victories on both summit finishes, Strade Bianche after a 50km solo blitz to the line, and now Tirreno-Adriatico after another brace of wins. He attacks at will and no one seems remotely capable of keeping up with him.
Sure, he wasn’t the first in history to pull off the Strade Bianche-Tirreno double: Fabian Cancellara did so in 2007 at a time when the Race of the Two Seas was a largely flat affair with a long time trial (how could he lose?). But the way Pogacar is performing suggests he will win quite a few more races before his focus even shifts to the Tour.
Highlights: Pogacar powers to Stage 6 win at Tirreno-Adriatico
No one would raise an eyebrow if he ripped up and down the Poggio to win a third Monument this Saturday – nor would a scenario that saw Pogacar succeed on his Flanders debut appear remotely shocking given his form.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Pogacar fares in races that also include his compatriot Roglic – they are both down to ride Milan-Sanremo, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – but they will avoid each other in stage races prior to the Danish grand depart, with Pogacar favouring the Tour of Slovenia and Roglic opting for the Criterium du Dauphine.
A lot will have to change between now and July, though, for anyone to think beyond a Pogacar win in Paris. He’s the best individual all-round cyclist the sport has seen in the modern era and he’ll have the best team around him all focused on that single challenge.
Unbeatable? “No, I wouldn’t say that,” said the man himself. Looks like the only person who can beat Pog is Pog. And when he does, he’ll probably do it 50km from the finish and just to keep himself warm.
No one sprinter will dominate this year
In both races, Pogacar was the only rider to win more than a single stage – highlighting not just his dominance, but the even playing field when it comes to the sprints this year.
Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) kept up his roll of winning the first sprint stage of major races on day two of Tirreno, but that’s as far as the Belgian’s winning steak went in a race that also saw Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious) pick up wins, the latter in spellbinding fashion as he weaved across the road to find a gap on the home straight.
It was a wretched race for Mark Cavendish, though, the Manx veteran failing to make the top 10 in any sprints while, over in France, his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl colleague/rival (delete as appropriate) Fabio Jakobsen picked up his sixth win of the season.
Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) also looked out of sorts in Tirreno, Peter Sagan (Team TotalEnergies) pulled out with a fever, while Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) came no closer to their first wins of the season. In fact, one of the highlights in the few fast finishes on offer was the performances of 20-year-old Dutchman Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) who seems to be knocking on the door of a major win.
In France, Jakobsen’s win came the day after that extraordinary Jumbo-Visma clean sweep. But the most in-form sprinter of the season was unable to add to his tally with the only remaining sprint won by the Danish powerhouse Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) ahead of the Frenchman Bryan Coquard (Cofidis). Pedersen may have added another in Stage 6 but for the exploits of escapee Mathieu Burgaudeau (Team TotalEnergies) who held on to defy the pack in a thrilling finish in Aubagne.
Paris-Nice stage 6 highlights as Burgaudeau powers to victory
But it was a bad week for Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Cees Bol (Team DSM), Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), none of whom were able to prove a major factor in any of the sprints in the Race to the Sun.
There’s certainly no shortage of quality sprinters in the peloton right now, but Jakobsen is the only one who seems to be consistently hitting the right buttons. It’s early days, and the likes of Ewan, Ackermann and Demare have time to find their legs. But everyone looks beatable and no one looks quite like the Pogacar of sprinting.
Welcome back, Wawa
Almost five years after his last WorldTour win, Warren Barguil put in a timely reminder of his potential with a gutsy – and slightly fortuitous – solo win on Stage 5. With the chase behind disrupted after numerous riders (including that man Pogacar) took the wrong turn, the Frenchman held off Xandro Meurisse for his only his third win in the colours of Arkea-Samsic.
Having burst onto the scene with a brace in the 2013 Vuelta, Barguil took another four years before adding another double – this time in the Tour, including a Bastille Day win at Foix followed by that equally unforgettable triumph in polka dots on the Izoard. But the Frenchman’s rather whimsical career went off the rails with a move out of the ProTour to Arkea, where the now 30-year-old has added only the French national championships title in 2019 and the Tour du Lumousin in 2021 before his seventh career win last week.
Tirreno-Adriatico Stage 5 Highlights as Warren Barguil takes victory in dramatic finish
With team-mate Nairo Quintana also showing glimpses of his form of old this season, the prospect of the climbing duo putting on a show at the Tour de France is certainly an appealing one – especially in an age of Pog-Rog domination.
Riders susceptible to other illnesses despite Covid retreat
A wave of flu-like symptoms – although no positive Covid-19 tests – swept through the Paris-Nice peloton last week resulting in a raft of withdrawals. In the end, only 59 riders of the original field of 154 made it to the finish – a staggering attrition rate for a stage race.
The stats are perhaps embellished a little by the fact that 37 riders elected to skip the final stage, given the horrific wet and cold conditions. But ahead of Stage 5 alone, some 18 riders did not take to the start because of sickness – a reminder that, with the pandemic hopefully behind us, other illnesses can still take their toll.
It’s perhaps by being struck down by something similar that Pogacar’s only chances of not winning the Tour exist.
Yates deserves praise for fighting to the last
Trailing Roglic by 47 seconds entering the final stage of Paris-Nice, Simon Yates didn’t go down without a fight. Striking out on the Col d’Eze with around 17km remaining, the British rider put the yellow jersey under severe pressure, at one point holding a 30-second gap which, taken alongside bonus seconds over the line, saw him flirt with the virtual race lead.
A Van Aert-powered Roglic rallied to reduce the gap to just nine seconds at the finish to secure the overall win by 29 seconds. But in this day of Slovenian domination in stage races, it was a welcome tonic for fans to see things in the balance at the business end of a race. While Yates’s best chances of adding another Grand Tour to his palmares remains the Giro – in the absence of both Pogacar and Roglic – his bravery on the sodden Cote d’Azur deserves a round of applause.
Ineos need to sort out their leadership options fast
The British team were always going to experience something of a transitional season this year, what with so many young riders coming through and the likes of Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte edging closer to retirement. But Egan Bernal’s injury has highlighted their lack of a genuine Plan B.
Australian veteran Porte rode to fourth place in Tirreno after both Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart withdrew earlier in the race, but no one is expecting the 37-year-old to improve on his third place in Paris from 2020 this summer.
Meanwhile, in France both Dani Martinez and Adam Yates made the top four but at 2:37 and 3:29 respectively, neither rider really putting Roglic in the same kind of bother as Adam’s twin brother did on the final climb of the final stage.
There’s talk of Bernal perhaps defying all odds and making a return to racing at some point in 2022. As remarkable – and welcome – as this would be, there’s no serious expectation that this return could come as soon as the Tour. And whenever it may be, Bernal will be simply happy to turn the pedals rather than cross the line ahead of everyone else.
Where this leaves Ineos is uncertain. More will be expected of the Olympic champion Carapaz later in the season, for sure, while Geoghegan Hart needs to show the kind of form that saw him secure the maglia rosa in 2020. Because it’s a hell of a lot to ask of Geraint Thomas to mix it with the stand-out Slovenian duo come July.
Too early to expect much from Evenepoel
His temperament may welcome a few question marks, but there’s no denying Remco Evenepoel’s ability. An awful crash in Il Lombardia in 2020 stalled the development of the Belgian tyro but his victory in the Volta ao Algarve made Evenepoel the youngest rider in history to win eight stage races.
It was a cute stat but also largely meaningless. After all, a week later, Pogacar – a rider just 16 months his senior – won his own eighth stage race. But where Evenepoel has two Algarve wins, the Slovenian has two Tour de France wins. Go figure.
'Remarkable!' - Evenepoel, Pogacar and others miss turning at Tirreno-Adriatico
And when Evenepoel made his much-anticipated Grand Tour debut in the Giro last year, he did so without the same splash as Pogacar in the Vuelta in 2019. Anyway, let’s stop comparing apples and oranges – they both taste delicious when ripe and both make entirely different juices. There can be little disguising the fact, however, that the 22-year-old Belgian, while a whopping talent compared to most of the peloton, seems to have plateaued a bit when set against the sport’s leading lights.
For someone so slight, his time trialling ability is out of this world. But does he have the uphill armoury – or ability over rough surfaces such as gravel – to be a factor in major stage races? Certainly not now, and certainly not while the likes of Pog and Rog are in such pristine condition. His time may – and should – still come. It just remains to be seen if he can become a major GC force.
In any case, anyone billed as the "new Merckx" is unworthy of that title while Pogacar's around – and even he's proving himself to be on course to earning himself an entirely new status of his own.