Tadej Pogačar: Leveling up with legends, winning races for fun at Il Lombardia

Pogačar punched into the record books with storming win at Il Lombardia – but as far as he's concerned, he's just riding his bike.

Photo: Getty Images

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Tadej Pogačar is a modern-day racer leveling up with legends – and he’s having fun while doing it.

Pogačar won Il Lombardia with a typically barnstorming ride Saturday to finish a three-peak season with a third palmarès-topping score.

The 23-year-old has come out of 2021 with a historic haul of victories at the Tour de France, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and now “the race of the falling leaves,” and so become the first rider since Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx to win two monuments and the Tour in one year.

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But chasing space in the history books is secondary for Pogačar. Having fun is number one.

“I’ve heard a lot about making history today, but I don’t think about it. I just enjoy riding my bike,” Pogačar told the press Saturday afternoon.

“I just enjoy racing – one-week races, grand tours, and I love one-day races because they’re different, they’re exciting and interesting. I like this kind of racing.”

More versatile, more victories

Pogačar’s victory Saturday stamps his status at the top of the new breed of racers that can win across all terrain and in any length of race – just how the likes of Merckx, Coppi and Bernard Hinault did before him.

  • Last rider to win the Tour and Lombardia in same season: Bernard Hinault (1979)
  • Last reigning Tour champion to win Liège: Bernard Hinault ( 1980)
  • Riders to have won the Tour and two or more monuments in same season: Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Tadej Pogačar.

Pogačar’s multifaceted rise marks the subtle shift in the priorities of the pro peloton.

Pogačar didn’t sit and count his winnings after scoring his first yellow jersey last summer. Like his countryman Primož Roglič – who finished fourth Saturday – the UAE-Emirates hotshot was quick to turn his eye toward the monuments.

Also read: Why it matters Roglič and Pogačar are racing the Ardennes

After dipping a toe into the world’s biggest one-day races in 2019 and 2020 – finishing in the top-20 in all three – Pogačar put Liege and Lombardia on his calendar this season, and promptly won both.

Like Roglič and to a lesser extent Wout van Aert, Pogačar has shown that it is possible to dominate across the full spectrum of pro cycling, pushing back against last decade’s pivot toward increased specialization. Only veterans like Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde have even tried to win both classics and three-week races in the past dozen years, while the rest have lasered in on one goal, and one goal only.

Pogačar said that he felt his all-embracing approach made the sum greater than its parts.

“To be competitive in grand tours, you need to be good in all races. You need to be good on the bike, in sprints, time trials, one-day races. Everything happens in grand tours, so you can use that experience and it helps everywhere,” he said Saturday.

“That’s how racing is now. There are a lot of riders who are good in different kinds of races. I think it’s a great time in cycling.”

Racing without a rulebook

Pogačar pulled Masnada through the final and beat him from the front in the sprint. (Photo: BettiniPhoto©2021)

Pogačar has made a habit of racing without a rulebook. Just like he crushed his yellow jersey defense with huge solos and consecutive summit victories this summer, Pogačar defied modern-day race dynamics and made it look easy Saturday.

The Slovenian blew away doubts about his late-season form with a swaggering solo attack at 36km to go, and when local racer Fausto Masnada bridged across and refused to do any pulling, Pogačar simply dragged him to the final and won the sprint from the front.

It’s the type of video game bike racing that rarely works in the largely level playing field of modern-day racing. Masnada accepted he was simply faced with an unstoppable force on the road to Bergamo.

“I was out front with Tadej, but I didn’t push because [teammate] Julian Alaphilippe was behind. For a moment I thought that Alaphilippe could get across to our group, but Tadej was really strong,” Masnada said. “He pulled and on the last climb he tried to drop me. I could do no better than second-place.”

Pushing replay for 2022

What next for the Pogo express?

“I’d like to go to different races that I have not raced yet,” Pogačar had said earlier this summer. “I’d like to race the Giro and Vuelta, two races I have not won yet. There are a lot of races I can still win.”

Pogačar indicated he would follow a similar path of monuments and grand tours next season, but wouldn’t be pinned to specifics too early.

Although Pogačar is yet to race the Giro d’Italia – he’s still only raced three grand tours – it’s hard to see him making his debut there next year. A trip to Italy just six weeks before a Tour title defense may be a stretch too far, even for him.

The Giro-Tour double has been proven near-impossible in modern racing and the prospect of a third consecutive yellow jersey will pull strong. A return to the Vuelta – where he placed third in his first-ever three-week race in 2019 – will more likely be on the cards.

Away from the grand tours, a return to Milano-Sanremo, Liège and Lombardia are all very likely. And the cobblestones of Flanders and Roubaix?

If Pogačar thinks he can have fun doing it, don’t rule out the modern-day Merckx from giving them a go.

“My dream is to enjoy my cycling as much as possible. When I stop enjoying it then I’ll search for new goals,” he said.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.