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The 23-year-old Slovenian insists he races for the pure joy of competition. Yet for his rivals, the UAE Team Emirates captain is like an impenetrable fortress.
Since his emergence in the 2020 Tour, Pogačar looks all but unbeatable. His rivals won’t go down without trying.
But does Pogačar have a weak spot? VeloNews asked some of the top riders, and the answers were not encouraging, at least for anyone hoping to crack the Pogačar puzzle.
“A weakness? Ha! Not one that I have seen,” said Bahrain Victorious rider Damiano Caruso. “He is a very complete rider. He can even win a reduced bunch sprint. Trying to beat him is not going to be easy.”
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Pogačar returns to the 2022 Tour even stronger. He’s more mature, has more experience, and packs the confidence of two yellow jerseys in his wardrobe.
What’s a rival to do?
“A weakness? I don’t know,” said Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard. “Tadej is a very complete rider. He is very good in all kinds of terrain. Look at the world rankings, he is the best rider in the world.
“Every race he’s at he is the favorite, also for the Tour,” Vingegaard said. “Of course, we have to look at it and see if we can find any weakness. I wouldn’t say he has a weakness.”
Jumbo-Visma betting its collective might could create an opening
Some have looked to the UAE Team Emirates roster as a possible weak link in the yellow jersey stitching.
The team in 2020 was arguably young and inexperienced, but it has been patiently building out a strong support system for Pogačar since.
Rafal Majka, Brandon McNulty, and Mikkel Bjerg provide a solid core. New riders George Bennett and Marc Soler add extra firepower in the mountains.
Bennett, whose job is the impossible task of trying to stay with Pogačar as long as he can in the mountains, said he expects teams to challenge UAE in the first week. The New Zealander said one of Pogačar’s secret weapons is his ability to stay calm in tense situations, and not panic when things turn against the team.
Of course, things have largely gone Pogačar’s way so far. Bennett said the team is bracing for the worst, and hoping for the best.
“He’s got a pretty cool head on him,” Bennett said. “This year, in the first week especially, is full of booby traps. It’s inevitable we’re not going to get a clean run, something will happen at some point, and that will be a real challenge for us.
“Whether it’s on the cobbles, in the crosswinds, or crashes or whatever, sooner or later there is going to be a bad moment, and I think he is extremely cool under pressure,” he said. “It’s also that he is so strong. He can avoid a lot of these situations. There will be bad luck at some point, and we need to make sure that we are all around so we can put out those fires.”
Jumbo-Visma knows better than most what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the Pogačar hammer.
In 2020, he buried Primož Roglič on the final climbing time trial to win the yellow jersey in one of the most dramatic final-hour comebacks since Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Last year, Vingegaard put up a brave fight, and even managed to drop him on Mont Ventoux.
Both times the team finished second, and for 2022, the Dutch-backed squad seems to sense that its best chance to beat Pogačar is to crack him in one of the situations Bennett highlighted.
A strong team can put Pogačar under pressure, and perhaps the opening week is Jumbo-Visma’s best opening. With brutes like Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte leading the way, the team might be able to catch out Pogačar with its collective might.
“I think it’s more the team [to take on Pogačar]. They both can take on Pogačar if they are strong enough. We saw Jonas dropping Pogačar last year on a stage,” Jumbo-Visma sport director Grischa Niermann said. “The belief is there on our side, but it’s also clear that Pogačar who has won in the past two years is the main favorite.”
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For rivals, Pogačar’s perceived impenetrable exterior means that only a bit of bad luck or a mishap could take him out and open up the race.
“Pogačar is hard to beat one-on-one,” said Bahrain Victorious rider Jack Haig. “Weakness? I don’t see one. I don’t think anyone has. He can do it all. Maybe it will take a crash or maybe getting caught out, but so far he hasn’t shown that he cannot handle himself. All you can do is keep fighting, and hope for the best.”
The Tour is Pogačar’s to lose, but as the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it. Each day of the Tour is its own story. One mistake or spell of bad luck can take out anyone, even Pogačar.