Commentary: Here’s hoping Tadej Pogačar never changes

Tour de Hoody: The Slovenian superstar is rewriting the script of modern cycling one attack at a time.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Everyone knew Tadej Pogačar was going to attack at the pointy end of Wednesday’s mountaintop finale at Paris-Nice. Of course he was.

The first-category summit packed all the ingredients of a trademark Pogačar raid.

First, it was a decisive climbing stage in the “Race to the Sun,” one of the most prestigious races on the international calendar. Pogačar always attacks when the road tilts uphill.

Second, it was the first significant face-off against Tour de France rival Jonas Vingegaard in a stage race since his stinging defeat at last year’s Tour. Pogačar always attacks his rivals.

And thirdly, and most obviously, Pogačar always attacks — period.

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No rider in decades is as consistently aggressive and prolific as Pogačar.

It’s as if he’s taken a DNA sample from the likes of Bernard Hinault or Sean Kelly, and blended it with the science and technology of a 21st-century algorithm. That creature is Tadej Pogačar.

Pogačar is marginal gains pushed to 11. Let’s hope he never changes.

Caution is not part of his vocabulary

Pogačar is a killer on the bike, but chilled off of it. (Photo: Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

Road racing is traditionally an act of attrition. Every pro knows there are only so many matches in the book. It’s also a sport laden with tradition and customs that desperately try to avoid implosion. Tradition says don’t stand when you can sit, and custom says don’t attack when you don’t have to.

Bike racing, at its core, avoids risk, and only squeezes the lemon when absolutely necessary.

Yet every decade or so a once in a generation rider comes along who can scramble the old codes, and rewrite the rulebook.

That’s what cycling is witnessing right now.

We’re already deep into the Pogačar Era. He’s like Michael Jordan lighting up the court or Tiger Woods roaring across Augusta.

Everyone else is playing catch-up

Pogačar, shown here in the 2021 Tour de France, is getting better with age. (Photo: Tim van Wichelen – Pool/Getty Images)

No rider today is challenging the status quo in the elite men’s peloton like Pogačar.

There are no secrets in elite racing. Once a new technology or — in the dark dirty days of cycling’s past — a new product hits the black market, it’s not long before most everyone’s on board. Every team and every rider are chasing the same performance advantages, be it nutrition, aerodynamics, training, or otherwise, and we can only hope today that those new markers are all within the rules and guardrails guiding modern cycling.

In fact, if you believe Tom Boonen, Pogačar might even be at a disadvantage.

In comments that were quickly publicly challenged by bike manufacturer Colnago, Boonen suggested the Slovenian is being slowed down by the UAE Team Emirates’s choice of material and could be going faster if the team was on the same technological and aerodynamic level of the other super teams.

Yet he still attacks. It’s simply in his nature.

Pogačar’s style is a mix of old and new.

It’s like he’s taken a page from the old-school style of racing when riders would attack from 50km to go. Pogačar blends his racing style with modern touches as well. Just ask Iñigo San Millán about his training program, and you’ll get the idea.

Modern cycling brought the level so high and so deep across the peloton, riders could only manage one or two significant accelerations in a 20-minute effort. All intense efforts during much of the past 10 years were packed into the final 5km of a climb.

Then Pogačar came along, and everyone’s being forced to play catchup.

In many ways, he’s like a young Peter Sagan. Little more than a decade ago, Sagan barnstormed into the peloton and raced with similar almost childish enthusiasm. It was for the pure love of the game. Sagan was having fun at everyone’s expense.

Pogačar is the same way. He races and wins for joy, or so he says. Some people are preternaturally gifted by the DNA gods, and Pogačar is one of them.

No signs of changing his ways

Pogačar is still only 24, and he’s already won more than 50 races, almost all of them at the WorldTour level. (Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

His statistics are Merckxian by every measure.

Since crashing the party in his rookie year in 2019, he’s gotten better by the season. In fact, 2022 was his best season ever despite not winning his third yellow jersey with 16 victories. Most top sprinters don’t win that many times these days.

Last year, he won every stage race he started, except the Tour, and won at least one stage in each of those stage races. In one-day racing, where he is also proving to be wickedly proficient, winning in four of 14 starts. And he’s still only 24.

And his wins are all in high-quality races. No sand-bagging for Pogi.

More records will likely fall in the coming years if he stays healthy and motivated. A grand tour and monument sweep both seem inevitable, even if a Paris-Roubaix star remains far on the horizon, according to team sources at UAE Team Emirates.

Right now, there’s nothing to get weary or wary about Pogačar’s winning ways. His idea of fun — attacking at every key moment of every key race — is exactly what cycling needs.

Pogo’s proficiency is pushing everyone to the limit just like Team Sky did at the start of the last decade. Rather than an attention to detail and measuring the last grain of oatmeal, Pogačar’s winning formula seems more based on maximized God-given talent and unabashed joy of the game.

What’s fun for Pogačar is fun for everyone else, at least if you’re not trying to follow his wheel.

My only hope is that Pogačar never changes his ways. There might be a rival who comes along to truly force him to scramble his approach to the game to a more conservative, measured cadence. Some thought Jumbo-Visma’s and Vingegaard’s rise in 2022 might just be that pivot point.

Those voices of caution, of measured efforts, and of marginal games were surely clucking among themselves after Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma got the better of him in 2022. See, there is only so much gas in the tank.

Someday he might run out of gas, perhaps similar to what’s happened to Sagan and to others before him. Time waits for no one. Yet following the wheel and attacking at the red kite just isn’t any fun for a rider like Pogačar.

Like a slacker who says why work today when you can do it tomorrow, Pogačar turns that on its head and asks, why hold back when I can attack now? Right now, Pogačar is hitting the accelerator every day he lines up to a race.

Pogačar erased any doubt about his intentions for 2023 with his Paris-Nice double Wednesday.

And with the way Pogačar’s come out swinging in 2023, with victories at Jaén Paraíso Interior and Ruta del Sol, his display Wednesday at a nondescript road on the northern edge of France’s Massif Central only proves that Pogačar isn’t changing his tune.

Let’s hope he never does.

Racing on the razor’s edge limit is intense in its own perverse way. Racing to win with long-distance bombs is what people want. Others have picked up his tune, from Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, to Tom Pidcock and Primož Roglič.

What will happen when the race is on the line? Pogačar will attack. The Badger would be proud.

Pogačar couldn’t shake Vingegaard in last year’s Tour, but he went down swinging. (Photo: Getty Images)

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