Is it possible for an event this anticipated to have somehow snuck up?
Not long after the moment Tadej Pogačar finished his inconceivable ride up Le Planche de Belles Filles, and certainly before the ink was even dry on the pages of last year’s Tour de France, people began looking ahead. The inexorable march toward the coming reckoning between Pogačar and Primož Roglič has, in many ways, defined this season of cycling.
Nearly always in the center of the frame or otherwise conspicuous by their absence, the two Slovenian compatriots have hovered like a cloud over the sport’s narrative arc for the better part of a year.
Thousands of words of analysis have been written (and this publication is certainly not exempt) about the nature of their often friendly, sometimes steely rivalry, beginning when a visibly shell shocked Roglič interrupted Pogačar’s post-race interview to offer a congratulatory hug.
How close are they, really? Were Roglič’s sudden displays of warmth and graciousness a show of strong character, or a chink in his competitive armor? When they next met in a race scenario, who would flinch first?
Amateur sports psychology aside, what seems beyond question is that the two are the most dominant all-rounders in the sport at the moment, and when this year’s Tour route — perfectly suited to their skill sets — was revealed last November, their repeat appointment was all but confirmed.
In the intervening months, however, something strange happened: rather than an all-out slugfest for supremacy, the two have engaged in something of a cold war, rarely meeting in the lead-up to the Tour.
Pogačar began the year with a pair of commanding World Tour stage race wins at the UAE Tour and Tirreno Adriatico, races Roglič previously aced in his rampage through the spring of 2019. Roglič opted for a late start at Paris-Nice in March, and was utterly dominant in claiming three stage wins before surrendering the overall lead on the final day after a series of grisly crashes.
At Itzulia Basque Country the two finally crossed paths, and the race got off to a rip-roaring start with each claiming a stage win; Roglič bossing the opening time trial, and Pogačar outfoxing his elder in a two-up hilly sprint on stage three.
But then, Pogačar’s teammate Brandon McNulty threw a cat amongst the pigeons and claimed the leader’s jersey with a late breakaway, effectively neutralizing things between the Slovenians as Pogačar was compelled to play domestique. Roglič reclaimed the race lead for good with his own swashbuckling raid on the final stage, but viewers were denied the showdown we craved.
In Ardennes week, Roglič ably chased down moves for eventual winner Wout van Aert at Amstel Gold Race, before a scheduled run-in with Pogačar, among others, at La Flèche Wallonne. An alleged false-positive COVID test from teammate Diego Ulissi ruled Pogačar out of the midweek classic, and Roglič settled for second behind Julian Alaphilippe after attacking perhaps a hundred meters too early on the Mur de Huy.
Pogačar rejoined the peloton at the weekend at Liège–Bastogne–Liège and usurped the defending Roglič, winning with an impressive sprint — only Roglič wasn’t in the group, having been on an exceptionally bad day and failed to make the final.
Just like that, the spring season was over, and with it went the chance of seeing any further salvos between the two before Armageddon at the Tour. Both retreated to altitude camps for extended training blocks, and opted to skip the Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de Suisse, the traditional pre-Tour tune-up races.
Pogačar returned to fulfill a personal ambition by winning the Tour of Slovenia more or less in his sleep, but then produced a couple of uninspiring (if perhaps easily disregarded, if you’re so inclined) performances in his time trial and road race National Championships, finishing third and fifth respectively.
Roglič, on the other hand, has disappeared almost entirely, holing up in Tignes with his team and being seen only via Instagram story. Opting out of racing for several months in favor of a more specialized training program has been met with curiosity from some quarters and criticism from others, but look past conventional wisdom and the thinking is simple enough.
The evidence base for the idea that race days are irreplaceable in building a rider’s form has never been particularly strong, and there’s a growing sentiment that the idea is little more than the cycling equivalent of an old wives’ tale. Roglič, for his part, generally emerges from training camps looking like a genuine world-beater, but has been accused of wasting his best form on prep races and tailing off slightly in the third weeks of Grand Tours. If all goes to plan, he may be exploiting his biggest strength and shoring up his biggest weakness at once.
So, if indeed a Tour featuring the sport’s most vaunted rematch in years has managed to sneak up, that’s how.
Meanwhile, the absence of the sport’s two best stage racers has left a bit of a vacuum — one that has been readily filled by a resurgent superpower. On episodes of The Cycling Podcast, Richard Moore has repeatedly wondered aloud if races this year which don’t feature “Pog and Rog” perhaps lack a bit of stardust. This feels correct, but only until the black hole that is the Ineos Grenadiers devours said races whole, rendering any luster or lack thereof irrelevant.
Ineos have won all five of the World Tour-level stage races Pogačar and Roglič skipped, each won by a different rider, notably including Egan Bernal’s overall victory at the Giro d’Italia. But even more impressive than the results has been the manner in which the Grenadiers have achieved them, showing up with not only the strongest rider in the race, but often the second and third strongest as well.
Ahead of the Tour, their two main leaders, Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz each collected wins in Switzerland at the Tours de Romandie and Suisse, respectively. Should either of them fail to deliver in France, however, they will be ably backed by genuine threats in Richie Porte, who won the Dauphine, and Tao Geoghegan Hart, who-- hey, wait a minute, this guy’s slacking! He hasn’t even won anything since-- ah. Since he won the Giro last October.
I guess this team has a few options. I guess.
It’s a genuinely interesting wrinkle: on the whole, Ineos are bringing by far the strongest team to the Tour, but each prospective leader’s candidacy is flawed in at least one way.
Prior to the emergence of Roglič and Pogačar, Thomas was maybe the sport’s preeminent all-rounder, but Slovenians appear to have improved on his template nearly across the board. Similarly capable time trialists, marginally punchier, and significantly better climbers, there’s simply not much that they don’t do at least a bit better, to say nothing of descending, a skill at which it would be generous to describe Thomas as mediocre.
Carapaz, while probably the most dynamic climber in the race, is also a relatively average time trialist. While this adds another sharp point in Ineos’s multi-pronged attack, the unfortunate reality is that this Tour route features a relative dearth of genuine difference-making climbs, and fifty-eight kilometers of time trialing.
Porte, while possibly on the strongest form of any Ineos rider, probably only has no Grand Tour wins to his name because of his repeated inability to put together three consecutive weeks without a catastrophe of some sort. Often, this is because, in euphemistic terms, he’s just as good a descender as Thomas is.
Geoghegan Hart theoretically has the whole package, but some have argued his competition in the Giro last year lacked a bit of quality. Regardless, so far this year he has yet to show anything resembling the flying form that carried him through that race.
Taken as individuals, each appears at least half a rung below Roglič and Pogačar on any ladder, but if they can leverage one another as threats and lean on their superior support squad, they may have the best chance collectively of any team in the overall.
So, what about everyone else?
Movistar has eschewed their much-maligned trident, in favor of… a quadrident? A… pitchfork? I don’t fucking know, somebody help me out here. Anyway, their leaders boast a combination of unpredictable dynamism (Miguel Ángel López), unremarkable consistency (Enric Mas), unbelievable longevity (Alejandro Valverde), and unreliable, often maddening genius (Marc Soler). Can any of them actually win the whole thing? Almost certainly not.
There’s Julian Alaphilippe, who two years ago animated the Tour by riding every stage for two-plus weeks like a one-day classic, and getting much closer to winning the GC than anyone thought was even vaguely possible. Could he repeat or improve upon that performance this year? The parcours does feature an unusual amount of descent finishes, including the much discussed “Double Ventoux” stage, but the question lies in whether he’ll be looking to use his superior bike-handling to catch up on those descents, rather than break away on them.
Do you like Wilco Kelderman? What about Jack Haig? David Gaudu?
… Ben O’Connor?
There are a number of outsiders whose challenges carry varying amounts of credibility, all of whom could add some element of flavor and intrigue at some point in the race, but none of whom are expected to factor into the podium picture.
So, where does that leave us?
To start, we have two titans each of whose form remains a mystery, because one chose to hang out in his backyard, and the other locked himself in the hyperbolic time chamber. We have a team full of genuine contenders who, especially considering their willingness to work together, probably deserve a bit more respect.
And beyond those, what do we have?
Nothing but questions, variables, and the accumulation of months of anticipation deferred, all building up at once.
Who is going to win?
No clue. As Kate detailed before the Giro last month, derailleur isn’t about picks, prognostication, or the pursuit of looking like Smart Cycling Guy. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that anything could happen, and when it does, we’re gonna love it.