It is rare for any cyclist to win the Tour de France twice, which is why it marks the point where a rider is truly established as one of the biggest names of the great race. A third Tour win is different again, however: only the very greatest have managed the feat. That is why the next four weeks hold such significance for Tadej Pogacar.
Win that third Tour and “Pog” will be elevated to a select pantheon. The five-times winners – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Induráin – are well known, while the disgraced former seven-times winner Lance Armstrong is simply notorious. But Louison Bobet (1953-55), Greg LeMond (1986, 1989, 1990) and the four-times winner Chris Froome (2013, 2015-17) form the minute “band of three”.
That magic third Grande Boucle looks to be well within the 23-year-old Slovenian’s reach given how he dominated his home Tour a few days ago, taking two stage wins and the overall victory, as well as engineering two further stage triumphs for his main mountain lieutenant Rafal Majka. With only five stages to play for, there weren’t many crumbs for the other teams to pick up.
That success took Pogacar’s victory count this season to 10 and mirrored the dominance that has marked his progress everywhere he has raced in 2022. The UAE Tour, the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, and the Strade Bianche one-day Classic all fell to him in the spring like saplings before a well-oiled chainsaw and he came within an ace of adding two of the biggest Monuments, Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders.
The picture all this paints is of a young man who has rapidly matured and grown in confidence since his first Tour win in the Covid-delayed race of September 2020, a quirk in the calendar that means if he does make it three this July, it would be the fastest Tour hat-trick. Pogacar is not merely winning at will; he is winning in different ways, in different milieux.
Admittedly, the opposition at the Slovenian Tour was well below Tour de France standard, but the other stage races that ran concurrently make it clear how limited a challenge he is likely to face. The Critérium du Dauphiné was dominated by the Jumbo-Visma squad, who landed three stages and the first two places overall with Primoz Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard, while Geraint Thomas finally returned to form to take the Tour of Switzerland.
In a straight-up contest in July with the prodigy Pogacar, however, few would put their money on the 36-year-old Welshman. But with Egan Bernal recovering from a serious crash, the Ineos team for once find themselves short of options. In France, for those hoping Pogacar will at least be pushed hard on his way to a third Tour win, the runes were equally hard to read. The potential opposition should have been at the Critérium du Dauphiné pushing Roglic and Vingegaard all the way, but it never happened.
Vingegaard’s role has yet to be defined – will the 2021 runner-up be Roglic’s wingman or a free agent given leave to supplant his leader if form permits? However, he is bound to enjoy centre stage from Friday, when the Tour kicks off in Copenhagen in what will probably be the most spectacular foreign Grand Départ since the 2014 race set out from Yorkshire. (On which note, the Danes will be hoping their Tour start’s legacy lasts longer than that of God’s Own County, where the bubble burst after roughly five years.)
The sight of Vingegaard and Roglic in tandem underlines that the only way to take on a talent like Pogacar is collectively, each man attacking separately in an attempt to wear the champion thin. Over the years, even when Plan A has gone wrong, Jumbo-Visma have shown a remarkable capacity to use their team strength and – assuming a recent knee injury clears up – they enjoy the services of the strongest all-rounder in the world, the Belgian cyclo-cross ace Wout van Aert, winner of an astonishing triptych of mountain, time trial and sprint stages last year.
The scenario Pogacar will fear most is one where either his fellow Slovenian Roglic or the wraith-like climber Vingegaard disappear up the road with Van Aert, forcing the UAE team to wear themselves out in pursuit and expose him to a counterattack. Much of the interest in the next few weeks could hinge on Jumbo-Visma’s ability to make such a thing happen.
The route will offer some hope. Day two could mean the race split to bits if it is windy on the Great Belt bridges. Day five sends the riders over the notorious cobbles used in the Paris-Roubaix one-day Classic.
While the set-piece climbs over the massive passes such as the Galibier in the Alps will favour the structured race that will suit Pogacar, there are enough hilly stages for Van Aert to break the race apart. In that, he could find a willing ally in his fellow cyclo-cross rider Mathieu van der Poel, who ripped the Giro d’Italia to pieces at times in May, apparently just for the sheer hell of it.
The most likely script for the next few weeks is a two-way battle between the most outrageous individual talent cycling has seen since the young Hinault burst on to the scene in 1978 and the strongest team the sport has known since the all conquering TI-Raleigh squad in the early 1980s. There will be surprises – the Tour always produces those – but the biggest shock will be if an individual emerges who can take on “Pog” head to head and give him a true run for his money.