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by Caley Fretz
September 20, 2020
Photography by Kristof Ramon
There are rules in bike racing. Tadej Pogacar broke them.
You aren’t supposed to win the Tour de France without a good team, with your highest-placed domestique over two hours back, with a round-tubed road bike that doesn’t know a wind tunnel from a wind-up toy, nor does it want to. You aren’t supposed to win the Tour as a 21-year-old, in your first shot at the race. You aren’t supposed to win the Tour on the last day, stunning your own countryman, stunning the whole peloton. Stunning, well, everyone.
Pogacar knows the rules. The rules, for him, offer protection. For others, they are a burden, the source of expectation. The rules that say Pogacar can’t do the things he did are also the rules that allowed him to ride into Saturday’s time trial without pressure, because none of this was supposed to happen anyway.
“I’m just a kid from Slovenia,” he said, still dazed by it all. The first Tours he remembers watching were contested by Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. He did then what we do now. “Watching television all day and then riding afterwards,” he said.
On Saturday, he needed 57 seconds. The time trial would take nearly an hour. The difference between a good day and a bad one would be a three-minute swing in either direction.
There was only one choice: Go out hot, and try to hold on. If he failed, he would just end up right back where he started. The rules said that was the most likely outcome. If he succeeded, he’d win the Tour.
At the first time check, 14km in, he was up 13 seconds on Roglic.
At the second, 30km in, the base of the climb, Pogacar had another 23 seconds over the yellow jersey. Thirty-six total now, just 21 seconds left to take.
An entire Tour de France, all 90 or so hours, can fit inside the smallest moments, all balled up and compressed like the universe ahead of the Big Bang. These moments can come anywhere. At the top of climbs, in corners made or missed, in bitter crosswinds, in flat tires. They come in time trials, too, when a rider is all alone with nothing but a police motorbike to guide them through screaming crowds, time checks barely audible on the radio in their ear.
It wasn’t clear, at first, whether Pogacar was doing enough. Or if he was doing too much. The clocks ticked and slowly the bike race emerged.
With roughly 3km to go, on one of the particularly heinous little pitches of La Planche, came this Tour’s moment. The gap to yellow was down to 10 seconds, then five. Two. One. Tied.
Pogacar shrugged off time loss in the crosswinds. “It’s only a minute,” he said. He attacked in the first week, ignoring the looming realities of the last. He lost his two most important super domestiques, Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo. He shadowed the world’s best Grand Tour team as they rode a perfect race, end-to-end, and then he waited until there were no teams anymore, just him and another kid from Slovenia on the slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles.
Then he won. Without a strong team, without experience, without marginal gains. With watts and aggression.
The rules don’t apply to Tadej Pogacar. At least not this year.