Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) during stage 11 of the 2021 Tour de France.

Tour de France contender focus: Can Tadej Pogačar handle the heat?

Few would bet against Pogačar taking a third consecutive Tour de France. Where might he find the risks and rewards at the 2022 race?

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The number of days before the Tour de France can now be counted on one hand, and so can the number of overall contenders, let’s be honest. One of them is Tadej Pogačar who has appeared twice, won twice, and heads to his third essentially as virtual leader.

This is the first in a short series covering the expected risks and rewards that await the favourites for yellow.

Risks

Always nice to see so many of the same jersey around a leader…

1. Team strength

While Jumbo-Visma and the Ineos Grenadiers have always boasted strong lineups to support their (co-)leaders, the same has not often been said of UAE Team Emirates.

Few of the defining images of Pogačar’s first Tour de France win in 2020 included any teammates – granted, the day he seized the race was an ‘individual’ time trial – and while 2021 saw a massive leap forward, the young yellow jersey was left more isolated than his key rivals.

Rafał “Wingman” Majka getting the job done.

However, after the recruitment of Rafał Majka at the beginning of last year, the UAE Team Emirates Grand Tour squad was strengthened further this season with the addition of George Bennett and Marc Soler, who will offer more support in the high mountains. Last year’s reliable workhorses Mikkel Bjerg and Vegard Stake Laengen should also make the trip to carry out the near thankless task of flat and early stage care-taking, while Brandon McNulty will join Majka as a climbing super-domestique.

Pending pre-Tour disaster (*ahem* COVID-19), the defending champion will almost certainly turn up with the strongest UAE Team Emirates lineup to date. And yet, there will still be a faint question mark over their longevity and resilience when it matters.

Pogačar – the one not wearing arm-warmers – enjoying a distinct lack of heat on stage 9 of last year’s Tour.

2. Can he handle the heat?

We’ve come to believe that Pogačar might not be so strong in hot weather, and that he’s relatively untested in the sorts of extreme conditions France – and the whole of Europe – has endured in recent weeks. It’s true to say that many of his most spectacular rides have taken place against a particularly gloomy backdrop. Take stage 9 of the 2019 Vuelta a España for instance, where Pogačar attacked solo to take on the last few kilometres of the final climb alone, and powered away to his first Grand Tour stage win in very wet, late-summer storm conditions.

“I was looking at this stage since the start,” Pogačar said at the end of that day. “When I saw the weather, I was happy that it would rain because that is good for me.”

Stage 9 of the 2019 Vuelta. It begins.

Then there’s last year’s Tour stage 8 rampage to Le Grand-Bornand, during which most of his rivals sulked in their oversized rain capes (and Primož Roglič finally called it a day) while Pogačar skipped away and into the yellow jersey.

“The weather today was really bad – even worse than yesterday. It was super cold, raining all day… I’m sure a lot of guys suffered today,” Pogačar said after last year’s stage 9, won by Ben O’Connor in near-apocalyptic conditions. The Slovenian went on to admit that he much prefers dodgy weather than the opposite: “I am more worried about the warm stages that are coming than about the cold ones today and yesterday as I suffer more on hot days.”

It’s considerably harder to track historic weather conditions than other bike race-related stats, but a quick perusal of the photo archives, race reports, and my own admittedly unreliable memory does weigh in favour of dodgy weather for the young Slovenian. The Ventoux stage last year, for instance, was on the warmer end and in his own words, Pogačar “cracked a little bit” on the second ascent, and was dropped by Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).

Digging deep on Ventoux.

If Pogačar’s hot weather struggles return in this year’s race, and are more than just a soundbite, then the third week’s Pyrenees could be a problem if the heatwave resurges. The combination of cloying heat, zero wind and exposed sunburnt turns of, say, the Hautacam would put many in some serious trouble. Pogačar too? Well. We shall see.

If we use the aptly named ‘warm-up’ races as a guide, both the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour of Slovenia were rather toasty, but again, it’s hard to make a reliable assessment. Yes, Pogačar (and wing-man Majka) dealt well with the heat, but there was a distinct lack of real competition. Over in France, however, Roglič and Vingegaard came out on top while the vast majority of their much talked-up rivals were left gasping in their wake.

The biggest test as far as weather was concerned was the Tour de Suisse, which many riders – those who survived the tsunami of infections – called it the hottest week of racing they’d ever experienced. The good news for Tour fans is that Sergio Higuita, Geraint Thomas and Thibaut Pinot all seemed to manage just fine, especially on the final weekend. But again, the competition was a little lacking in oomph.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say how Pogačar will manage in the heat compared to his main rivals, but then again, no one can be sure about anything given the unique build-up to the 2022 Tour.

Right now, the weekend before the Tour and three weeks before crunch time in the high mountains, weather experts are predicting a fairly average July (for both precipitation – i.e. dry – and temperature) to follow the extreme temperatures of June. So with the usual unreliable forecast-related caveats, Pogačar will probably be fine…

Pogačar in his element on stage 9 of the 2021 Tour.

3. A tricky first week

A danger for any and all GC contenders, the first week of the 2022 race is typical of Tours gone by, with the first seriously testing climb not included until stage 7. However, it is not without some significant challenges, and a strong team will be vitally important.

With the short opening TT out of the way, the first nerve-jangling obstacle comes on stage 2. On the face of it, the first road stage is a simple, ever-so-Grand-Tour 202 km sprint stage from Roskilde to Nyborg, but if it’s windy, it could get very interesting towards the finale.

After 180 kilometres of coastal roads, the peloton is forced to traverse the Great Belt Bridge which spans the gap between the islands of Zealand (home to Copenhagen) and Funen. It’s likely to provoke a lot of nerves and an incredibly fast crossing, which will demand a lot from the heavier and more Classics-oriented guardians of the GC riders.

The next big job for Pogačar’s team will be getting him through the ‘Roubaix Stage’ on July 6, which will be a source of dread for many. Like Roglič and Vingegaard, Pogačar added some cobbles to his spring schedule in advance of the Tour, and although his decision-making at the Tour of Flanders finish left a little to be desired, his performance on the cobbled climbs was ominous. That said, the cobbles he’ll visit at the Tour are rather different, not to mention flat, so there will be nerves.

And it’s not just a matter of coping with riding over the cobbles. You can be in the front group, flying over the pavé like it’s the finest fresh-laid tarmac, only to suffer a puncture or mechanical that forces you to stop and wait for assistance. As we see every year at Paris-Roubaix, one moment of bad luck, which any other day would be easy to chase back from, can see a favourite turning the air blue on the verge while waiting for a team car to pick its way through the narrow lanes.

In short, anyone with designs on a decent GC result is going to need teammates around them to lend wheels, bikes and/or moral support on stage 5.

Just taking a moment after 2021 Tour stage 17 victory.

Reward

1. Beaucoup de TT kilometres

Like so many Tour de France winners before him, Pogačar is an exemplary all-round talent, excelling almost as phenomenally on the time trial bike as he does in the mountains. This year’s Tour de France has no less than 55 time trial kilometres: the pan-flat 13 km opening stage in Denmark and a rolling 40 km stage 20 in the Dordogne which promises to spice up the final week. 

It might sound like a lot, but it’s actually not especially dramatic; there were 58 kilometres last year. Even so, some will have felt their hearts drop into their slippers at the route presentation last Autumn.

Not Pogačar.

Interestingly, the young Slovenian had only won two TTs before making his Tour debut, both of them national champs, but two of his six stage victories are individual time trials and no one will ever forget the first in 2020. 

With a brace of stage wins already under his belt and the white jersey on his back, the then 21-year-old was the penultimate rider off the ramp on stage 20 of his first Tour, a 36.2 km race of truth that finished on La Planche des Belles Filles (6 km at 8.4%). With Paris just a day away, the world expected to spend that balmy Saturday afternoon watching Roglič add to his own stage tally and make history as the first Slovenian Tour winner — Pogačar stole both. While that day’s second and third-place Tom Dumoulin and Richie Porte were separated by just a fraction of a second, Pogačar proved his extraordinary talent by cutting a massive 1:21 out of their times. Roglič meanwhile had something of a jour sans, at least by his own standards, finishing fifth and relinquishing the yellow jersey by 59 seconds.

September 19, 2020. The day Pogačar won the Tour de France and moved the book of cycling into a new chapter.

After enjoying outsider status in 2020, Pogačar was a marked man as he began his title defence last year, and it didn’t take long to prove that 2020 was no fluke. His first of three stage wins shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but on a flat 27.2 km time trial course that looked best suited to purists, his stage 5 victory over Stefan Küng and Vingegaard was either a stamp of authority or a miscalculation; did he peak too early?

Of course he didn’t. He attacked into the yellow jersey a few days later and held firm all the way to Paris.

After three long weeks of racing around France (and Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland), he will be a top favourite to cap off a third consecutive overall title with stage 20 victory in Rocamadour. Before that, the 13 km opener will be a good test, but logically it’ll go to one of the specialists like Wout van Aert or world champion Filippo Ganna.

2. Alpine double-header

The first mega mountain day comes on stage 11 and the first visit to the unforgiving slopes of the Col du Galibier (2,645 m) – this year’s Souvenir Henri Desgrange, awarded at the highest point of the Tour.

It’s backed up a day later as the race retraces its pedal strokes with yet another ascent of the Galibier, up and over the wearing Croix de Fer, and then a long-awaited return to Alpe d’Huez.

The last time a Tour stage finished there four years ago, Geraint Thomas took his second consecutive stage win, this time in the yellow jersey, stamping his authority on the 2018 Tour ahead of team (co-)leader and defending champion Chris Froome. Like Blockhaus and the Giro d’Italia, winning atop the epic Alpe d’Huez is a proven route to overall Tour victory, and if nothing else, it’s an icon of the sport, so this is a stage where Pogačar will be determined to thrive.

Pogačar vs Vingegaard vs Carapaz. A familiar sight of the 2021 Tour.

3. Showdown in the Pyrenees

After the third and final rest day it’s into the Pyrenees, home to arguably some of the best and most dramatic climbs in world cycling. By this point, it’s safe to assume that young Pog will have been comfortable in yellow for several days already, but with plenty on offer – and plenty at risk – in the final week, it will still be all to play for.

It’s not the most climb-heavy third week, but with stages of all shapes and sizes, there are plenty of opportunities to snatch a bit of time here and there, and with a looming final time trial that might as well be designed for the younger Slovenian, it’s a safe bet that there’ll be fireworks.

While the short 130 km stage 17 is likely to see some muscle-flexing on the tough quartet of climbs (three 1st Cat and one 2nd), especially if there are riders in reach of yellow, it’s stage 18 that all GC riders and teams will have assigned most attention. With the hors-catégorie Col d’Aubisque in the middle of the stage and a Cat.1 speed bump before the final summit finish on Hautacam, it’ll be a stunning race to watch and surely the stage for an aggressive GC fight. The chances are that it will fall to Pogačar to follow attacks from his rivals at first, and assuming the top 10 will have pretty much sorted itself out by then, there won’t be many left to contest the stage win.

Doubling up in the Pyrenees on stage 18 of last year’s Tour.

Pogačar has never shown any signs of difficulty or fatigue in a Grand Tour’s final week, so although other GC hopefuls will be determined to steal time before the last weekend, history tells us that Pogačar will be more than up to the task.

4. Lack of competition

Last but not least is the lack of serious competition, which will be a boon to Pogačar’s campaign to make it three from three.

Perhaps he has the peloton running scared. Perhaps injury, pandemic, race programme have ruled out some of his most viable usurpers. Perhaps he and one or two others are on so different a level that they’re stratospheres apart from the rest, all of whom would have been high flyers three years ago but now pale in comparison.

He’s yet to show a significant weakness, and if none arise next month, Pogačar’s most threatening opponents will be COVID-19 and luck.

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