Tadej Pogačar’s Domination Is A Terrifying Marvel To Behold

Trying to figure out exactly when Tadej Pogačar put the 2024 Giro d’Italia out of reach is an exercise in quantum uncertainty. Third weeks of Grand Tours tend to assort the champions—last year’s Giro came down to the dramatic final day—though by the time the back half of the race began, Pogačar was already talking about tapering off his performances to better recover for the Tour de France, as he attempts the first Giro-Tour double in 26 years. The latter part of that is always the hardest part, though it requires you first win the Giro without destroying your legs. Pogačar managed that part with stunning ease, so much so that it feels impossible to pick the single moment when he wrapped up the pink jersey.

Maybe it was when Pogačar gouged the rest of the top-10 for three minutes on Stage 15? At that point, however, he was already four minutes up in the general classification. Perhaps the moment came a week earlier, when he won the first time trial stage, besting two-time world champ Flippo Ganna and smoking all of his true rivals by two minutes? That win simply extended a lead that had been ballooning since Stage 2, when Pogačar won the first of his six stages. The truth is, the race was his the moment it started. Pogačar is the best rider in the world, an unparalleled winner whose one true rival, Jonas Vingegaard, was not in Italy and is currently recovering from devastating injuries. The Slovenian superstar thus hit the starting line as safest bet of any rider to win any Grand Tour in the past decade. He might have had it wrapped up then.

What made this Giro stunning, even as Pogačar delivered the expected win, was the essentially complete dominance he exercised over the race. He finished in the top-three nine times, only failing to take the maglia rosa start-to-finish when he mistimed his sprint and handed Jhonatan Narváez the opening stage. No matter; Pogačar ripped off an unfollowable attack at the end of Stage 2 and opened up a gap he’d then spend the next three weeks inflating to hilarious effect. Characterizing that single attack as “unfollowable” is probably overly wordy. It was a Pogačar attack; they are all unfollowable. He won so many stages, by such gaudy margins, that his coach had to defend it to the press, as if anyone should want to see riders stop competing with each other.

The Slovenian won the GC by 9:56, though contextualizing such a performance alongside other dominant displays from the past is a necessarily imprecise exercise. How much do you weigh time gaps across decades when you also have to account for competition, health, or the overlapping but unique set of hundreds of individual goals and dozens of team goals that animate the cycling season? The qualitative lens fails; what made Pogačar’s win on the race’s Queen Stage, Stage 15, so special wasn’t just the incredible W/Kg numbers he put down, it was the way he looked on the bike. Pogačar smiled as he rode to the line, his posture upright, his pedal strokes clean. When he is on the hunt, tufts of hair perforating his helmet, he exudes a lean, feline menace. Pogačar treated the world to an all-timer that day not because he had to in order to win the race, but because he could. That feels more special.

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When I think about made this performance so great, I center on one word: fear. The field, which included a former Tour de France winner and a strong if inarguably B-list group of riders, was scared of Pogačar. I don’t remember any of his moves not sticking the first time around, and by the end of the second week, his ostensible rivals stopped even trying to follow him. When Pogačar made his move on Stage 16, which he won with casual ease, one rider would follow for two or three hard pedal strokes, only to see his pink jersey, realize who it was, and then fall back in line, knowing that their race was not and couldn’t possibly be with a guy that strong. His would-be foes talked about him as if were some elemental force, with an unmistakable sense of danger. “If I tried to follow I could follow for a bit, and then blow up and lose ten minutes,” runner-up finisher Geraint Thomas said. “Pogačar is maybe unbeatable right now,” third-place finisher Dani Martinez said. Only Antonio Tiberi, a rider best known for murdering a San Marino government official’s cat with a crossbow, was nutty enough to try and attack Pogačar. “Yeah, he’s he only rider that so far showed some balls and that he’s really really good,” the champ said. Obviously the attack did not work.

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Pogačar was ahead by such a gaudy margin that I did not expect him to seriously contest Stage 20, though when he positioned Rafal Majka at the front of the final climb of the race, I got that feeling again. Riders were ejected quickly off the back of the front group, alarm bells blaring, as the Polish hardman turned the screws. Sean Kelly’s lilt on Eurosport went up half an octave in anticipation of what was coming. And then Pogačar treated cycling fans to one last show, riding with such swagger and confidence that he grew his gap to more than two minutes despite arguing with a couple of fans on the road and helping a helmeted youth to a souvenir. He sprinted away on the descent, completing a Grand Tour as dominant as you will ever see.

Fans would be forgiven for thinking that he might spend the whole back half of the race chilling. But what makes Pogačar such a special rider is that he is pathologically incapable of chilling. One of the defining images of the 2023 Tour de France, which Pogačar lost, was the intensity with which he celebrated winning the penultimate stage. He was well and truly smoked by that point, Vingegaard’s yellow jersey secured, but Pogačar once again destroyed his body in an all-out effort to win, and he won.

That relentlessness, as much as his mastery, is what makes Pogačar so intimidating. He is a real competitor. He does not give out gifts. He is not scared of losing. He’s talked about how he wants to race every weekend, and win every race he enters. He will always attack before a competitor can attack him. If he loses the Tour de France to Vingegaard or Primoz Roglic or Remco Evenepoel or Juan Ayuso, nothing about that will change. Pogačar will seek out his opponents weaknesses and destroy them. This Classics season was one of the least competitive in recent memory, as Pogačar won the two big races he targeted, Strade Bianche and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, by more than four combined minutes. The only way to beat him is to line up the strongest team in the world and drag him up to altitude. That has worked on exactly two occasions. Nothing else has come close.

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The question now, as it was one month ago, is whether Vingegaard’s Visma team will do it a third time. The Giro-Tour double is a rugged ask, a real throwback to the days when the EPO flowed and fewer Tour contenders specialized as much as they do now. Marco Pantani was the last man to do it, and the 1998 Tour that he won has since gone down in cycling lore as probably the most flagrantly illegal and stupid stage race in the modern history of cycling, a bender that happened to take place during a three-week bike race. Alberto Contador tried it, Nairo Quintana tried it, even Chris Froome, towards the tail end of his incredible prime, tried it. All three guys looked tired; all three faded in the Tour.

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I have to admire Pogačar for trying the Giro-Tour double after losing two straight Tours to Vingegaard; the man simply can’t stop asking God for harder battles. He couldn’t have known that Vingegaard, Roglic, and Evenepoel would all simultaneously suffer serious injuries in their Tour prep. All three men fell hard during the Tour of the Basque Country, a notably rugged race, in a high-speed horror crash that I am mostly happy did not claim anyone’s life. Evenepoel was briefly hospitalized with a broken collarbone, Roglic escaped fractures though he had to drop out of the Ardennes Classics to tend to his wounds, and Vingegaard was in the hospital for 12 days with a broken collarbone, several broken ribs, a pulmonary contusion, and a collapsed lung. He is back on the bike, though I don’t think he should be expected to seriously compete for the Tour.

“I was really happy to see him on the bike and that he shared some news on [the] media, and I’m looking forward to see him at the Tour,” Pogačar said of his chief rival. “I think he’s going to be there. I think he’s going to be in good shape quite possibly, so I really wish him the best recovery now in these days and that he can start pushing on the pedals fast, and go for altitude training. I think we will see him at the Tour in very good shape.” Even if he’s being over-optimistic, Pogačar will face a much tougher field in France than the one he vaporized in Italy. I would love to see him complete the double, and he will be the favorite, which guarantees exactly nothing. The one thing you can count on is that he will fight for every inch of road.

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