February 26, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by Fabio Ferrari and Gian Mattia D’Alberto (LaPresse).
Scooping first and second on the UAE Tour's mountain stages, Tadej Pogačar took overall victory on Saturday in what was his 2021 season debut. The event was held a full four months before the Tour de France, which he won last year. Shane Stokes looks at previous Tour winners and asks what this early success means for his prospects in July.
It’s been an impressive season start for Tadej Pogačar. The Slovenian showed excellent form in the UAE Tour, flourishing in his opening race of the year. The 2020 Tour de France champion captured the leader’s jersey with fourth in the stage two time trial and consolidated it when he outsprinted Adam Yates to land the stage three summit finish at Jebel Hafeet. Yates, the overall winner last year, attacked multiple times to try to shed his rival. Despite some impressive big-ring surges, he was unable to do so, and was ultimately outmanoeuvred in the twisting run to the line.
Looking back over the past fifteen years, the pattern shown by those who went on to win the Tour is varied. Oscar Pereiro, who ended up the champion in 2006 after Floyd Landis’ disqualification, won no races at all before the Tour.
Ditto for Carlos Sastre in 2008, and ditto for Chris Froome in 2017.
As for Andy Schleck and Vincenzo Nibali, they both had quiet early springs in the years that they would triumph in the Tour. Schleck’s first victory of 2010 didn’t occur until the end of June, with the Luxembourg time trial championships telegraphing his jump in form. He went on to peak in the Tour, albeit only securing the title after Alberto Contador was disqualified.
In 2014, Nibali also took time to get up to speed prior to his Tour success. His own first triumph occurred in the Italian national road race title on June 28th of that year. Like Schleck, he had a muted early season. Like Schleck, he flew under the radar before the best Tour performance of his career.
Were we to go back even further and consider the now-stripped Tour successes of Lance Armstrong, a similar ramping up can be seen. Granted, he won early on in 1999 and 2004 (April and February, respectively), but in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003, it was either the end of May or June before he topped the podium in any race. And in 2005, he didn’t win at all prior to lining out in the Tour.
There was a previous school of thought that being in sparkling form early on raised doubts about whether a rider could keep building fitness into the summer. Sean Kelly famously said post-career that being strong throughout the season could well have cost him the chance to win the Tour. He finished fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth overall in the race, but always seemed to lack a few percent when it came to July.
Perhaps, he suggested, he might have been far closer to the yellow jersey had he not ridden so hard early in the season.
However, notwithstanding Kelly’s experience, and notwithstanding the examples above, there are enough other examples from recent years to question any steady-does-it approach.
In fact, seven out of the past twelve editions of the Tour have been taken by riders who landed their first win of the season in February. They are Alberto Contador (2009), Bradley Wiggins (2012), Chris Froome (2013, 2015, 2016), Geraint Thomas (2018) and, yes, Tadej Pogačar last year.
Of the other editions, Alberto Contador (2007), Cadel Evans (2011) and Egan Bernal (2019) were victorious in March of the years in question.
Long story short: in modern cycling, the rule is there is no rule. Perhaps there was an argument in the past to pace things and only show your form close to the Tour, but that doesn’t seem to apply any more.
Speaking this week, Pogačar underlined he had more in the tank for later in the year, but also said that the race was a target. Racing for the UAE Team Emirates squad means this is essentially the home event for the squad.
“My form is good,” he said, responding to questions about his form from Conquista. “I'm definitely not in my very top shape yet but that’s to be expected in the first race back. We had a great camp in Teide just before travelling here and I’m feeling the benefits of that.
“The UAE Tour has been a big goal of mine and the team this year. Between holidays and training camps I’ve spent a lot of time here recently and I’ve got a good feeling for the place. For the team, this race and the Tour de France are our biggest races of the year.”
Pogačar said that part of the reason for his good form is that he has a solid few months behind him. “My winter was really nice. Obviously it was different with Covid-19 and we had to adapt to that, but I had a nice time at home. Winning the Tour last year was a big moment in my life, but honestly on a day-to-day level very little has changed.”
“I had a lot of media obligations in the winter but a lot of it could be done virtually through video calls which means it didn’t take up too much time and I didn’t need to travel much. I kept focused on my training, no big distractions.”
If we are to draw a conclusion, it is this one. Over the years, some first-time Tour winners have had difficulty finding form the following season. It might be down to pressure, it might be down to the demands of fame; it might even be down to partying too much and training too little.
But in the case of Tadej Pogačar, it seems he hasn’t been living the high life. As his rivals will note, he’s already in shape and already showing hunger for more success.
The Tour de France is still four months away. Whether or not Pogačar will win again remains, for now, one of 2021’s known unknowns. But had any of his competitors been hoping he’d turn up overweight and undertrained, they may well be feeling a little deflated this week.
Tour de France champions: when did they first triumph the year they won the Tour?
2006, Óscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne–Illes Balears): no wins before Tour de France
2007, Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel): Stage 4 Vuelta a la Comunidad Valenciana, March 2
2008, Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) no wins before Tour de France
2009, Alberto Contador (Astana): Volta ao Algarve stage 4 TT, February 22. Also overall GC win on same day.
2010, Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank): Luxembourg national championships TT, June 24
2011, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team): Tirreno Adriatico stage 6, March 14. Also overall GC win March 15.
2012, Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky): Volta ao Algarve stage 5 TT, February 19.
2013, Chris Froome (Team Sky): Tour of Oman stage 5, February 15. Also overall GC win February 16
2014, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): Italian national championships road race, June 28
2015, Chris Froome (Team Sky): Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta del Sol stage 4, Feb 21. Also overall GC win February 22
2016, Chris Froome (Team Sky): Herald Sun Tour stage 4, February 7. Also overall GC win on same day.
2017, Chris Froome (Team Sky): no wins before Tour de France.
2018, Geraint Thomas (Team Sky): Volta al Algarve stage 3 TT, February 16.
2019, Egan Bernal (Team Ineos): Paris Nice overall, March 17
2020, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates): Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana stage 2, February 6. Also won stage 4, February 8 and overall GC on February 9.
* First published on Friday, this article was updated after the conclusion of the UAE Tour to reflect the fact that Tadej Pogačar won overall.
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