Same, same but different. Another Tour de France for Tadej Pogačar, another three stage wins and another overall victory. The Slovene's era of dominance began in dramatic circumstances at La Planche des Belles Filles last September and continued this July in a race that was largely devoid of any suspense.
This Tour de France effectively ended as a contest with Pogačar's remarkable solo attack over the Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombière beneath driving rain on stage 8 to Le Grand-Bornand. After the deluge came the procession.
From the first rest day, Pogačar didn't concede so much a second of his overall lead until he coughed up half a minute to Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) in Saturday's time trial to Saint-Émilion. For context, he will still reach Paris with some 5:20 in hand on the Dane.
There may have been a tumultuous opening week to this Tour, but it came at a cost. Pogačar's most accredited rivals – Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas – fell victim to early crashes, and the sizeable gaps opened there meant excitement was at a premium in the general classification as the race drew on. In Saturday's time trial, for instance, there was no change in position among the top 19 riders overall.
Yet while the margin and nature of victory could scarcely have been more different, Pogačar insisted in the press room in Libourne on Saturday evening that the fundamental premise of each had been the same.
"I don't know which one was more difficult, it's hard to compare," Pogačar said. "Last year was less stressful. This year, there was the [yellow] jersey for two weeks and the podium and press conference every day, so it was harder off the bike but I think they were the same to win: super hard. It was more or less the same."
Pogačar has made a habit of giving little away, and he is a rather less loquacious interviewee than his near-contemporary and fellow Tour de France winner Egan Bernal. After winning the Giro d'Italia in May, Bernal spoke in detail about how he had struggled to cope with the weight of being Colombia's first Tour champion in 2019. "I'd won the Tour at 22 and I didn't know what to do with my life," Bernal said in Milan. "It was like – what now?"
If Pogačar experienced a similar existential crisis last winter, then he didn't divulge it here, nor had it shown in his performances throughout 2021. Before dominating the Tour, Pogačar won the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"Last year was a weird season, with a strange ending and everything was later. There was not so much time for celebrating with all the restrictions, so I was back in training again soon," Pogačar said. "I wasn't thinking too much about the Tour but I was always keeping in mind to race and prove again that I could do it."
Not a boss
Earlier on this Tour, Pogačar said that he would not release power data to allay doubts about his performances lest it present a competitive advantage to his rivals, while on Friday afternoon, he was asked to rebut allegations published in Swiss newspaper Le Temps of "strange noises" emanating from the rear wheels of his team's bicycles.
Wearing the yellow jersey for two weeks meant that Pogačar faced more scrutiny throughout this Tour, just as he had faced greater attention throughout the build-up to the race, though he insisted that he had taken his media obligations and status in stride.
"I was asked a few times if something changed, but not really," he said. "There's a bit more media, more press: more and more questions that are actually the same. You get more and more comfortable, and everything else is the same."
Pogačar's dominance this July, not to mention the almost patrician way he shut down early breaks on stage 19, suggested that he was the new patron of the Tour in the manner of Merckx, Hinault or Armstrong, though he laughed off the idea.
"I don't like comparisons, because every rider is unique with his own personality and everything. I don't consider myself as a boss. We're here to do the race and enjoy it. Whatever comes, comes, but I don't like to compare myself to someone else," said Pogačar, who added that he could not have won this Tour by an even greater margin, despite appearances to the contrary.
"I don't think so. I think I did my maximum in this Tour. In the Pyrenees, I was super happy to take two wins, but if I'm honest, I tried to attack sooner and I couldn't. In the end, it was enough for a stage win. I did my best, maximum, like I always do, and that was enough."
After being feted on the Champs-Élyées on Sunday evening, Pogačar will fly to Tokyo on Monday ahead of next weekend's road race at the Olympic Games, where he is perhaps the outstanding favourite for gold. "Anyone who can follow Tadej will be close to victory," warned Wout van Aert.
"Tokyo is coming really fast. It's not so much time to recover, also with the jet lag, and Japan is super hot with a lot of humidity," said Pogačar. "I'll go there for a new experience and with super motivation because it's the Olympics and it's only every four – or five – years. I will grab it and try to race for the win."
When Pogačar won his first race as a professional at the 2019 Volta ao Algarve, Allan Peiper was behind the wheel of the UAE Team Emirates car, and the Australian has played a guiding role in his career ever since. Last September, Peiper drove behind Pogačar in the final time trial, calmly dispensing time gaps and advice as the youngster sprang one of the great surprises in modern Tour history.
This year, Peiper's cancer treatment meant that he was not on this Tour from the outset, though he continued to play his part remotely, previewing each day's stage for the team. Peiper was present on the race on Saturday, however, and Pogačar described the event as one of the highlights of his Tour.
"It was pretty emotional at the start, I was super happy to see him after a few months," said Pogačar.
"I first met Allan three years ago in a training camp, and I did my first race with him in Australia, and it was a really great experience, I will never forget it," said Pogačar. "He is a super nice sport director and a super nice person, and since then we have had a good relationship. He's taught me a lot: more about life than about cycling."
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