By this point in the 2021 Tour de France, Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) had more than five minutes’ lead on his closest real challenger. On Stage 9, to Tignes, Pogačar was already in yellow when he simply rode away from the rest of the field on a cold, wet day to gain even more time. No one could stop him; in the race footage, he even appears to be smiling at times.
There aren’t a lot of smiles for him right now, however. The two-time defending Tour champion has two stage wins and the yellow jersey, but his bid for a third straight title is looking decidedly less sure than it was even a few days ago. Because of team issues, he’s vulnerable to attack. At the same time, two of his biggest challengers, Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, are uniquely positioned to try to unseat him—if they’re willing to make the sacrifice to do so. Here’s why Pogačar is suddenly at risk, and how to beat him.
Pogačar himself still seems pretty unbeatable. No one has managed to put him in difficulty through 10 stages of the race, and he’s so far avoided all bad luck: flats, crashes, crosswinds. His team, however, is another matter.
Over the offseason, UAE aggressively pursued riders to upgrade Pogačar’s support, signing top climbers Marc Soler and George Bennett, both former top-10 Grand Tour finishers themselves. Along with existing team members like talented young American Brandon McNulty and Rafal Majka, that should have given Pogačar the backing he needed for a strong defense.
But COVID-19, which had so far left UAE relatively untouched in 2020 and 2021, is biting the team hard this Tour. Matteo Trentin was ruled out at the start, replaced at the last minute by a clearly not-so-fit Marc Hirschi. Vegard Stake Laengen was forced out with a positive on Stage 8, and then Bennett didn’t take the start on Stage 10 despite testing negative on the rest day just 24 hours before (yep, that’s how fast things change). Majka, for his part, reportedly is positive but is allowed to stay in the race because of a low viral load. It’s the first verified instance of the Tour’s new rules that let COVID-positive riders stay in the race under certain circumstances, even though it appears to be in conflict with French public health rules requiring isolation.
So UAE is already down to six riders. Majka—who has been UAE’s best helper so far—may yet leave the race if his condition worsens, and even if he stays, he may not be up to the task of his usual job. Of course, there’s also always the chance that Pogačar himself tests positive, although the team is certainly taking heroic measures at this point to prevent that.
But the spread of COVID in the team potentially leaves Pogačar isolated in a less-helpful way, at a point when the mountains are really just starting. On Stage 10, the initial breakaway took an hour to get established. The relentless pace (48.4kph average in the first hour) quickly decimated the peloton and for a period of time, Pogačar had no teammates around him. Once things settled down the team finally rallied, but their collective disappearance on smaller climbs and on a day that wasn’t expected to be a pivotal fight for the overall could be a telling sign of troubles to come.
Pogačar was his usual aggressive self at the finish, trying to dash clear to gain a few more precious seconds. But everyone’s wise to that act now, and primary rival Jonas Vingegaard of Jumbo kept the wheel. He struggled to do so, but as Vingegaard has said for days now, the longer Alpine and Pyreneean climbs suit him more than the punchy stuff we’ve seen so far. In this light, what I took for Pogačar's dominance just a few days ago is something may actually be closer to desperation. As Jumbo manager Richard Plugge observed to Dutch magazine Wielerfits, “the fact that (Pogačar) is fighting for every second indicates that he realizes he may need that lead someday.”
Finally, there’s the question of heat. The forecast for later this week and into the early Pyreneean stages is positively inferno-esque, with highs well into the 90s, and some days in triple digits. The one time last year that Pogačar was in any difficulty was that hot Mont Ventoux stage, where Vingegaard briefly gapped him. In Pogačar’s favor (not to mention the health of all the riders), if it’s too hot, stages may be shortened.
So How Do You Beat Him?
While there are several solo team leaders within two minutes of Pogačar’s lead, two teams—Jumbo and Ineos—have multiple riders close on GC. That gives them a different strategy option altogether. And it’s one that’s ideally suited for the hard, relatively short Alpine stages on Wednesday and Thursday. But to be successful, a price must be paid.
The gist: send one of your GC riders up the road in an early breakaway, ideally with another teammate or two. That forces UAE to chase. Whether Stage 12 or 13, the key is to make the move on or close to a climb, where UAE riders like the clearly struggling Hirschi, or non-climber Mikkel Bjerg, will quickly get dropped.
That will reduce Pogačar’s team to Soler, McNulty, and Majka. One of them likely gets dropped trying to haul back the break. Keep the pressure on, and you could end up with Pogačar either with a single teammate or entirely isolated before the final climb.
Other teams likely won’t stand idly by: if Ineos or Jumbo is on the move, you may see temporary alliances with UAE from teams like Groupama-FDJ, Movistar, and DSM, which all have their own GC contenders. That’s why it’s essential to make the pace wickedly hard, which requires teammates in the break. Again, Jumbo and Ineos are well-stocked for that.
For Jumbo, it’s time for Wout van Aert to put his green jersey aspirations on the back burner for a few days. He’s been the consummate teammate so far when needed, so there’s little doubt he’d do it again (he's also comfortably in the points lead; this won't cost him there). His powerful pacemaking would be essential to keeping a gap open over a chase behind. For Ineos, Dylan van Baarle fills a similar role. And whichever GC rider goes on the attack has to put in their digs at the front too.
So that’s the rub: all this comes at a sacrifice. The idea here is not to win out of the breakaway and take yellow. It’s for that rider to lose, but to do so in a way that destroys UAE as a team and forces Pogačar to work himself, which leaves him vulnerable to a late attack from your other leader. Whoever goes in the breakaway effectively sacrifices his own GC chances for a teammate. So who draws the short straw?
At Jumbo, it’s pretty clear based on the standings that if they want to win the Tour, they need Primož Roglič to take one for the team. He’s almost three minutes behind, nursing a separated shoulder and a dodgy lower back. Vingegaard, by contrast, is obviously their best rider and is just 39 seconds behind Pogačar. But that requires Roglič to give up on a goal he’s long sought. At 32, he may not have many more chances left. And it requires Jumbo to be ruthlessly rational about the rider in whom they’ve invested so much over the past six years.
Ineos is less clear. With Geraint Thomas fourth overall (1:17 behind Pogačar) and Adam Yates a few seconds behind in fifth, they may be reluctant to give up their two-option play just yet. Tom Pidcock, in eighth, would be a valuable teammate in the break, but on his own would not trouble UAE too much if he attacked.
The opportunity is there. And this week is the perfect time for it. Every stage that passes runs the risk of Roglič or Yates or Thomas cracking and losing time, at which point this strategy no longer works. Passive racing, or simply watching and waiting, could allow Pogačar to hold on. There need to be some tough conversations on the team bus and around the dinner table for Jumbo and Ineos. As a team, together: how bad do you want it?
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