When he sums up Tadej Pogačar, retired Grand Tour champion Alberto Contador is not a simple but highly expressive phrase: he is, Contador says, a “real cycling prodigy.”
The praise could hardly be higher from the now-retired double Tour de France winner, could well make a key difference.
“Tadej can absorb the enormous amount of stress without it seeming to affect him,” Contador told Cyclingnews. “He acts as if stress was the most normal thing in the world.”
“But that’s what makes Tadej Pogačar Tadej Pogačar: he’s a real cycling prodigy, able to handle the heat of being the Tour de France leader day after day. And that pressure, believe me, can be a real challenge.”
Nowhere is that tension more extreme, Contador said, than a third-week trial time.
“By that point in the Tour, winning and leading is as much as a physical strength,” he argued.
“There are always moments in the Tour when your legs are just about to explode, you really can’t handle the pain.
“But when you’re wearing the yellow jersey, that’s when it really gets hard.
“If you’re a second overall, of course you want to get out the win and the lead. maillot amarillo in one afternoon, mentally that takes its toll. That really takes its toll. “
From the morning of July 23, when the Tour tackles a 40.7km race against the clock between Lacapelle-Marival and Rocamadour, the odds are that yellow rider faces that predicament in 2022 could well be Pogačar. But Contador knows what he’s talking about, too, from first-hand experience.
In the 2007 Tour, the second week the Spaniard had to defend his lead against teammate Levi Leipheimer and 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans in a 55km time trial. Leipheimer, and it was a long time to go, and it was not long before it was done.
“I knew I had hit the ground running because Evans and Leipheimer were so close behind. fire, “said Contador, who finally finished fifth at 2:18.
“I went past a race sign saying ’40 kilometres to go’ and I think thinking second a kilometre I’ll be alright, I said to myself. Finally, I saved the day and after the trial I was still 23 seconds ahead on Evans overall, but it was very close indeed. “
‘Anything can happen’ in the first part of the Tour
Pogačar has, of course, been on both sides of the fence in the final TT. In 2020 at La Planche des Belles Filles, he started the stage in a second, delivering one of the most memorable finales in recent history. And in 2021 at Saint-Emilion’s third-week test, he was at the head of the GC table, with a second overall victory well in hand.
Yet if Contador sees Pogačar as the man, on paper, most likely in yellow again on the eve of the Champs-Elysées stage, he doesn’t think the 23-year-old is destined for an easy ride. For one thing, the route is too unpredictable this year, especially at Planche des Belles Filles on stage 5, to take anything for granted.
“He’s the favourite, but the first part of the Tour is very important and anything could happen there,” Contador says.
“It’s not just that sometimes it has a huge effect on that part of the race, but let’s see what the weather is like in Denmark and if it could get really windy up there. long, it’ll be a dreadfully nervous day, there could be splits and a lot of big names could [lose] time.
“The pavé on the cobbled stage 5, too, could have a terrible effect, especially if it rains. it was before the end of the first week, so it could really make a mark.
“Throw in a time trial on the first day and it just doesn’t get you ready to hit the ground running on day one.
The other riders are “not going to make it easy for him,” Contador warned, before citing Jumbo-Visma with Primoz Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard as the most likely to challenge the young Slovenian.
“They’re both very valid options and the team knows how to use those two strategically, then they can put them under serious pressure in the mountains.
“Vingegaard looked awfully strong in the Criterium du Dauphiné. And even if Pogačar is still superior to him, then maybe Jumbo-Visma can work things out another way, say, by attacking from a long way out.”
Analyzing the vital stages
If the first 10 days of the race are lost, the Contador believes he knows exactly where the Tour will start.
“The summit finish on the Col du Granon, with the Telegraphe and Galibier before that, is far more important than what’s coming before.
“It’s an 11km climb, with average gradients of nine or ten per cent, so it could be the one that decides the script of the whole Tour and the lines on which it will play out. [stage 12] what happened the day before.
“So the start of the Tour will be a very intense one, and the Col du Granon will show us who’s in form, who’s not, and what plans a team like Jumbo-Visma really have, whether it’s Roglič or Vingegaard who are going to be the top leader and so on.
“In any case, there’s so much that can happen in the first week, starting with the wind and the pavé and so having two riders to rely on for GC is a very good idea.”
At its other end of the Tour, in its third week, Jugbo-Visma will continue to have certain advantages.
“I don’t think the Mende finish [stage 14] or the one into Foix [stage 16] The GC riders will have many differences between the GC riders, because 30 kilometers.
“But I think the GC guys will be thinking more about the two summit finishes, the first to Peyragudes [stage 17] and then the Hautacam stage .
“The first one is so short you could get GC guys going into the breaks and toughening up the stage from the start,” said Contador of an option that teams like Jumbo-Visma could still use .
“Then the Hautacam is the last chance for the climbers before that final, very long, time trial.”
When it comes to the nominal pre-race order of favors, Roglič and Vingegaard elevate to ‘virtual podium’ finishes behind Pogačar.
“They both know what it means to finish second in the Tour,” he said, “and then there’s a whole group of riders who are in line for the podium.”
Spain’s Enric Mas (Movistar) is one such racer, thanks to his consistency, said Contador, while others include Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën), Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious), Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers ).
Contador also highlights Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) as one of the most promising newcomers into this select group of GC contenders.
“I’d put him in that podium group for sure. He’s had a great season so far, and he’s been going really well too. Let’s see how COVID-19 has affected and he’s a clear contender for the podium. So let’s see how much higher he can get, too. “
And as for Contador’s old sparring partner, Chris Froome (Israel-Premier Tech): “We’ve seen that despite trying really hard and his motivation, he still can’t get back to the level of form that he had before his crash, so let’s see how he goes from here. I think that if Froome could get a stage win, that would be good. “
Contador himself will have more than one chance to get a ringside view of the action this summer. Since retiring in September 2017 El Pistolero has been working with his Continental team, Eolo-Kometa and with his Foundation in his hometown of Pinto, but he is also now a regular commentator on cycling for Eurosport in Spain.
This summer he will be reporting on the pillion seat of the in-race motorbike on six stages.
The Spaniard may not be on the motorbike for the final time trial, but as he said, Pogačar’s ability to take the pressure at a point in the game is still more than worthy of his admiration.
“You watch him before the last Tour de France time trial [in 2020] and you can see he’s calm and relaxed, chatting away, “Contador recollected.
“And then he gets on his bike – and he flies.”