Tadej Pogačar on stage 20 of the Giro d'Italia.

Is this what taking it easy looks like for Tadej Pogačar?

Didn't Pogačar say he was going to try to avoid 'spending too much energy' at the Giro?

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 25.05.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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In his press conference on the first rest day of the Giro d’Italia, race leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) said that he could ride “more defensively” now that he had stormed to a healthy GC lead. He proceeded to win the queen stage the following week, almost three minutes ahead of his GC “rivals.”

In his press conference on the second rest day of the Giro d’Italia, Pogačar said that he and his team were aiming for “good pacing without spending too much energy,” and that they could “play a bit more on the safe side” in the final week. He proceeded to win stage 16 the very next day, and then triumphed on stage 20 more than two minutes ahead of the rest of the field.

One of two things must be true: Either Pogačar was not being entirely honest when suggesting that he was going to ease off the throttle a bit at the Giro with an eye towards the Tour de France … or this is what taking it easy actually looks like for the world’s best bike racer.

The former explanation has a long history in sport and in cycling specifically. There is only so much an athlete can gain from being completely honest when asked about their intentions and plans. Meanwhile, playing headgames with the rest of the world can be quite beneficial. Alberto Contador, for instance, had a knack for downplaying his fitness and playing up health concerns just before dropping everyone in the mountains.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that Tadej Pogačar decided to mislead the rest of the world, either to gain some kind of tactical edge or just because he though it would be fun. If so, he will have to know that he can only fool us so many times before we get wise to his tricks. Maybe it was worth it, although it seems doubtful that he needed any kind of advantage en route to his six stage wins at this Giro.

The alternative seems harder to comprehend, but it’s worth considering. Perhaps Pogačar’s version of taking it easy is still powerful enough to earn him all this glory. Perhaps he is just so much better than the rest of the field at the Giro that he can drop everyone with a few kilometers to climb on the Passo di Foscagno and the Monte Grappa while still avoiding “spending too much energy.” Maybe it feels “safe” enough to him because he is on that high of a level.

Tadej Pogačar on the attack on stage 15 o the 2024 Giro d'Italia.
Tadej Pogačar has been head and shoulders above the competition at the Giro d’Italia.

With all due respect to the Giro field, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Other than Pogačar, just six entrants in this year’s race had ever stood on a Grand Tour podium, and several of those carry asterisks: one is Pogačar’s teammate, Rafał Majka. Three others – Esteban Chaves, Nairo Quintana, and Romain Bardet – have not done so since at least 2017.

The man who did emerge as Pogačar’s closest competitor, Daniel Martínez of Bora-Hansgrohe, has never been on a Grand Tour podium in his career, while Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) was already the oldest Giro podium finisher as of last year. Behind them is another solid gap to riders like Ben O’Connor (Decathlon-AG2R) and Antonio Tiberi (Bahrain Victorious). As Visma-Lease a Bike manager Richard Plugge noted – perhaps bluntly – Pogačar is not battling Jonas Vingegaard or other top Grand Tour competitors here. “We have to see in the Tour de France what the real level is,” he told CyclingNews.

Of the three victories Pogačar has achieved since the first rest day, one came courtesy of a relatively short effort close-ish to the finish line on stage 16. The other two came with longer-range attacks – but even then, how much energy did he really have to expend to drop the field and then maintain his gap?

He had a brief spell to recover on a descent after his attack on stage 15 and the majority of the final 30 km of stage 20 were downhill as well. In other words, Pogačar was able to put in some massive surges but for relatively short periods of time before settling into riding tempo, rather than attacking and counterattacking like he might be doing against a Jonas Vingegaard or a Primož Roglič on this terrain.

Plus, what motivation has there been for his rivals to ride hard to close him down once he has gotten clear? Given how far ahead he is on GC, keeping the gap to Pogačar small was not going to make taking the pink jersey any likelier for them. If they determined that they could not drop each other, thus also ruling out any real movement further down the standings, the likes of Thomas and Martínez would have been content to let Pogačar do his own thing up the road, and that’s just what he did.

Maybe doing his own thing was Pogačar’s method of simulating a training camp effort as a way to prep for the upcoming Tour, where he will have a far better shot at taking a third overall win in July than he would have expected when he first announced his Giro plans – courtesy of Jonas Vingegaard’s crash at the Itzulia Basque Country. Maybe he is actually taking it just as easy as he planned all along, getting in his training but not overdoing it and still managing to rack up the wins along the way.

The Giro ends on Sunday with a chance for the sprinters in Rome, where Pogačar will be crowned the overall champion of the race. From there, he will have just over a month to recover from the Giro and get ready for the Tour, which also starts in Italy.

Time will tell whether he played it safe enough to make a Giro-Tour double possible. For now, though, the presumptive Giro champ deserves some credit for what he has done in Italy, winning an incredible six stages and compiling an overall lead that has nearly hit 10 minutes, which will be the biggest winning margin since all the way back in 1965.

Whether he was playing coy with his press conference quotes or being honest – and thus clueing us into just how strong he is – Pogačar has certainly made the most of his first Giro d’Italia visit.

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