The sporting world is fickle. One day you’re down and out and the next you’re on top of the world. That may be an exaggeration for how Tadej Pogačar was viewed after stage 5’s entry into the Pyrenean mountains, but not by much. Jumbo-Visma’s show of strength had been ominous, yet the very next day the Slovenian was back on top at over 1,000 metres (not quite the top of the world) as he took the stage 6 victory and halved his deficit to Jonas Vingegaard to under 30 seconds.
In his stage winner’s press conference, of which he’s had 10 so far at the age of 24, the first question was about his resurrection, how he had looked dead and defeated yesterday but now bounced back a mere day later.
“I was not dead yesterday, I still was quite good,” Pogačar insisted. “Of course, I’m super happy for today. I played it smart today.”
At the bus, teammate Matteo Trentin also suggested that the rollercoaster of a few seconds lost here, a few gained here, are for the media and fans to get excited about. Pogačar instead exemplifies keeping cool under pressure (at least when he’s not overheating on the Col du Granon), always making light of being one of the best bike racers in the world on the biggest stage, presenting a carefree attitude and rarely letting that mask slip in public.
However, Pogačar admitted he’d been anxious that if stage 6 turned out the same or worse than stage 5, the walls would have started closing in around him.
“When Jumbo started pulling on the Tourmalet I was thinking, ‘Okay, if it’s the same as yesterday, then we can almost pack the bags and go home,’” the Slovenian admitted.
“But I just kept telling myself I need to hold onto the wheel and not give up until the top, then it would be just me, Jonas, and Wout for the last climb. If I lost the wheel there it would be a bit more problematic. I was happy that I had good legs on the Tourmalet.”
In contrast to Jumbo-Visma’s rigorous, multi-faceted binder of plans, what became clear today is that it will once again be the Goliath of the Dutch team versus Pogačar’s David. While Vingegaard can have Wout van Aert hovering up the road and Sepp Kuss at his side for comfort, it will come down to whether Pogačar can best Vingegaard. The caveat is that UAE Team Emirates learned last year to sometimes try to temper their rider’s instincts to do away with everything else and just race on vibes.
“I was thinking about attacking for the last four kilometres,” Pogačar said of having survived another day where Jumbo-Visma threw everything at the wall and had nothing stick, and instead putting the defending champions under pressure.
“But I got told on the radio to follow Jonas and race smart. But racing smart would be going even earlier, but I was suffering all the way to the finish line.
“I don’t regret going at that moment. It was just enough; maybe if I went earlier maybe I would explode on the flat part or something. It was a good day, I tried to feel the race. You need to have balls to attack in the end.”
Before the stage start, when questioned about UAE Team Emirates’ inability to control stage 5, which let Vingegaard pop Pogačar and Jai Hindley steal yellow, Adam Yates told the media by way of explanation that they weren’t racing against farmers (with the exception of Soudal Quick-Step’s Yves Lampaert).
Instead, riders from both UAE and Jumbo are borderline salivating at the prospect of an exciting Tour, of one where the lead can change hands, where it isn’t just the strongest rider in the race takes yellow and adeptly fends off challenges on the way to Paris. Pogačar even joked about beating Mark Cavendish and Eddy Merckx’s stage win record of 34, and to be honest, when you think about it, it’s maybe not that crazy an idea.
“You can have Plan A, B, C, D, E, F … even the whole alphabet. You can have plans, and anything can happen. Racing is really difficult,” Pogačar said.
“Yesterday we also had a plan, but we totally missed it. Today, Jumbo didn’t miss the plan, but they tried it, and they didn’t succeed, because in cycling it’s so difficult to follow the tactics.
“There are so many circumstances you need to think about. And it’s difficult to predict if it’s going to work or not. That’s cycling.”
For the time being, Pogačar’s physical and metaphorical suitcases will continue to open and close on Tour. There will be no going home.
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