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With a few months between us and Tadej Pogačar’s second-consecutive overall Tour de France victory, I thought it could be insightful to go back and attempt to isolate where Pogačar won the race and if this tells us anything useful about the course, and most importantly, if rivals teams can take anything from this race that will assist them when making strategic plans in future grand tours.
One thing I find incredibly frustrating is that it can be nearly impossible to isolate what rider won how many time bonuses seconds and where they won them. While time bonuses weren’t consequential in this specific Tour de France, they have been incredibly important places where a rider can wedge valuable time between themselves and their GC rivals. For example, Primož Roglič actually completed the 2020 Vuelta a Espana course slower than Richard Carapaz, but won the overall due to his strategic taking of time bonus seconds.
To help us digest the end result at this past Tour and attempt to understand what exactly happened, I’ve isolated every stage where the top three won/lost time relative to each other and how much time they won/lost.
Where the Top Three Won/Lost Time (w/Time Bonuses):
Stage 1 Uphill Finish:
Stage 2 Uphill Finish:
Stage 3 Flat Stage:
Stage 5 Time Trial:
Stage 8 High Mountain Stage:
Stage 9 High Mountain Stage (Summit Finish):
Stage 17 High Mountain Stage (Summit Finish):
Stage 18 High Mountain Stage (Summit Finish):
Stage 20 Time Trial:
Pogačar vs Vingegaard Course Type:
Time Trial (2): 2-seconds Pogačar
Uphill Finishes (2): 2-seconds Pogačar
High Mountain Stages (6): 3’57 Pogačar
Hilly Stages (5): No change
Flat Stages (6): 55-seconds Pogačar
Time Bonuses (3): 24-seconds Pogačar
Pogačar vs Carapaz Course Type:
Time Trial (2): 2’56 Pogačar
Uphill Finishes (2): 7-seconds Pogačar
High Mountain Stages (6): 3’58 Pogačar
Hilly Stages (5): No change
Flat Stages (6): 26-seconds Carapaz
Time Bonuses: 28-seconds Pogačar
The Race Was Won in the Second Week
Week 1 (Stages 1-7) Time Difference to Vingegaard & Carapaz
Pogačar took 1’35 on Vingegaard
Pogačar took 1’36 on Carapaz
Week 2 (Stages 8-14)
Pogačar took 3’57 on Vingegaard
Pogačar took 3’57 on Carapaz
Week 3 (Stages 15-21)
*Pogačar lost 12-seconds to Vingegaard
Pogačar took 1’30 on Carapaz
When we isolate when exactly Pogačar won/lost time, it becomes clear that the race was won in the second week in the Alps, and more specifically, stage 8. The 3’25 (3’20 in real-time plus 5 bonus seconds) he put into Vingegaard and Carapaz there formed a significant chunk of his final winning margin. After delivering a knockout blow on stage 9 with his attack to Tignes that netted him 32-seconds, he could simply go into cruise mode all the way to Paris.
One interesting data point from the information listed above is that Pogačar actually lost time to Vingegaard in the race’s third week. While this could be written off as Pogačar simply writing off the final week of the race and Vingegaard stealing empty seconds, I would push back on that argument and think it could overlook a world-class performance by Vingegaard. Nearly every GC stage was fiercely contested in the third week, yet Pogačar couldn’t drop Vingegaard on the difficult summit finishes and lost time to him in the final time trial. Pogačar certainly wasn’t taking any major risks in that TT, but in my opinion, he did appear to be struggling on the bike more than Vingegaard, who looked like he was getting stronger and peaking in that third week (or, more likely, simply degrading at a lower rate).
This detail makes me believe that even though this Tour was an undeniable blowout, that it would be foolish to simply predict a run of 10 uncontested Pogačar Tour wins.
While Pogačar’s performance was incredibly impressive in the Alps, it would potentially be a mistake to look at that and think it is replicable in the future. A few factors contributed to those massive gaps; a brutally hard opening week and the extreme rain and cold on the stage, which allowed Pogačar to blow open gaps with a relatively normal physical performance. As we saw in the Pyrenees, Vingegaard and Carapaz could climb with Pogačar. While Pogačar’s raw power numbers increased, the delta to the others actually decreased, which tells us the weather likely played a major role in the Alps and it could be hard for Pogačar to replicate this in the future.
So, if we assume that Pogačar isn’t going to be able to put minutes into his GC competitors whenever he wants, he is going to be left with much slimmer margins, and where/how he takes time will start to become more important. For example, for most of this Tour and the 2020 edition, he was taking at most, a handful of seconds on mountain summit finishes. This means the time bonuses and time trials will likely be incredibly important for Pogačar going forward.
But, this is where things get interesting. His UAE team, at least in its current form, isn’t strong enough and doesn’t have the appetite to control a race line-to-line and pull back breakaways for Pogačar to sprint for bonus seconds. This obviously worked out in 2021, and the team’s sit-and-wait tactics worked perfectly due to Pogačar’s superior time trialing and massive lead coming out of the Alps. But, if a rider like Roglič and/or Vingegaard (or even Wout van Aert), who can time trial in the same league, and sometimes even better, than Pogačar, were sitting close in the GC, things could go very difficult for UAE very quickly.
Add in the fact that Pogačar leaned heavily on cold/rainy to take large chunks of time in 2021 while being forced to settle for smaller margins on other mountain stages, and it is very possible that Tours in the near future will be far more competitive. A potential Tour start list with Egan Bernal, Primož Roglič, Jonas Vingegaard, and a fit Wout van Aert, is a tantalizing prospect that already has me excited for next year’s race.