Tour de France cycling – Tadej Pogacar vs Primoz Roglic, Part Deux: Which Slovenian will win in 2021?
Last year’s top two – Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic – front the list of favourites ahead of the 2021 Tour de France. But which Slovenian superstar is better placed to take home the yellow jersey? Felix Lowe takes a closer look at the rivalry which should define the 108th edition of the Tour while rating each rider across a number of categories.
‘This is happening!’ - The moment Pogacar overhauled Roglic
Until the penultimate stage last year, Primoz Roglic held almost a minute’s advantage over his fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar. Then the 21-year-old Tour debutant put in the most jaw-dropping ride possible on the final time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles to win a third stage and turn a 57-second deficit into a 59-second race-winning advantage going into Paris to secure the yellow jersey.
Just over nine months later, Pogacar and Roglic return to France as joint favourites to win the 2021 Tour de France. Can the former become the youngest rider to take back-to-back Grand Tour wins, or will the latter have learned from his mistakes last autumn?
It’s time to take a closer look at the two stand-out stars of the Tour and weigh up who has a better chance of riding into Paris clad in yellow. Across a number of categories, each rider is given a mark out of 10 before the scores are tallied up for a final mark out of 100. It’s not an exact science – and the final result probably tells us nothing – but still, it’s a bit of fun ahead of Saturday’s grand depart.
Before the race hits the Alps for Stage 8 there’s a week of supposedly sprinter friendly stages either side of a time trial. Four days over the rolling, blustery, and often narrow and twisting, roads of Brittany are littered with banana skins. Although the uphill finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne on day two will suit both Pogacar and Roglic, both riders will be less concerned about arriving in the mountains with a stage win under the belt, or even yellow jersey across their back, than they will about not conceding any silly time.
Last year, Pogacar regularly found himself isolated. He had to fight back on after a mechanical ahead of Mont Aigoual on Stage 6 then, the next day, lost 1:21 and dropped from third to sixteenth after missing a split in crosswinds. Roglic, too, has a history of succumbing to circumstance and calamity: remember his puncture in the Giro when his sporting director had stopped to answer a call of nature, or his crash more recently in Paris-Nice this March?
Pogacar: 6 | Roglic: 7
Primoz Roglic et Tadej Pogacar à l'arrivée de la 13e étape du Tour de France 2020.
Image credit: Getty Images
Once the race hits the Alps the true test begins. What Pogacar may lack in team support, he makes up in his individual ability – and while the younger of the two Slovenians was always an adept climber, Roglic has had to adapt in making uphill riding a key part of his arsenal.
Pogacar: 9 | Roglic: 8
The consensus always seemed to be that Roglic was a time trialler par excellence who, once learning to climb, became the all-round package. The fact that he has never not won a stage in all seven of his Grand Tours to date is largely thanks to his ability against the clock. Almost a quarter of his 52 career wins have come in time trials, compared to his compatriot’s three TT wins from 25.
That said, Pogacar’s most famous victory – and Roglic’s costliest collapse – came in that 36km time trial in Stage 20 last year on a day the pendulum swung dramatically in Pogi’s favour. And yet, in the only time trial they have both ridden this season – the opening day of the Itzulia Basque Country back in April – Roglic prevailed and took 28 seconds from his compatriot. What’s French for ‘swings and roundabouts’?
Pogacar: 8 | Roglic: 9
Classy gesture as Roglic congratulates Pogacar with embrace
For the man we thought would win the Tour last year, it’s his punchy uphill sprint finishes – which often result in the added accumulation of bonus seconds – while for Pogacar it’s an ability to win summit finishes from a position of apparent isolation (he won three in his debut Vuelta and then another, plus the TT, in his debut Tour).
Tadej Pogacar beats compatriot Primoz Roglic to win stage 3 of Itzulia Basque Country 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Form this season
Not fully sated after winning the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, Pogacar downed a maiden monument at Liege-Bastogne- Liege before adding his native Tour of Slovenia for good measure.
For his part, Roglic was on course to win Paris-Nice – and in devastating style after three clinical stage wins – before he crashed on the final day. He attacked a little too early on the Mur de Huy to deny Julian Alaphilippe in his maiden appearance in La Fleche Wallonne and then could only muster 13th as his compatriot won La Doyenne.
In their only head-to-head in stage races, Roglic won in the Basque Country with Pogacar just over a minute back in third place. All in all, there’s little splitting them – although Pogacar perhaps sneaks it on the grounds of his slightly busier (and indeed more fruitful) programme.
Pogacar: 9 | Roglic: 8.5
Highlights: Roglic crashes twice as Schachmann swoops in to defend title
Here’s where things get interesting – for neither rider took part in either of the usual Tour warm-ups of the Criterium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. Indeed, Roglic hasn’t turned a competitive pedal since the Ardennes, favouring instead to train at altitude and keep a low profile.
In the seven weeks since his victory in La Doyenne, Pogacar, on the other hand, continued his preparation by winning the Tour of Slovenia. In Roglic’s absence, however, he could only take third in the national championships ITT before coming a lowly fifth in the road race.
It’s hard to gauge whether Pogacar was using these races as preparation instead of performance – besides, who’s to say that fifth in the nationals is better or worse than no racing at all? Given his hefty schedule last season – and his Olympic ambitions later in the year – it was probably a good call by Roglic to favour freshness over anything else. Time will tell whether it affects his performance in the opening week or – for that matter – the final week.
Pogacar: 6 | Roglic: 6
Highlights: Pogacar claims Liege-Bastogne-Liege ahead of Alaphilippe
It’s here where Roglic holds all the cards with a Jumbo-Visma team entirely built around him with the single goal of winning the maillot jaune. That, arguably, was the bitterest pill to swallow last year – as encapsulated by that iconic image of teammates Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert watching their flailing leader in disbelief during the final time trial after three weeks of riding themselves inside out for him.
There’s no Dumoulin this year – the Dutchman is only just back after an enforced sabbatical – but the team is arguably stronger with Steven Kruijswijk (who missed last year’s Tour following a crash) returning along with versatile compatriot Mike Teunissen. Jonas Vingegaard – the Danish revelation who finished runner-up to Roglic in Itzulia – makes his Grand Tour debut, while climbers Sepp Kuss and the experienced Robert Gesink provide the steel for the mountains.
Primoz Roglic of Slovenia and Team Jumbo - Visma Yellow Leader Jersey / during the 107th Tour de France 2020, Stage 14 a 194km stage from Clermont-Ferrand to Lyon / #TDF2020 / @LeTour / on September 12, 2020 in Lyon, France.
Image credit: Getty Images
Wout van Aert will once again put his green jersey ambitions aside to ride for Roglic over all terrains, while Germany’s Tony Martin completes the pack as road captain. It’s a formidable squad in stark contrast to the motley crew surrounding Pogacar at UAE Team Emirates.
While UAE are pulling out the stops to build for the future – including tying down their star asset for another five years – the present is still a piecemeal patchwork lacking in cohesion. The final eight comprise eight different nationalities, with Rafal Majka and Davide Formolo the mountain lieutenants, Brandon McNulty the Plan B, Marc Hirschi the reined-in stage hunter (playing the Van Aert role), and experience coming from the Portuguese veteran Rui Costa. Scandinavians Mikkel Bjerg and Vegard Stake Laengen complete the melting pot.
On paper, it looks like Pogacar will rely primarily on his own powers rather than those of his teammates.
Roglič was understandably bereft on losing the Tour last year. Any happiness and sporting goodwill he felt for his younger compatriot seemed to evaporate behind the scenes when – if you saw the Jumbo-Visma documentary – he even questioned the plausibility of Pogacar taking so much time on him on the climb up La Planche des Belles Filles.
Crashing on the final day of Paris-Nice would have been another blow for the 31-year-old – and, psychologically, such calamities may see a few doubts rising to the surface. For Pogacar, it’s hard to know what goes on in that young brain of his; the youngster seems a bit of an emotional blank slate. Perhaps that side to his personality has not yet had the chance to develop, primarily because he’s been in the game for such a short time, most of which he has been winning.
So far in his burgeoning career, Pogacar seems capable of bouncing back from misfortune and dealing with expectation. But Roglic, too, showed huge mental strength to follow up last year’s Tour heartbreak with victory in the Vuelta – one year after doing the same off the back of a Giro wobble.
Pogacar: 8 | Roglic: 7
‘A man for all races! Truly special!’ - Roglic extends Paris-Nice lead with Stage 6 win
Almost a decade older than his rival, Roglic did not come into the sport until late – riding his first Grand Tour aged 26, finishing 58th in the Giro and picking up a stage in doing so. A year later, he came 38th in his debut Tour, then made the breakthrough in 2018 in coming fourth in France. Since then, Roglic, now 31, has not been off the podium in Grand Tours – spending more days in leaders’ jerseys than anyone else in the peloton.
The obvious takeaway from this – in terms of progression and from Pogacar’s perspective – is that the younger Slovenian had already won his first Tour six years before Roglic even made his debut in the world’s biggest bike race. Third in his first ever Vuelta was followed by victory in Paris at the first time of asking: no current rider has come remotely close to matching Pogacar’s entry into the sport – a record which seems to render any questions over experience completely redundant.
And yet, given his meteoric rise, we don’t know – and crucially, neither does he – how Pogacar would react to being well down in a Grand Tour. That will surely be a question mark until it happens.
Pogacar: 6 | Roglic: 7
Highlights of an all-time great Tour stage as Pogacar and Roglic break Hirschi's heart
Coping with pressure
If there was no pressure on Pogacar when he made his Vuelta debut in 2019, he also entered the 2020 Tour without much fanfare and – at least, supposedly, on an equal footing with then-teammate Fabio Aru. How will he cope with being the defending champion? We’re about to find out.
As for Roglic, he has twice bounced back from Grand Tour setbacks by winning the Vuelta and – until the penultimate day – looked firmly in control of the yellow jersey and his own destiny last September. His advanced years means time is ticking away for him in a way that it isn’t for his compatriot. With Egan Bernal riding so well again in the Giro, Roglic will be aware that this could well be his best chance (since he blew his previous best chance) of winning the biggest prize in cycling. That, surely, will weigh heavily on shoulders that slumped so cataclysmically last September.
Pogacar: 7 | Roglic: 5
Primoz Roglic, yellow jersey - Tour de France 2020, stage 9 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
The final verdict
It’s such an even battle between the two Slovenians with Pogacar’s individual excellence being reined in by Roglic’s own obvious ability plus his superior team. Many categories were hard to give a genuine mark for: how can you rate someone’s ability to cope with pressure when they have not had to do that yet? Or, indeed, someone’s current form, when they haven’t raced in two months? Likewise, does it matter that Pogacar has less experience when, in that short time, he’s pretty much done it all – and at an age when Roglic was still throwing himself off a hill on a pair of skis…
So, taking this all into consideration, the final marks are nevertheless in… and you can make of it what you will.