“It is frustrating people thinking that Tadej has been extra-galactical [extra-terrestrial] this year when he has never achieved the numbers he had last year.”
These were the words of UAE Team Emirates head coach and Pogačar’s personal coach, Dr. Iñigo San Millán, who defended Pogačar in an interview with VeloNews after the first week, where he stated that the competition in the Tour de France 2021 was lower than expected and featuring lower watts per kg (w/kg) on key climbs as compared to the Tour de France 2020. This statement was undoubtedly true.
This article will analyse how impressive Pogačar’s stage 8 effort was from a w/kg perspective and compare those numbers to Pogačar’s previous performances as well as what power numbers we would ordinarily expect of his rivals.
Pogačar on Stage 8 practically won the Tour before its first rest day, distancing Carapaz on Col De Romme and riding the last 30km or so solo to the finish. His main rivals (3rd to 10th in GC after stage 8: Lutsenko, Uran, Vinegaard, Carapaz, Kelderman, Mas, Gaudu, Bilbao) all finished 3 minutes and 20 seconds behind the defending champion.
The gap could have been even bigger if the Slovenian had not ridden safely on the last descent but, in contrast to his compatriot Primož “no risk, no glory” Roglič, he chose to take the wet and slippery road to the finish with ease just behind stage winner Dylan Teuns.
Pogačar’s Expected Level
Of course, given the history of cycling, there are suspicions when a rider takes that much time against his competitors at the start of the biggest cycling race in the world, but in this case Pogačar’s competition underperformed relative to the expected level of the top GC contenders at a Tour de France edition. The Slovenian no longer uploads his power data on Strava, but using math, reverse engineering, and other riders published data we can calculate that Pogačar on Col de Romme did 6.42 w/kg for 27:08. Undoubtedly this is an impressive performance, but nothing supernatural relative to Pogačar’s previous performances in 2021, even considering how hard the stage was before the climb.
Above is a graph that plots all of Pogačar’s top climbing performances in 2021. With yellow letters are his efforts from the Tour de France. Only Col du Portet (49:00, 5,96 w/kg, Tour de France Stage 17) and Prati di Tivo (36:06, 6,32w/kg, Tirreno Adriatico Stage 4) can compete with Col de Romme. The key difference was that in Col du Portet and Prati di Tivo stages Pogačar beat his closest GC rivals by only a few seconds (Simon Yates only 6s behind Pogačar on Tivo) despite those performances being roughly the same w/kg trend-line as Col de Romme.
Before the Tour, Pogačar tested his legs at Tour of Slovenia where he performed well on two sub-15-minute climbs: Sveta Gora (7,02 w/kg, 10:01) and Svetina (6,8 w/kg, 13:15). According to Pogačar data from the 2021 races, and his condition in the preparation race at Tour of Slovenia, his performance on Tour de France Stage 8 was not surprising compared to his high standards in big races. The wet weather and 11-15°C temperature suited him perfectly. He usually excels in these conditions, which he proved multiple times already in 2019, whilst perhaps these unusually cold conditions in the Alps contributed to the lower performance of his rivals. Pogačar Achilles heel is perhaps the hot weather, as shown on Mt Ventoux in the second week of the Tour de France.
Pogačar’s performance on Stage 8 was also a byproduct of his main rival, and closest competitor by physiological ability, no longer being in the race. If Roglič had not crashed severely early in the Tour, it is our view that he could have followed Pogačar initially on Col de Romme. In that scenario, the Slovenians would likely not have worked together and their w/kg on the climb would be lower than 6,42 w/kg as neither would want to ride at threshold with the other in their draft. In perhaps the only tête-à-tête we saw between the two at the Tour de France, on Côte de la Fosse aux Loups on Stage 1, we saw this effect, when Roglič attacked after Alaphilippe he was marked by Pogačar, with both stopping any further moves at that point, with both unwilling to give the other any advantage.
Performance of Pogačar’s Rivals
Carapaz’ power meter consistently overread throughout the year by 3-5% which is why we will use the next best available option – Alexey Lutsenko. According to the Kazakh rider’s data, until Col de Romme he spent 2848 kilojoules in almost 2 hours and 45 minutes. Considering that Lutsenko (70 kg – strava weight input) is 4 kilograms heavier than Pogačar (66 kg) the Slovenian burned even fewer kilojoules before Col de Romme. The riders in the GC group also pushed high w/kg from the very start of the stage. Lutsenko is one of the rare star riders that publishes his heart rate data. Interestingly, he reached his maximum heart rate in the first minutes of Stage 8. The first climb was like an intensive warm-up caused by strong climbers that tried to form a breakaway early but unsuccessfully. Before Romme the stage was quite hard, but not biblical.
Top GC riders should still have been able to perform at a high level on this penultimate climb. Even with Col de Romme before, the level on Colombiere from Lutsenko (5.64 w/kg for 24 minutes) is significantly below what we would expect from a top GC rider on the last climb of the first proper mountain stage in the first week of the Tour de France.
Col de Romme and Colombiere
Lutsenko before Pogačar’s attack on Col de Romme averaged 6,14 w/kg for 15:37. This was in large part due to the great job by Davide Formolo for his Slovenian teammate, as well as Richie Porte, both setting a hard tempo to enable Pogačar to launch his thermo-nuclear attack.
On the next climb, Col de la Colombiere, the w/kg output dropped significantly in the chase group even considering that riders spent 4-5 minutes less on the climb. Col de Romme’s full-gas effort took a lot of energy from everyone but tactics were also at play.
Lutsenko’s power data shows that on Col de la Colombiere the group with Pogačar’s main rivals was not working well together. While Pogačar was riding at a steady tempo, his competitors practically surrendered and began to attack each other, with first place on GC seemingly (and literally) out of sight. This situation helped Pogačar gain even more time. In the middle of Col de la Colombiere the group slowed down a lot. Lutsenko for a moment pushed 3,2w/kg for 20 seconds, which is practically standing still. There is little wonder that Pogačar gained so much time against a competition that was not interested in working together and limiting their losses against the Slovenian. Perhaps it was rational at this moment to already begin thinking of defending podium positions, with the rivals knowing that they could not have done anything against Pogačar. In Stage 9, which finished in Tignes, Pogačar gained more time with an unintentional attack, when no one was willing to follow him. They ignored him like he did not exist.
To better show that the Pogačar Stage 8 attack was not anything supernatural relative to other performances in the modern era, we created a graph comparing Vuelta a Espana 2021 Stage 17 2021 and Tour de France Stage 8. On that day Primož Roglič followed Egan Bernal on La Collada Llomena, worked hard on the flat section, and later crushed the Colombian on Covadonga. In my view, Roglič’s Vuelta performance is a higher level than Pogacar on Stage 8, although the time between climbs was longer than in Pogačar’s case. This incredible mountain raid is worthy of its own article in the future.
Movistar GC leader Enric Mas’ w/kg data shows that the Spaniard a few months later in the Vuelta a Espana performed a lot better than in the Tour de France Stage 8, where his performance was poor. With his Vuelta 2021 legs, Mas would not have lost anything near to 3 minutes and 20 seconds to Pogačar on Stage 8.
In the second week of the Tour, Jonas Vingegaard dropped Pogačar on Ventoux. The hot weather and the long climb (over 45 minutes) did not suit Pogačar as much as the cold and rain in the Alps, and Vingegaard proved that the Slovenian was not completely untouchable. However just a few days before on Stage 8, Vingegaard lost a lot of time like other GC contenders. The former fish factory worker crashed at least once that day and was unable to perform at a level mirroring his record performance from Chalet Reynard to the top of Mt Ventoux.
The data above indicates that, once Roglič had abandoned, the level of the GC field in the 2021 Tour was very poor compared to the 2020 Tour and other World Tour stage races in 2021, such as Itzulia Basque Country and Tirreno Adriatico. Of course, Pogačar’s performance on Stage 8 was a very high level, but the massive deficit of over 3 minutes (which caused the raised eyebrows) was largely due to the underperformance or lower level of his remaining rivals, as well as the group dynamic giving up on limiting the losses to Pogačar somewhere on Colombiere. In the previous year, when Pogačar was challenged by Roglič for the whole three weeks, he performed even better on a watts per kg basis but never distanced third place Richie Porte by more than 40 seconds on any mountain stage. We will see in 2022 whether Roglič will be back in full force, or whether once again Pogačar can win again in easy mode.