Every Day, I Think About the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race: Slovenian Rhapsody, Part 2
[Author’s Note: This is a piece about a bicycle race, however, it’s not meant to be a piece of sports journalism — rather it’s better classified as a work of creative non-fiction. We can never know what goes through a cyclist’s head when they race. We can never truly understand their motives, their inspirations — yet their actions tell a story, and my goal here is to distill those storytelling elements into a broader, if somewhat embellished narrative.]
Slovenian Rhapsody, Part 2
At 42 kilometers to go, Tadej Pogačar steadies himself. He focuses with absolute concentration on managing the rhythm of his breathing, the cadence of his pedal strokes, his eyes measuring the distance between his wheel and that of his domestique, the sprinter Luka Mezgec. The time for dwelling, for second-guessing has come to an end, replaced entirely with the commitment to act.
Tadej is nervous — of course he is. He’s about to attempt an escape from a peloton made up of the most talented, most fearsome cyclists in the world. Fortunately, Tadej is excellent at managing his anxiety, a task made easier by way of total exhaustion. So far he’s already raced his bicycle over 200 kilometers up and down the same two brutal climbs for almost six hours.
Mezgec looks back, shakes his head. He’s given it all he’s got, doesn’t have the stamina to lead Pogačar out for much longer. Fortunately for him, he’s gotten everything right. He gives Pogačar the signal. With a quick yank of his bike, Mezgec leads his compatriot to the side of the pack, finds his opening, and delivers his payload just in time. Soon, everything is happening so fast, so fast, and as Pogačar sees that he’s at the front — that the only person in front of him is Mezgec — he knows the moment of truth has arrived.
Mezgec drops back, his work — his one important contribution to this race — is done. He gives his companion a quick smile of encouragement, both men beginning to feel the incline steepen in their pounding hearts and the taut muscles of their thighs. It’s now or never, and Tadej Pogačar chooses now.
He takes a deep breath, grips his brake hoods, and launches himself at the base of the Cima Gallisterna.
The Belgians crowd together at the front. One can see a few of them stand in the saddle, bring up the speed. They try to lock this attack down before it goes too far, but Mezgec is too clever, his lead-out is too clean, the whole thing’s been timed far too perfectly. Luke Rowe, the British domestique, is kicking himself, trying desperately to bring 21-year-old Tom Pidcock to the front, but it’s too late. The young Slovenian has a gap — he’s gone now, and nobody is going with him. The camera pans to the front, and for a split second, a smile flashes across Tadej’s face.
The Belgians are out of the saddle — they can’t believe they’ve let this go away. It’s a rather sticky situation for the overpowered team. They’ve been sitting pretty all day, biding their time, letting the other teams burn themselves out one by one at the front. The reason they overtake the French Offensive at the autodrome is partially to slow the race down a bit, partially to regain control, and partially because they’re anticipating attacks at the foot of the climb — attacks they’ll want to shut down swiftly.
Still, Pogačar was too clever, and to some extent, the Belgians assumed that the Slovenians were bluffing, that they wouldn’t pop off with 42 kilometers still left in the race, especially not after the brutal lap inflicted upon them by the French. Their assumptions were wrong, however, and now they have to spend their precious energy to fix this whole mess. When the young Slovenian gaps them, the Belgians make an attempt to claw their way back, but Rowe and Pidcock’s birdbrained lead-out gets in their way, and as Pogačar sprints up the hill, nobody is able to follow.
It’s a gamble, now. The Belgians know Pogačar has the form to time trial his way to the finish line. The best they can do is keep up the pace, hope that the boy will tire himself out, make a mistake, slow down at the wrong moment and be caught. The recent defeat of his Jumbo Visma teammate Primož Roglič looms heavy in Wout van Aert’s mind as he and Tiesj Benoot seize the front of the peloton, watching futilely as the young Slovenian gets smaller and smaller in their field of vision.
40 kilometers to go and Pogačar is over the top of the climb, his gap on the Belgians expanding from eight to eleven seconds. When he tucks into the descent, Tadej looks back and sees nobody. A grin spreads across his face as the breeze rushes through the tufts of hair sticking out from the slats of his helmet. Now it’s just him, his bike, the road, and the climb, all elements he knows well. His body is elastic, energetic, feet stomping on the pedals, legs taut, form compact as he configures his limbs for each moment, shifting positions in a clever tango with the wind.
Tadej Pogačar is alive, as alive as a cyclist can be, for he is riding his bike as hard and as fast as he can. In breaking away, Tadej is liberated, the burden of victory now lifted from his shoulders, and when he careens down the hill, there’s a joy in how he takes each turn. Hearing the cheers of the spectators, seeing the writing of the names of great cyclists past and present scratched into the road, Tadej is reminded once again why he’s devoted his life to this strange little human-powered machine.
Unlike Anna van der Breggen’s attack at the same point in the Women’s World Championship Road Race yesterday, Tadej Pogačar’s breakaway is suicidal. Van der Breggen’s break succeeded because the peloton chasing her had withered away, its pursuing teams much less cohesive than the ones tracking down Pogačar now. In her case, she was a strong rider fighting against a weak field, wheras Pogačar — while a strong rider in his own right — is fighting tooth and nail against a field that’s even stronger. It is not a matter of if he will be caught, but when, and he knows this, even if the Belgians do not. However, such a dilemma does not matter in the grand scheme of things, because unlike van der Breggen, Tadej is not breaking away to win.
He’s breaking away for Primož Roglič.
Interlude Two: Pog and Rog are Friends
When Tadej Pogačar joins the professional peloton in 2019, Primož Roglič has no reason whatsoever to be nice to him, but he is anyway. Slovenia is a small country, and it’s almost certain that Roglič’s been keeping tabs on the younger rider for a while. Back when Tadej was still in the minor leagues at Rog-Ljubljana, the two occasionally faced off in races on their home turf.
Regardless, Primož Roglič is far nicer to Tadej Pogačar than he is to anyone else in the professional peloton save for maybe his own teammates. The two are often seen in conversation — at starting lines, in the pack, even in breakaways. There are other Slovenians in the mix, of course — Jan Tratnik, Jan Polanc, Matej Mohorič, to name a few — but Tadej is special, and that’s made clear in every photo capturing the pair together.
Primož is well aware that Tadej is a legitimate threat to him. That much is made clear when the younger man finishes third at the Vuelta a España in 2019, the same year Roglič wins. In Stage 13 of that race, Roglič and Pogačar break away from the pack on the final climb and sit taking turns at the front chatting, braving the wind. One of them attacks every once in a while, but not for long and not seriously. It remains unclear whether Roglič — who was in the malliot rojo at the time — gave Pogačar the stage win, but the answer is likely yes.
When they reach the uphill finish, Tadej sprints for the win and Primož doesn’t really go with him, at least not full gas. In the post race interview, upon being asked if he let Pogačar beat him in the sprint, Roglič dodges the question, tersely replying: “We raced to the finish as fast as possible.” However, when asked if he’s starting to see Tadej Pogačar as a threat, Primož has much more to say, and he says it with a rare smile: “For sure, he shows he’s a really, really great rider, huh? Still, I like it a lot more that he wins rather than, for example, someone else. It was really a pleasure today to ride up the climb with him.”
Roglič lets Pogačar win the stage because Roglič is too far ahead in the general classification for such a thing to have any negative material effect on him. For Primož, it’s just one of many stages to win, but for Tadej, it’s his first grand tour, and a victory against the biggest name in Slovenian cycling does wonders for his morale and confidence. When Primož sees Tadej on the podium at the 2019 Vuelta, he quickly realizes that there will be no room for such gifts in the future. Tadej is breathing down his neck.
Regardless — and paradoxically — the two appear to grow much closer after this.
Both Tadej and Primož rode to win the 2020 Tour de France, and when they race in the one day classics together, they ride to win those too. They may be friends, but they are cyclists first, and when Primož lets Tadej break away in the World Championships Men’s Road Race, he assumes that Tadej is doing so because he plans to win.
Still, one wonders why Tadej is so special to Primož, why Primož treats the younger man so differently from anyone else in the peloton, why some of the few times Primož Roglič is caught on camera smiling, he’s smiling at Tadej Pogačar. Of course we can never know the true answer to this, but we can speculate.
Maybe he sees himself in Tadej — sees his own shyness and kindness, but also sees the fire in Tadej’s eyes, the talent evident in the way he rides, his strive for glory despite the setbacks of his youth and inexperience. Perhaps this empathy is why, when the two ride into Paris on the final day of the Tour, Roglič, despite his heartbreak, grips his handlebars with one hand and, with a big grin on his face, extends the other to Tadej. In a fashion too genuine to be premeditated, a smiling Pogačar rolls beside Roglič and wraps his arm around the other man’s shoulders. The two ride together in hushed conversation for a while, the camera following alongside them for the simple reason that it makes for good television. As for what’s been said between them, we’ll never know.
To Tadej, Primož is probably a little intimidating — he’s one of their nation’s biggest heroes, not to mention one of the greatest cyclists alive right now. It’s clear in the way that Primož looks at Tadej that Primož is fond of him, and its clear in the way that Tadej looks back that he’s happy just to be in Primož's presence, to be noticed by him.
Their friendship is made more complex because despite their status as competitors, Primož still has some degree of power over Tadej. He’s older and wiser, more accomplished; he has more clout. But Primož chooses to use that power with kindness. When Tadej describes Primož, he paints the picture of a mentor, someone who takes time to give him advice and encouragement. Yet despite their closeness, it’s clear that to Tadej, Primož is still someone he doesn’t quite understand, especially when they’re on the bike. In an unusually revealing interview with GCN, when asked about Roglič as a person and as a competitor Pogačar admits that they are close:
“You don’t know what he’s thinking when he’s racing…he’s a really hard one to beat, to race against. But I love racing against him…and off the bike he’s a good friend. He taught me, [gave me] some advices [sic] and things. He’s good to talk to and I enjoy being with him, both in the races and in training. We really get along great.”
But then there was the matter of the Tour. Tadej Pogačar had beaten his hero in what was supposed to be the race of Primož’s career, and the younger man admits to feeling conflicted about this victory. “Roglič,” Tadej says in the same interview, “is one of the best cyclists in the world. He’s a good friend, and I always cheered for him…Of course I would like him to win but then I beat him, and I was happy but also a bit…yeah, mixed feelings.”
As painful as the Tour is for Roglič (and as awkward as it is for Pogačar) it’s an important transition for them. The mentor is no longer the master and the protègè is no longer the apprentice. They’re equals now, the power that’s distanced them dissolves. What that means for the future of their friendship remains to be seen.
For now, though, with 40 kilometers left to go in the 2020 UCI World Championships Men’s Road Race, Tadej Pogačar has broken away. As his bike slices through the headwind, Tadej’s eyes remain focused on the long road ahead, each labored rotation of the wheels carrying him forward, feet spinning in circles, up and over, up and over…
It is worth reiterating once more that Tadej does not need to do this. He could win this race, but he chooses not to, and that’s not a choice he makes lightly. Pogačar’s not a lost cause like the seven breakaway riders at the beginning of the race, and he’s not a domestique like Nans Peters and Quentin Pacher. He’s a contender, a favorite, and he’s throwing away his chances to win the World Championships in the hopes that his friend and colleague will finally have his moment in the sun. He does not do this out of guilt — guilt is not a powerful enough emotion to make a hardened competitor like Tadej Pogačar give up on a chance for further glory. Tadej’s a bike racer, after all — it’s his job to win, and friendship sure as hell didn’t stop him from snatching the Tour out of Roglič’s hands, and that was a much bigger prize.
37 kilometers to go: Tadej careens down hairpin after hairpin, drags his bike low into each turn, knee hovering just above the asphalt as he tries to squeeze every last second out of this descent. It’s the best chance he’s got to widen the gap between him and the peloton, and the wider the gap gets, the easier it is for him to maintain it for as long as possible. He’s burning his candle at both ends, giving it everything he’s got, clutching the handlebars tightly, grinding every last bit of power out of his legs.
Pogačar hopes that the Belgians are spending one domestique after the other to try and get him back, hopes that the other teams are content to let them, to stay in the wheel, refusing to contribute. Most fervently, he hopes that Roglič is hanging in there the best he can, because Tadej is doing this just for him.
Tadej Pogačar’s breakaway, his giving up the World Championship for the sake of his teammate is an act of bravery. It is an act of perseverance in the face of imminent failure. Most of all, it is an act of profound love — the love of the protege who no longer needs the guidance of the master.
As the adrenaline of the chase courses through his veins, all Tadej Pogačar can do in this moment is ride as hard as he can and hope that the soreness in his legs, the burning in his lungs will pay off in the end.
Meanwhile, back in the peloton, Primož Roglič is tucked behind the wheels of the pursuing Belgians, threatening to cut at least one of them off. If Tadej is going to break away, it’s Roglič’s job now to make sure he succeeds. However, right now, he is all alone. The Slovenian domestiques have each completed their duties at earlier points in the race and, for the time being, can do no more. As the camera pans up to show the mass of the peloton, Mezgec and Polanc, the last hangers-on, are nowhere to be found. The Italian team seeks to overtake the Belgians, and Primož allows them to pass, rides in their slipstream, protected from the wind.
It’s a game of tug-of-war now, with time and with speed.
34 kilometers to go: Pogačar’s lead shrinks to six seconds. Tadej looks over his shoulder and sees the peloton wind its way around the corner. Not now, no way, he thinks, accelerating. Grabbing his bike computer like it’s a pair of aero-bars, he leans impossibly far forward, tucks himself as low as possible, trying to take back every last bit of resistance the wind throws at him. His is a battle with physics, and he’s winning it handily — the gap expands back to 13 seconds as Tadej enters the autodrome once more.
The bell tolls. It’s the final lap.
It’s not over, not by a long shot. Encouraged by the flatness of the racetrack, Tadej puts the hammer down, takes a look over his shoulders and smiles. He’s done ten kilometers on his own so far and despite six hours of racing, he feels pretty good. The boy measures his efforts, and as he rests his elbows on his handlebars to give his arms a reprieve, his advantage on the Belgians expands to 23 seconds.
Meanwhile, in the peloton, the flat of the racetrack allows Jan Polanc to recover and catch up to Roglič, much to the team leader’s relief. The pair pedal steadily behind the Italians, who lurk patiently as a row of royal blue in the shadow of the Belgians. At the rear of the bunch, Julian Alaphilippe drops back to have a lengthy conversation with his co-leader, Guillaume Martin, about what, we can only speculate. The attacks of the French and the Belgians have whittled the peloton down to a mere forty riders.
25 kilometers to go, only two more climbs remain. Everyone in the bunch is busy making their plans for the final chapter of this race — scheming, plotting, assembling. At the foot of the Mazzolano, the Spanish team decide enough is enough. They gather their numbers and move to the front in an attempt to close this down. The peloton splits neatly into two lines, one led by the Spanish, the other by the Belgians, Primož Roglič in between them.
The French team decides to disperse, one rider following the Belgians, one rider following the Spanish, and two riders quietly sneaking around the bunch on the lefthand side. Julian Alaphilippe sits in the middle, barking orders to the men on eather side of him. As the distance to the beginning of the climb ticks down at a blistering pace, Jan Polanc drops back again as Dutchman Tom Dumoulin slowly weaves his way up the righthand side.
25 kilometers to go: French domestique Valentin Madouas brings his road captain Guillaume Martin up through the ranks.
23 kilometers to go: Luis Leon Sanchez, the Spanish national champion, attempts to seize control of the peloton for his team. As they enter a small descent, he’s surprised when Belgian classics specialist Tim Wellens leaps out in front. Judging by the way Wellens is checking behind him, he’s surprised too. He looks at his teammates, who signal to him and Wellens sits up to wait. In the confusion, Spain’s attempt at control is foiled and the Belgians take the helm once again. The pace at this point can only be described as insane.
Meanwhile, Tadej Pogačar’s giving everything. With the penultimate climb ahead of him, he knows he only has a few kilometers left to solidify his lead. He hunches shoulders, grips the hoods of his brakes something fierce, bike rocking from side to side with the sheer momentum of his effort. At the foot of the Mazzolano, Tadej grinds into the climb, and for the first time, we see him clench his jaw in agony. As the gradient increases, Pogačar’s lead shrinks from 23 seconds to 11. The writing’s on the wall. Tadej shakes his head, but that doesn’t mean he’s finished. It’s not over til it’s over, and it’s not over yet.
He’s going to fight against gravity and time until the bitter end.
It’s all happening so fast now. Spaniard Mikel Landa jumps to the front, standing on the pedals, hands in the drops, the Belgians van Aert and van Avermaet behind him. The two teams battle for control of the climb, back and forth, spilling all over the road, weaving in and out of each other’s slipstreams. They know this race is coming back together, and both teams want to be the ones to set the pace when it does.
Despite thier brinkmanship, neither the Spanish nor the Belgians will be the ones to make the decisive move. That prize goes to someone completely unexpected, someone the commentators pronounced dead in the water over thirty kilometers ago. It is at this point where we meet one of this race’s most unlikely heroes, the subject of this story’s penultimate chapter.
21 kilometers to go. Pogačar’s only 10 seconds ahead and Tom Dumoulin has him in his sights. That’s enough for the Dutchman — that’s all he needs to propel him forward, all he needs to keep the momentum going through each agonizing pedalstroke. Midway up the Mazzolano, Dumoulin steels himself. He slips between the handful of preoccupied riders vying for the front in order to seize the best possible position. He counts down in his head, takes stock of his surroundings. It’s the perfect moment, the only moment. Tom Dumoulin grips his brake hoods, eases out of the saddle, grits his teeth, and goes.
He’s going to bring Tadej Pogačar back no matter what.