Tour de France leader Tadej Pogačar has rejected the idea that he is professional cycling’s next Cannibal, despite his obvious predilection for winning as much as possible and leaving little for his rivals.
Pogačar (opens in new tab) has racked up eight stage wins in three editions of the Tour de France (opens in new tab) and took two in the last week. The UAE Team Emirates (opens in new tab) leader is currently the favorite to take his third Tour de France but downplayed comparison with the original Cannibal Eddy Merckx.
“I mean, who doesn’t want to always win?” Pogačar said. “But I don’t see myself as a cannibal.”
“I think yesterday [Sunday] was about setting the pace that all the riders like in the team. And at a certain point it looked like we were going to go for the stage but the guys in the front were too strong.
“Then we kept things under control until the finish line and we sprinted with 350 meters to go. Only Jonas Vingegaard was on my wheel and we gaped the others for three seconds, which is always good.”
While Vingegaard has been the only rider on terms with Pogačar at Châtel and at Planche des Belles Filles, Pogačar was once again non-committal it came to the subject of handling the Dane, currently second overall at 39 seconds, on the longer climbs in the Tour’s second week.
“We’ll have to see this week, we’ve had some climbs now but they weren’t crazy hard. Tomorrow is a kind of warm-up but the Col du Granon and Alpe d’Huez will be two really big stages.”
“We will see, but I’m pretty confident with my shape and I hope to have good legs this week.”
As for Alpe d’Huez itself, which he has never raced up before, Pogačar called it an iconic, hard climb.
“It’ll be a hot, hard stage,” he warned.
“It’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be one of the legendary stages of the race. It’ll be fun to watch on TV, but for us, not so much riding up there. I’m quite looking forward to it.”
While Pogačar has come through the latest round of COVID-19 tests with no problems, he recognized he’d have to be cautious about the upcoming heatwave in central and southern parts of France.
“It will be the same for everyone. You just need to keep your body cool enough, I don’t think anybody likes to ride in 40C for five hours, I don’t even think it’s healthy for us,” he suggested.
“It’s going to be a tough week, with extreme weather. I just hope we do everything correctly and we can stay cool enough to do a proper race.”
He brushed aside ideas that Vingegaard could be stronger in the warmer weather conditions, as the Dane suggested in a pre-race interview.
“I don’t know, we’ll have to wait for these 35 degrees. I’m not so bad in warm weather, I’ve been training in hot weather for many days before the Tour. We will see when the real test come.”
“It was very hot in the Tour of Slovenia and both times I did Alpe d’Huez in training it was 37 degrees. So I know what’s coming up next week and I’m not scared.”
‘It’s best if you’re positive you go home – it doesn’t matter if you have yellow’
Pogačar could stay in yellow all the way to Paris but he said he had mixed feelings about whether it would have been wiser to ‘pass’ it to another team to ease the pressure on himself, even if only for a few days. Revealing his natural ambition, Pogačar said he recognized the strategic wisdom of doing so, but neither he nor his teammates wanted to pass the jersey on.
“At one point yesterday we could have given it away if we’d wanted to but I think my teammates like the yellow jersey as much as I do. So it’s not something you just give away because everyone thinks that’s good. We’ve worked to get it all year.”
“Also you don’t know with this COVID-19 and stuff like that when you go home or not, so it’s not just the best thing to give it away and then you might never get it back.”
Pogačar recognized that apart from the usual challenges, one thing would put a definite stop on his current bid for the Tour yellow: a positive test for COVID-19. He believes that anyone with a significant viral load should go home, whoever they are.
“If you test positive, above the threshold of 33 points or whatever, that means you are really infectious and it’s not really good for your teammates or for the staff to be around,” he argued.
“The group is always in close contact with us, so I think it’s best if you’re positive you go home. It doesn’t matter if you have the yellow jersey or not, it’s not safe for others, it can affect everyone’s health, especially when we race every day in such tough conditions. If you have the virus, it’s not really healthy.”
Pogačar concluded his interview by paying tribute to long-standing Australian sports director Allan Peiper, who retired last season for personal medical reasons. Peiper was one of the key members of the UAE Team Emirates management and architects of his 2020 Tour success.
He wrote Pogačar a letter of appreciation prior to the Slovenian tackling the Arenberg cobbles, near Peiper’s home in Belgium.
“I really miss Allan, especially on Planche des Belles Filles. It was a special stage, because we have such nice memories with Allan from that day in 2020,” Pogačar said.
“We all miss him in the team, he was a great guy and great sports director and great mentor for all of us. We are young and sometimes we were confused about the race. He was the guy we looked up to.”