Form is an illusory concept. One can look at results, how someone is riding, how they are talking, and create an idea which may or may not be backed up by the person themselves. People talk about someone looking "in" or "out of" form easily, without complete access to the data, to how someone is actually feeling. Hence the clichéd question often asked of cyclists, "how are the legs?"
Take Tadej Pogačar. The UAE Team Emirates rider won his ninth race on Sunday by taking the final stage of Paris-Nice and the overall in the proccess, in just 13 race days, which ultimately means out of 15 opportunities to win something.
He won the Race to the Sun at the first time of asking, decisively beating the man people think will be his biggest rival at the Tour de France, Jonas Vingegaard, in the process. He triumphed over David Gaudu in second by 53 seconds, and Vingegaard in third by 1-39. It is the largest winning margin seen at Paris-Nice, a normally tight race, since Richie Porte won the 2013 edition by 55 seconds.
Pogačar won the points jersey and the young rider's jersey at the same time, and won three out of seven completed stages. Of the four that he didn't win, three went to sprinters and one was lost in the team time trial.
It is not just the results either, with the Slovenian just looking better than his rivals when he needed to be; when he attacked with 18.7km to go on Sunday, no one could match him, not even Gaudu, who looked almost on his level on Saturday's stage seven.
However, Pogačar does not think he is in as good a place in 2023 as he was last year. By the 12 March 2022, he had won the UAE Tour, Strade Bianche and was about to win Tirreno-Adriatico. This year, he has only won Jaén Paraiso Interior, the Ruta del Sol and now Paris-Nice. Only.
"Last year at this time I was really strong," he explained. "I was off altitude and this year without altitude in the first months of the season, so I still have a little bit to improve. Not too much."
One imagines that Vingegaard, Gaudu, and the rest, are fearful at the thought of an even stronger Pogačar. He refused to be drawn on the question of what this meant for the Tour de France, however, perhaps wisely.
"There are many favourites for the Tour of course," he said. "There is still a long way to go, many races in between. We will see.
"Last year was pretty much the same in Tirreno, so it’s nothing special, it’s just a race. This time I was better than him [Vingegaard], and we will see in the next races if he can perform and improve."
He is right, this time last year everyone was raving about the 24-year-old's form only for it not to hold up at the Tour, or at least, there was one better: Vingegaard.
While Pogačar sought to play down his achievements in his post-race press conference, one imagines it must be a psychological blow for Vingegaard to be beaten across this week.
Even if he is going well, at where he needs to be for this point in the season, it cannot be part of the plan to see his great rival heading up the road repeatedly.
"Last year, Jonas finished second or third in Tirreno, but Pogačar was way better than him, but now he finished third, he gave a good fight this week," his directeur sportif, Grischa Niermann, said on Sunday.
"Pogačar was clearly on a level better this week, but this doesn’t take away that we’re happy with where he [Vingegaard] is on his form curve. We go to every race to win, we go for victory, but we have to accept that Pogačar was better this week.
"Jonas also wants to win, but he also knows how many races Pogačar has won in the last years, especially in Spring. As soon as we knew he was coming to Paris-Nice, we knew it would be very very hard, we still came with ambition, but we knew that. Also we know that Jonas is not in his Tour shape."
While this week might have dampened Vingegaard's 2023 mood, it boosted Gaudu's.
The Frenchman, now 26, seemed to come into his own on the roads of southern France. Even if he could not hang onto Pogačar's wheel on Sunday, as he did on Saturday, it was a promising performance.
"I didn’t have the best legs in the world, certainly not the same legs I had yesterday," he said.
“Pogačar was stronger, I wasn’t on a good day, or at least as good a day as yesterday, but there are no regrets, from today or the whole week.”
“It’s a great result," he added. "It’s not every day that you get the chance to stand on the podium at Paris-Nice, or any other WorldTour stage race. If you’d offer us this at the start of the race, we’d have taken it.”
While the action turns to the Classics, which only Pogačar will take part in - Gaudu and Vingegaard will not race until Itzulia Basque Country in April - remember this trio as the calendar trundles on towards the Tour de France. Also remember that form is not permanent, but class is.
Paris-Nice marked the fifth ASO-organised stage race that Pogačar did not win at least three stages in, with only one bucking the trend: the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné.
Anyone who doubts his class just needs to think about the Slovenian's collection of yellow jersey bears, which now must number well over 30.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1