Tadej Pogačar lost. Just say that sentence out loud for a moment, roll it around your mouth, it seems strange. Tadej Pogačar did not win this Tour de France. After stage six, when the UAE Team Emirates rider climbed into yellow, it felt like it might be race over already.
Unlike the other two times the Slovenian stood on the podium in the maillot jaune, victory was not to be; instead, he found a worthy adversary in Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), who put time into him not once, not twice, but thrice. The Col du Granon, Hautacam and the Rocamadour time trial are all winning battle honours on Vingegaard's colour. Pogačar can be beaten.
The 23-year-old still seemed a bit in shock when answering questions at his podium press conference on Saturday evening. He might have won three stages and the white jersey at this Tour, but that's nothing to the two-time defending champion,
"For sure we can take a lot of things from this Tour," he explained. "A lot of mistakes have been made, a lot of good things have been done. It's a good opportunity for next year because we know we can improve."
Twice further he had to be prodded in order to speak more on the mistakes he made; perhaps this is because he is not used to erring, to not winning.
"A lot had been learned," Pogačar said. "A lot of small mistakes have been made from me and the team. Nothing huge, but for sure we can improve and try and get better on all the little things. I think we can do it.
"One mistake I did was on the Col du Granon, I was too motivated and I paid run the end, and that’s one mistake from myself. For sure have been more, I will analyse that after the Tour. For sure we also had a lot of bad luck with covid, before the tour and in the middle of the tour.
"We’re ending with four riders, there has been a lot of factors. We can go all day long, but it’s one thing that we need to analyse after the race."
It would be interesting to go on all day long, to really analyse how it was that the man who looked flawless last year could be made to look human this year. One big factor was the strength of Jumbo-Visma, who pulled together to perfection on stage 11 to force Pogačar to attack, which resulted in him cracking and losing time.
"This Tour there were almost no weaknesses in Jumbo," he said. "They lost two riders, but it didn’t seem like they had any less, maybe because we had four. They rode perfectly this tour, and because they rode perfectly they get to win.
"They showed they’re really strong. Every year is a bit different, a lot of things can happen in teams. We got a lot of bad luck, and you never know. We hope we can get better luck next year, and get better at all things, and match this year’s Jumbo."
Hoping for good luck does not seem like the best strategy, but that might be how Pogačar sees it, a flip of a coin, a bit of fortune, and this could have been his third victory. One thing that will not happen is a change in approach from the young Slovenian, that much is clear. He is unrepentant.
"The Col du Granon was a mistake but also give the circumstances I think reasonable," he argued. "Jumbo-Visa just outplayed me, they were really strong. It was just one stage. I enjoyed racing so much, and I don’t think I will change my style."
However, it was his attacking elan that caused his downfall, a bit like Icarus flying too close to the sun. It sounds like Pogačar is too stubborn to change his approach, but with a fully fit team, and more experience, his plan might work once again. It has before, of course.
"I think this year’s Tour is going to make me hungrier and more eager to win more," he said. "I like challenges in life, and I see a real challenger this year in Jonas, who I couldn’t beat. I'm really motivated to follow the next races, the next Tour, to be better, to be a better obstacle."
One potential upside to his defeat - a reminder, Tadej Pogačar lost - is that he might have gained a new legion of fans through showing his weakness. A rider who comes back from adversity is a better sell than someone who keeps winning. The young man knows this.
"One good thing when you lose, is that people want to see changes in careers," he said. "A lot of people want a different winner every year. It’s not too bad to change places through the years. For me it was still a really good tour, I just found a stronger opponent, and this gives me motivation to be better next year."
This year's race has not even finished yet, there is still life in it, it still has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but it basically has. Attention has already begun to turn to next year's edition, the 110th. It is a prospect to salivate over already: Vingegaard as the defending champion, against a returning, vengeful Pogačar. The latter is clearly motivated, ready for round three.
The Tour is dead. Long live the Tour.
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