Tadej Pogačar is the best bike rider in the world. He sits atop the UCI's points table, has won the most races of any rider this year, the second year in a row that he has won the most, although this year it is outright.
The Slovenian can win across almost every terrain and type of race, even hinting that he wants to try his hand at gravel next year. Remember when he turned up at the Tour of Flanders back in April and almost won on his first attempt? He managed to finish fourth in a two-up sprint, but he will be back. Aside from races for pure sprinters, there is seemingly no limit to what he could aim for, from Milan-San Remo to Paris-Roubaix via the the World Championships.
His win at Il Lombardia last Sunday capped an almost-perfect season; he became the first man to win the Italian Monument on both of his two appearances. The UAE Team Emirates rider won more WorldTour races than Movistar, Lotto Soudal, EF Education-EasyPost, AG2R Citroën, Astana-Qazaqstan and Cofidis combined.
And yet, something seems not right in the world of Pogačar. For the first time, he failed to win the Tour de France. This might seem like a ludicrously high bar, but he is a ludicrous rider. Before 2022, the 24-year-old had won two from two.
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, 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. It was proof that Pogačar can be beaten.
He still won three stages, including two back-to-back in Longwy and on the Planche des Belles Filles, which led everyone to think that a third victory was inevitable. In fact, he has won three stages at every Grand Tour he has been to, a record that seems ridiculous. If this continues, he only needs to ride nine more Tours de France - eminently possible, he is only 24, remember - and he would hold the record for most Tour stage wins.
Pogačar did not win the Tour, but he will be back. For those with a glancing interest in the sport of cycling, perhaps his defeat in France told them that he was a spent force, despite him being far from it. In fact, his battling performances won him legions of new fans, and set up a mouth-watering clash in the future.
"I think this year’s Tour is going to make me hungrier and more eager to win more," he said in the press conference that followed his second place. "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."
However, this talk of an off year seems madness when he has won more races than anyone else, and more races than he has ever done before in one season. The problem is that he has already set himself up as the best, so how do you follow perfection? 2021 saw Pogačar win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de France and Il Lombardia, one of the few times this rare triple has ever been achieved.
It is not just his voracious appetite for winning that makes him stand out as the best rider, it is his ability across different kinds of race. There are few riders ever who could compete at a hilly Monument like Lombardia, challenge at the Tour, and also win Strade Bianche in such a dominant manner.
The other riders who lay a claim to the best rider in the world crown - Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel - have similar comprehensive skills, but neither are quite at Pogačar's level. The Slovenian is simply the favourite in every race. His consistency throughout the year is also remarkable, with his first win coming in February, his last in October. He does not stop.
Humans have a tendency towards recency bias, which clouds any kind of holistic judgement. Despite Pogačar being dominant, the rise of Remco in 2022 has given people pause for thought on who is the best.
Sure, the Belgian won his first Grand Tour at the Vuelta a España, and then went on to produce a dazzling display at the World Championships, two races Pogačar is yet to win, but probably will. Add his Liège victory in, and one could say it has been Evenepoel's year.
He might grow to be on the same level as Pogačar, but that is not now. Evenepoel's recent form might lead you to believe he is the best in the world, but he is yet to display the consistency of his Slovenian rival, across years at the top.
How long this will continue, is anyone's guess, but Pogačar will not outstay his welcome, so let us enjoy his time as the sport's dominant rider while it lasts.
In a recently published, illuminating interview with CyclingTips, he said: “I got this opportunity to be one of the best cyclists in the world. Even if it’s just for one year, and now it’s already the third, fourth, year that I’m really doing good. If it happens that my shape will go down in two years, I will not mind. I understand that you cannot be the best anymore and you need to accept that.
“I already have this in my mind and I will be ready when it comes to that. So I will just enjoy racing now, and when I’m not that good anymore I will also enjoy racing or something else.”
This is what makes him the best, the joy with which he races. His 16 wins this year did not allow him to become complacent, it drives him onto more. 2023 will once more see him try and leap over the very high bar that he has set for himself, but if there is anyone that can, it is Pogačar. Long may he reign.
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