From the loneliness of the high altitude training camp to the roar of the local crowd. Tadej Pogačar has been cloistered in Livigno for the past few weeks preparing for the Tour de France, but he will now give an update on his form on familiar roads at the Tour of Slovenia.
The five-day Tour of Slovenia kicks off in Nova Gorica on Wednesday, with Pogačar the defending champion and the main attraction. The main event in July should, as in 2020, be a Slovenian derby with Primoz Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), but in this curtain-raiser only Pogačar takes center stage.
The 23-year-old has not raced since finishing 12th at the Fleche Wallonne in April. As in 2021, he chose not to prepare for the Tour at the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, preferring to take advantage of the rare opportunity to race in his native country.
Twelve months ago, Pogačar charted a roughly similar course. He spent six-and-a-half weeks away from the race after winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but he took the lead in Slovenia, dominating stage two in Celje to place a big down payment on the overall overall victory.
This time around the layout of the calendar – and his enforced absence from Liège-Bastogne-Liège – means Pogačar has had a full eight weeks away from the race, but the slightly extended break could serve him well. His busy spring schedule included Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, after all, when he is also expected to race the Vuelta a España after the Tour.
“It’s been a while since I last pinned a race number, so I’m looking forward and excited to get back to it,” Pogačar said.
“We trained at altitude in Livigno and the atmosphere was excellent in the team. I feel pretty good in training, but it’s always difficult to know exactly how you’re doing before racing.
Pogačar took part in the Tour of Slovenia for the first time in his first year out of the junior ranks in 2017 and the race gave him his first chance to test himself against the WorldTour professionals. He would hint at his potential with a secure fifth place behind his future team-mate Rafal Majka.
A year later, Pogačar improved to fourth overall in a race won by Roglič, who would go on to battle for a Tour de France podium spot a month later. As a new professional in 2019, he once again had to settle for fourth place, this time behind UAE Team Emirates mate Diego Ulissi.
Pogačar’s position was quite different when the Tour of Slovenia returned to the calendar in 2021 after a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The race doubled as a public throwback to his victory in the previous year’s locked Tour de France and a statement of intent ahead of his title defense.
For this fifth participation in the Tour of Slovenia, Pogačar sets off with bib number one and supported by the strongest team in the race. Already a winner of seven races this season, he is the big favorite to add to that tally this week. In many ways, his performances will be measured not by the rest of the Slovenian field, but by what absentees Roglič and Jumbo-Visma managed at the Dauphiné last week.
The manner in which Roglič took the overall victory, which edged team-mate Jonas Vingaard, raised expectations that Pogačar could be pushed a bit closer in July than he was in the motorcade. last year.
Then again, in the spring, when Pogačar was busy winning the Strade Bianche and spreading panic in the Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders peloton, he was compared to Eddy Merckx rather than his compatriot. At times he seemed to operate in a separate race. And, despite the presence of men like Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) and Majka, that’s also the expectation in Slovenia this week.
Pogačar will be surrounded in Slovenia by Majka, Mikkel Bjerg, Jan Polanc, Rui Oliveira, Vegard Stake Laengen and sprinter Pascal Ackermann. WorldTour opposition will be provided by the Bahrain Victorious team of Mohorič and Jan Tratnik, a BikeExchange-Jayco team which includes Matteo Sobrero and Lucas Hamilton, and an Astana-Qazaqstan selection with Fabio Felline.
With four of the five stage features mounted in the final, the terrain also looks most favorable for Pogačar. On the opening day, the category 2 climb of Radzdrto is followed by a 15 km plateau to the finish in Rogaska Slatina. Stage 3 includes the Category 2 climb of Svetina, then the steep 2km course to the finish in Celje, where Pogačar won a year ago. The penultimate stage ends at the top of the difficult Velika Planina, while the grand finale in Novo Mesto includes the short and sharp climb of Trska Gora in the break-in.
A few days ago, when the race organization released a statement proudly outlining the expected increased international presence in the press room this year, it was hard not to think of the Nissan Classic from the 1980s. , a bike race in Ireland in early October would not have attracted attention, but the presence of world number one Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche guaranteed both a huge crowd on the side of the road and the attention of the press. international. A regular visitor was The Team correspondent Jean-Marie Leblanc, soon to be appointed director of the Tour de France.
Pogačar will receive similar attention, from the press and the public, this week in Slovenia. Indeed, just as the Nissan Classic regularly visited Kelly’s Carrick-on-Suir stronghold, the 2022 Tour of Slovenia makes a point of passing through Pogačar’s hometown of Komenda on Saturday.
This stage, the hardest of the race, ends with a category 1 summit finish in Velika Planina (7.7km at 7.9%). This is precisely the kind of terrain where a defending Tour champion might be tempted to set a milestone before his big meeting.
“Obviously I know the roads and the climbs pretty well, and I can’t wait to see my friends and family cheering for the race,” Pogačar said. “The course is tough and there will be strong rivals, but hopefully we can get some good results along the way and enjoy a great week of racing.”