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On Pogacar, and Learning to Love Greatness

Plus other takeaways from a big week’s racing

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“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Arthur Schopenhauer wasn’t talking about sport when he wrote those words. It just feels like he was. Sports fans, and especially sports journalists, fetishise genius. It is the highlight reel, the image emblazoned on the mind, the athlete who empties the bar. We equate genius and excellence in sport, and so often they go together. Genius, though, is not the next tier from greatness; it is a different expression of skill.

Just as every great football/soccer team wants a George Best, a Diego Maradona, a Pele, they all also want a N’Golo Kante, a Carlos Dunga, a Lothar Matthaus. You need genius, sure, but you also need the guys who do the simple things brilliantly – the tough tackle, the simple pass, the gap-filling. Switching sports to the unmentionable cricket, the England men’s test team this week belatedly gave their wicketkeeping gloves to the most talented ‘keeper in the country. For too long Jos Buttler and Johnny Bairstow have been behind the stumps. Superb athletes and great fielders, they were electric to watch, diving all over the place and taking some genius catches. They weren’t as good as Ben Foakes – who hardly dives at all. His footwork is superior, his anticipation swifter, his hand movements earlier. To watch him is to see greatness as ordinary. You see the same thing in baseball – sure, your shortstop will make some exciting catches, but the best outfielders and first basemen rely on anticipation, footwork and technique and keep it simple.

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We heard about this from Simon Yates on Saturday after stage seven of Paris-Nice. He couldn’t, he said in essence, do anything about Primoz Roglic. The guy had a lead on him and simply wasn’t having to work as hard to go up the same mountain. He sat there in second gear, waited for his moment, and attacked. Yates would come back and win on Sunday, without taking the overall. You could have said the same thing about Tadej Pogacar, with the Tirenno-Adriatico queen stage coming later the same Saturday afternoon - and he was not remotely threatened on a sprinter’s final stage. On Saturday, though, both races were won by Slovenians who came into the day’s racing with a bit of a lead in general classification. Both saw attacks comfortably deflected. Both saw the race leaders wait for the moment they wanted, then quickly and decisively bend the stage, and the race, to their will. It wasn’t actually particularly exciting. It was inevitable, impressive, dominant… but not exciting.

That’s the thing about greatness. It doesn’t always thrill you. I’m going to turn again to Frankel, as I so often do. When he won his 2,000 Guineas we saw the equine equivalent of genius. Horses simply don’t go that far clear of the field and win that comfortably. Like all geniuses, hubris nearly brought him unstuck, as Jason Queally almost rode him too hard at Royal Ascot on his next start. That was the closest he came to losing in his whole career. After that, for two long, glorious seasons, we saw genius replaced with greatness. Horse and jockey waited for the right moment, then went, and never came back to the pack. Just like Pogacar on Saturday. Just like Pogacar the Saturday before, too.

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As a horse racing fan, you learn to love competitive races. Betting on a big-field handicap is thrilling. Finding the horse nobody else is backing against the favourite and being right is a thrill. The best horses don’t give us the most exciting races. They give us processions. As racing fans, Frankel taught us another way to watch – it wasn’t about gambling, or close finishes, it was about seeing something special. Something that doesn’t come along too often. There were days at Doncaster and Newmarket and Newbury when there were only a few of us watching him in the paddock, and those are the days I remember. Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods… the world watched their greatness. But in niche sports, we aren’t just watching, we are a part of it. Sharing a rare experience.

Tadej Pogacar is going to be around at the top of this sport for a very long time, we hope. To keep selling the races, we’ll talk up his opponents. We’ll try and find weaknesses. Naysayers like yours truly will point out that he’s had great luck with avoiding injury and illness. We’ll worry about what his dominance means for fantasy sports. We’ll fret as more and more top names decide to race the Giro and skip the Tour. We’ll get annoyed if he somehow doesn’t win Milan-Sanremo or the Ronde.

We may even call it boring. That’s all fine. Just remember that you can watch your chosen sport for a very long time without seeing true greatness. Even if it is more boring than genius, it is worth the effort to appreciate it when it comes along.

We are all witnesses.

If we can’t capture what Pogacar did this week with Schopenhauer’s quotation, who should we turn to? Well, let’s go back to the days of Frankel. Bruce Millington, then a feature writer for the Racing Post, which he would later edit, was at Ascot when the superstar colt won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. He overheard, he claims, a man talking to his son. “Look at that horse, son. He’s the greatest racehorse you’ll ever see.” “But dad,” the boy protested “I’m only eight, I’m going to see hundreds more horses.” As Millington pointed out, both father and son were correct.

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So, we saw greatness and dominance in both GC non-contests last week. A few other things that caught my eye:

The men’s sprinting field is more confused than ever. Fabio Jakobsen looks like being the fastest man in the peloton this year, but he only managed to contest one stage of Paris-Nice (he won it, with a very nifty move from his own train to Jumbo’s). Elsewhere, we saw Mads Pederson doing a convincing , Kristoff impression, Caleb Ewan and Tim Merlier asking not to be forgotten and Phil Bauhaus winning an utterly chaotic final sprint on Sunday. Nobody won twice. Jasper Philipsen, so impressive earlier this year didn’t win at all, neither did Cav or Groany or several other legitimately fast guys. I still don’t understand the pecking order below Jakobsen, but I’m enjoying watching.

Among the fast women meanwhile, we’ve got an emerging battle for sprint dominance. Lorena Wiebes looking won handily, twice, and is very impressive indeed, but Lotte Kopecky (who, it turns out, is bloody amazing on climbs, too) and Elisa Balsamo aren’t far away. Bunch finishes are less common in women’s cycling but they are going to be just as much fun when they do happen.

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Apart from Pog, Rog , Lorena and Fabio, who impressed this week? You probably have your own list, but I saw lots to like from Simon Yates, Victor Lafay, Mathieu Burgadeau, Andreas Leknessund, Lucie Jounier and Olav Kooij. Let’s see what they can build on that. Meanwhile, we all knew that Ineos would miss a healthy Egan Bernal dreadfully but I would put them among the biggest losers of the week. It isn’t obvious to me that they have a Plan B from a GC perspective on this week’s showing.

If you’re hoping to ride Milan Sanremo or play a part in the cobbled classics, I hope you were in Italy this week. If you were in France, I hope you took your vitamin C. Illness in the peloton is hardly a surprise, especially in March and especially in the chillier races, but the field was hit very hard this year. It seems that, globally, we’re seeing a big and inevitable rise in non-Covid bugs this year and that’s going to be a theme for the cycling season. Still, expect to see a few big names coming up empty when you might otherwise expect big performances in coming weeks. 95 of 154 riders didn’t finish Paris-Nice and whilst some of that was tactical (why would a sprinter take on the last two stages) and some was doubtless an abundance of caution, this was a sickly field.

There’s always a bit of a feeling of after the Lord Mayor’s show between the end of Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. We’ve been spoiled rotten for cycling over the last few days. Still, the racing coming up looks fun. The men’s Nokere Koerse has seen a few riders drop from the startlist but it is always entertaining riding, and the women’s field is much stronger and should give us another round of Lotte vs Lorena. Also on Wedneday, Miano-Torino is the best chance for the climbers to get involved this week. I’m looking forward to Merlier vs Jakobsen (vs the field, I guess) in Koksijde on Friday. I can’t claim to be particularly excited about the men’s version of Drenthe but I’m sure I’ll watch, and the early indications are that we’ll have another good field for the always-watchable Denain. It could be far worse – and it is only a few days until the year’s first monument!

As we all draw breath after Tirenno-Adriatico, Paris-Nice et al, what are you left pondering?