Andrew got Pogačar Week started in fine form by taking stock of the fan experience in the early days of this brave new era that the young Slovenian Tour de France champion is suddenly stamping his authority all over. Tadej the Great is being fitted for every crown imaginable right now after his commanding performance in Tirreno-Adriatico, a race which is only won by the sport’s greatest champions, like Simon Yates, Nairo Quintana, Greg Van Avermaet... you get my point.
All passive-aggressive kidding aside, Pogačar is undoubtedly manipulating one very important part of cycling in rather extreme ways — the 2022 FSA Directeur Sportif Men’s competition. Pogs is on a whopping 422 teams and is easily the top scorer right now — the situation is so extreme that as of today, every single team ranked in the top 77 of the men’s competition has Pogačar as their lodestar. We have had exactly 30 race days, which means there are... 342 left to go. So if you want to pump the brakes on this phenomenon, OK. But the eye test is scary. Especially for the 437 teams who passed on the Slovenian Genius. And to those 437 teams — this post is for you.
[Sitting bravely in 78th place is BeNNfica, the highest-ranked team to take a pass on Pog. BeNNfica went all lower-priced and so far has hit the jackpot. With nobody costing more than 14 points, they have 13 riders scoring more than 100 points, led by Guillaume Martin and Pello Bilbao north of 400, and Fabio Jakobsen at 300. At 3260 points, BeNNfica is 700 points out of the overall lead, which isn’t a ton, but still represents a mountain to climb.]
Can you survive without Pogačar? That is the question. And I think the answer is yes, but it won’t be easy. Let’s start with the present. You can easily put together a non-Pog team of everyone who has gotten off to a hot start, possibly with Wout Van Aert as the double-restricted guy and definitely with Jonas Vingegaard as your single-restricted guy, and assemble a team that is currently winning the competition. You have about as good a chance of assembling an NCAA basketball tournament bracket that hits on 100% of the games. And winning the competition on March 14 is not the point. But this alone is a sign that all hope, however faint, is not lost.
What really matters is where this is going. Pogačar’s 1,236 points is 198 more than he had at this point last year — reflecting an increase in points at Strade (+150) and UAE Tour (+50). But assuming he repeats his usual schedule (and check me on this if he isn’t, apart from the spring classics), well, his major classics wins from 2021 will be hard to repeat, and he has nowhere to go but down at the two biggest points chaches (Liege and Lombardia), plus the Olympics coming off the calendar. Sure, he’s showing up at MSR and Flanders, so maybe you can add back some points there, but apart from cleaning up his spring efforts and hoping to repeat his glorious summer, do we really think Pogs is going to significantly increase his totals?
[A related, if uncomfortable, question is, should Pogačar have been priced higher? Sure, that’s easy to say now, and some of you guys said so once the prices went out. I don’t have huge regrets (yet). First, don’t look at women’s prices as a reference. Annemiek van Vleuten is worth 52 points for scoring similarly to Pogs, but she does that in a field that has about 60% fewer race days — meaning she takes the same size slice of a much smaller pie. Also the women’s game requires you to find 15 riders with your 150 points, so it’s a completely different calculation. And like I said above, he was maxed out on points last summer with the extra Olympics haul too, so the case for him being priced higher is not that he’s about to massively expand his program; it’s that he’s the safest bet around to maintain his extremely high level. The guy just keeps delivering.]
Personally, my bet is that Pogs ends the season scoring pretty close to where he was in 2021. Flanders means he would have a really hard time doing the Itzulia Basque Country Tour, and I suspect he’s already said no to that. By the time he gets to the Tour, I suspect he will be close to level with his 2021 progress. [But he’s doing the Vuelta... insert scary noises. Still, there has to be a price to pay somewhere for all this effort.] If I am right, then the big case for not having him on your team is because you prefer to make smaller bets on a handful of other top riders, hinging largely on Vingegaard. Roglič tends to pay his bills, as does Van Aert, but they seem pretty likely to do just that, not reach some new height, and at a price just two points below Pogs.
I would describe a viable not-Pogs strategy as follows. Vingegaard, at 18 points (and on 111 teams), looks like a risky but not insane choice for building around, given his performance so far: second only to Pogs with 560 points. Less than half of what Pogačar has, but there are all sorts of guesses as to where this is going. Last year at this point the Dane had a mere 50 points, so he’s already padded his totals to date and should be able to hang on to a lot of what he scored last year. As part of the Jumbo Juggernaut, his second overall at the Tour could be supplanted by Roglič, and if there is enough separation between the teammates then Vingegaard might have to sacrifice his placing and his points. But a more likely scenario is that they both chase Pogs as hard as they can all the way to Paris. With one last shot at the white jersey, Vingegaard could score big again. My guess is that he ends up in the 2700-point range, assuming he levels up all season and contests more secondary races, as he has shown to this point.
That plus a 12-pointer (or cheaper) who scores 1500 puts the non-Pogs owner within range of where they would be if they had Pogs. There are lots of candidates for this role, although one, Juan Ayuso, is on almost as many teams, so to catch the 422 Pogs teams you will need him and another high-value high-scorer. And that, of course, is the key to the whole competition. High scorers are nice, but not always good value. High value guys who score 150 points on a 1-point investment are nice, but don’t win the competition by themselves.
[A brief aside on FSA DS strategy... High scorers are easy to spot: anything over 1000 is making a big impact on your team. So what is high value? Roughly speaking, the pricing of riders comes down to somewhere between 75 and 100 points per point spent. For example, riders costing 20 points this year scored from 1500-1700 last year, with a mean of 1600, i.e. if they match their performance they will deliver 80 points scored per point invested. The top guys were well above 100 points scored in 2021/spent in 2022, but there were only three of them, and each one may find that value hard to repeat. Or else the top prices will look much different next year. Anyway, riders in the teens had the lowest values scored ‘21/spent ‘22, but they are important because you can afford a few of them and hope for a breakout. Lower priced riders had >100 scored ‘21/spent ‘22 except for the 1-pointers, but they are more like lottery tickets for the most part.]
Anyway, if Vingegaard got to 2700, that would be 150 points scored/spent, a high value and a high total. If you can find two or three of those from the restricted area, guys who you can’t have (more than one of) if you picked Pogačar, then you are in the hunt. Another point for this strategy is that Pogs is one guy, and you’ve put a lot of eggs in that basket. One ill-timed knock of injury or illness — god forbid, but that’s cycling — and 422 teams are suddenly in deep trouble. Like any investment strategy, it’s theoretically safer to spread your risk around to multiple places.
Unless there is one investment that just blows the rest of them out of the water, and then you will wish you got in on that. That’s Pogačar so far this season.
On the women’s side, I will just put up a brief note that this chalky I-told-you-so-ness that has engulfed the men’s race is not even slightly a thing on the women’s side right now, further proof that if you are to play this game and have a shot at not being miserable, you should enter teams in both competitions. I, of all people, can attest to this, as I now lie third overall in the women’s comp, and 23rd in combined, because I did what I always do — I used the random team generator to pack out a roster, then swapped a few riders out for a few others I like for some random reason, and presto! Che Cazzo Ragazze are stomping it, losing out on the top spot solely Team Wheeling and Dealing added Lotte Kopecky where I opted for Chiara Consonni, mostly because we thought of Chiara as a possible girl’s name back in our pre-parenting years (before it got taken many times over in the greater Seattle area). I also spent 20 points on Marta Cavalli, which has yet to pay off, but it’s early.
Anyway, the point isn’t that I am good at this. The point is that the women’s FSA DS is off to a rather rollicking start. Annemiek van Vleuten is not, repeat NOT, running away with the season already — she’s second to Lorena Wiebes by 40 points — and of the five 30+ pointers, only Unstoppable Annemiek has had a major impact on the season at all. Kopecky and Emma Norsgaard Jørgensen are the only 28-pointers near the top of the rankings, and from there the standings are dotted with high- and low-cost riders, including cyclocrossers-on-the-cheap Shirin van Anrooij and Silvia Persico, squeezing a few spring results out of their winter form. [Technically it’s not even spring yet.]
I don’t have much to add except that it’s been incredibly fun so far. And things are about to hit the big time over the next six weeks, including FIVE monument-level races. People complain that there is no women’s Milano Sanremo, which they should complain about maybe, but there is the Trofeo Alfredo Binda coming Sunday, a race of equal prominence. Then it’s onto the Cobbles and the Ardennes, where you have all the usual suspects, plus an up-ranking of Amstel Gold to monument levels — for the simple reason that AGR kicked off the women’s comp in 2001, albeit with a long break before 2017 — but still, that’s better than LBL can say, and a full 20 years before ASO begrudgingly had a Paris-Roubaix edition for the ladies. By the end of this run, van Vleuten and Demi Vollering may have depressed the competition again, but stay tuned.
One final note: for the 69 teams that bought low on Marc Hirschi and his newly shaved... uh, hip bone, apparently he is taking the start in the Per Sempre Alfredo race this coming weekend. The darkest hour is just before the dawn!