Last year’s Tour de France was a huge ripoff. Coming off the heels of 2020’s dramatic reversal of fortune, we were hoping for a true boxing-style rematch between the two Slovenian stars of the grand tour scene, Jumbo Visma’s Primož Roglič and UAE’s Tadej Pogačar. Coming into the race we had zero idea of who would win — Egan Bernal beat a weak field in 2019 and came to his title defense lacking form from a back problem — but after a couple weeks of them riding neck and neck Pogs suddenly cracked Rogs in the final time trial to snatch yellow away from his countryman in 2020, and maybe a new, exotic rivalry was born? It was also 2020, more precisely September of 2020, and nothing was exactly normal, so we (OK, maybe just I) decided we needed another match before drawing too many conclusions.
Then Roglič crashed out of the 2021 Tour and Pogačar became the youngest rider ever to win two Tours, bossing the race just about all the way to Paris like he had no peer. And he hasn’t really had peers since then, winning classics and short stage races seemingly at will, even taking on the Cobbles Warriors on their home surface with impressive results. Roglič, meanwhile, suffered from a knee ailment which at times made him easy to forget. Pogačar will now start the 2022 Tour, assuming all goes well for the next few weeks, as the presumed winner in waiting. Betting odds have him at -150 to win, meaning he’s significantly more likely to do so than the entire rest of the field combined.
Is it over before it starts? Not at all. Let’s run through the various ways to assess the relative statuses of the two Slovenian Supermen.
What the Results Say
Both riders have extremely impressive curricula vitae. Roglič is nearly nine years older, so his results go back a bit further than Pogs, but as a late starter he was fairly anonymous until 2016, when he won a Giro stage and registered some other high finishes, all in time trials. Starting with a Tour stage win in 2017 on a day featuring the Galibier, Roglič became a top stage racer and landed on a few podiums, setting him up to win races like Romandie and Basque Country while taking fourth at the 2018 Tour. His next step was a Vuelta title in 2019, becoming the first Slovenian to win a grand tour, and after two more of those he now trails only Roberto* Heras*** in all time Vuelta wins.
Rogla’s Tour legacy includes that fourth and the second place in 2020, where he also won a stage and led for 11 days, but that’s it. While we were gnashing our teeth over his Tour profile, he also slipped in an LBL win and an Olympic gold medal in the ITT. This is a massive legacy for a guy on a five-year run of quality, and while his 2022 season has been fitful, he just wrapped up a solid Dauphiné victory this past weekend.
Pogačar, of course, has the two Tour victories, the first of which happened less than two years after his final U23 appearance. Strange as it sounds, it was in front of an American audience that 20-year-old Pogs burst fully onto the scene in 2019, at the Tour of California, where he won the overall and the key mountain stage against a pretty good, if not entirely committed, field of World Tour pros. He then was able to hang on to the podium in the Vuelta, third overall in his first grand tour, which scuppered any plans UAE might have had to bring him along more slowly. Well, that and Covid maybe? Whatever the thinking was, he was at the start of the delayed 2020 Grand Boucle at the age of 21, and proceeded to swap lunge-for-the-line mountain stage victories with Roglič (plus some other shuffling about) until the fateful Planche des Belles Filles time trial that flipped a 57” deficit into an historic 59” win.
Last year he pocketed the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and L-B-L en route to his second Tour win, plus Lombardia and the bronze medal in the Olympic Road Race. This year he doubled up on the UAE Tour, out of obligation to his sponsor no doubt, and Tirreno again, before challenging the Cobbles Guys and bagging Strade Bianche along the way. We might have had more to say but for his schedule change to go home with his grieving partner, Women’s World Tour rider Urška Žigart, on the eve of the Ardennes classics.
Both riders have a lot to be proud of, so how do we compare them? Head-to-head we have but two important data points: the unforgettable 2020 Tour and the 2021 Tour of the Basque Country, won by Roglič. That’s it. Or maybe you’d throw in the 2019 Vuelta, also won by Roglič, though Pogačar is much stronger now. The point is, when you say you think Pogs >>> Rogs, you’re really just talking about that one day at the end of the COVID-year Tour.
At least where results are concerned.
What the Data Says
Wait, you are looking at results? OK boomer. When you are ready to join the 21st century and really analyze cycling, come on over to Data World.
Ah yes, the numbers. Background: I love sports metrics almost as much as I love telling people that looking up sports metrics and understanding what they mean does not actually involve doing math. [Someone did the math already, and it was pretty much just simple multiplication and division.]
The key to a good metric is thinking creatively about what you can measure that will actually answer the question you want answered — whether the person/team I am rooting for will win the thing I am rooting for them to win. In baseball, for example, home runs are good at telling you who does that one thing that even the most casual fan can identify as something that helps you win, but until you go looking for all the other ways people win, or how to squander the home run’s value added by doing any of several other things badly, you haven’t learned anything about who will win. I was a Red Sox fan in the 1970s. They hit a lot of home runs and... well...let’s move along.
Cycling’s leading metric for winning the Tour de France is phrased as watts produced per kilogram of body weight. It’s a blunt tool, and you can bet that the teams have far more sophisticated information that they keep to themselves — endurance athletes’ bodily performance information is a bit more personal than something about catching a baseball. But for two decades now, since Johan Bruyneel started authorizing books that made him look smart (sigh), we have been calling a w/Kg value of >6 as a pretty good sign that you can win the Tour de France. Provided you can sustain that output for a while.
The Kg part is simple: try to weigh less. But in doing so, retain all of your wattage. I’m not aware of riders publishing their weight fluctuations, so while that’s good to know, it’s not out there to tinker with. No matter, though: there seems to be plenty of wattage and w/Kg numbers around — again, someone has already done the work for us. I don’t know exactly what to say about the number 6, I suspect it originated with Michele Ferrari? Anyway, it was good back then during the doping days, and now it seems like the EPO boost (hopefully) went away only to be replaced by better training. Hopefully.
When I call w/Kg a blunt tool, it’s because there isn’t a single measurement that you would rely on, given the variations in efforts. Logically, the wattage a person can sustain will be higher for a short time and then level off over a longer period, so what you really need is a range of measurements to answer the question, who exactly is the strongest? This results in plotting points across a performance curve — w/Kg versus time — to see who is at the top level.
Compared 2018-2021 Tour de France best performances. 2020 and 2021 are so much better than 2018 and 2019. TDF 2020 might be the best in W/KG sense since 2009. Pinot in 2019 had a couple of good efforts that would be great also in the Pogačar era. Data: @NaichacaCycling pic.twitter.com/VreD5gWvBl— Cycling Graphs (@CyclingGraphs) November 6, 2021
That’s a lot of numbers! And may be a bit hard to see, but the yellow represents 2021 and all of the really amazing points belong to Pogačar. There’s a 6.42 w/Kg for about 27 minutes; a 6.18 for about 35 minutes, and 5.96 for 49 minutes. The red is 2020 and mostly shows Pogs and Rogs matching each other. So we don’t have much to really help us with this comparison.
More numbers though:
Primož Roglič showing good w/kg today on Vaujany (4.4km, 9.32%) after a pretty difficult day. Tomorrow if Roglič goes full-gas on Plateau de Salaison (11.4km, 8.9%) he should produce his best 30-35min watts.— Cycling Graphs (@CyclingGraphs) June 11, 2022
Data: @NaichacaCycling pic.twitter.com/gkgEoZk8JK
This is a graph of various Roglič performances with one fresh one added from last week, the Vaujany climb following the Croix de Fer and Galibier climbs, where Rogs put up an impressive 6.81 for about 13 minutes. Not apples to apples, but a sign that he’s just about on his curve for top outputs, even with a month to go before the Tour. There is also a number from the Col de Turini from Paris-Nice earlier this season, a 40-minute effort at just over 6 w/Kg. Again, that early in the season seems like a good sign.
And so, the numbers tell us... uh, I don’t know. More or less what the results told us already? That the safe pick is Pogačar but we don’t have nearly enough information to rule anything out. And therein lies the problem with data. Compared to baseball, a sport that involves endless repeated actions to the point where the noise gets blocked out, cycling data like w/Kg is relative to any number of factors which lessen its predictive value, and comes in way too few data points to say all that much. Cycling is quirky, and even the teams, with all their inside info, can’t really say who will have the legs on a certain day.
What the Parcours Says
I won’t go into a lengthy discourse on the entire Tour de France map, for one reason: they’re both really great at everything in the mass start events, so it doesn’t matter a ton what the course looks like, assuming it’s a standard, balanced Tour de France course, which I guess you could say it is. A few things I can think of:
- Does Pogačar just really love the Planche des Belles Filles climb? Because that’s happening at the end of the first week, which explains why Rogs is not waiting too long to ramp up his form. [Not that people really do that anymore.]
- Surely the flat ITT kms favor Roglič? His ITT loss to Pogs was iconic, but it was also a hill climb, whereas Rogs is the Olympic champion on more typical (rolling to flat) courses, where he either wins or finishes just behind the specialists.
- I’m curious whether people think one is a better descender than the other, though even there I can’t see a lot points where that could be a difference maker.
Bottom line, the course doesn’t tip the advantage in either direction much if at all. But 2020 definitely did nullify Roglič’s one identifiable advantage, so compared to that, he probably likes this course.
What the Teams Say
This too will be short. Both riders have excellent teams, probably the two strongest outfits in the Tour (along with INEOS). Like the parcours, I’m not sure the team lineup tips the race toward either rider... though perhaps Roglič has a slight advantage.
UAE will feature a support team of Marc Hirschi, Brandon McNulty, Rafal Majka, George Bennett, and probably Marc Soler. Jumbo-Visma can count on Wout Van Aert, Jonas Vingegaard, Christophe Laporte, Rohan Dennis, Sepp Kuss and maybe Steven Kruijswijk. [Neither team has been finalized.]
I’d say the teams are different, even if they may deliver about the same results. Jumbo is a more seasoned squad, having been together in some sense much longer. If you look at the 2020 startlist, Jumbo’s full lineup is nearly identical to what we will see next month, while UAE’s only featured Pogs and Vegard Stake Laengen (assuming he makes this year’s cut) from two years ago. Teams that are thrown together might be at a slight disadvantage compared to teams that have operated as a unit for years. But in the end, the strongest guy will probably win regardless.
The only other wrinkle is Vingegaard, whose own power numbers suggest that he is a bona fide contender, should plan A get shelved, or maybe just in the course of events the race will evolve into a two-against-one dynamic. Not expecting any 1985 Lemond/Hinault stuff — Roglič is almost surely Jumbo’s best bet.
What the Intangibles “Say”
And now we go off the rails. Looking into the souls of strangers is not really great business. At most, we can wonder, does the younger Pogačar have a psychological edge on his older compatriot? Once again, we are left with a single data point that tells a powerful (sounding) story, that day in September 2020 where Rogla’s dreams were left in tatters. Does Roglič really feel hung up on that day? Did three consecutive Vuelta victories lessen the sting? No idea. I suspect that if he shows up feeling really good and makes it through week one with no crashes, the past won’t weigh on him much if at all. He will just ride his bike.
On the flip side, however, Pogačar is riding a wave of confidence that you can only find in people too young and successful to even know what disappointment is. When is the last time one of his older rivals taught him a lesson about anything? Ok, maybe Mathieu van der Poel taught him not to drag the Dutch star to the line in Oudenaarde, but that’s about as obvious as maybe not starting a land war in Asia. Pogs has been flying high, daring anyone to try to take his crown, and further cementing his brief but incredible legacy in the process. So however good Roglič may be feeling about his chances, there’s no way he feels better than Pogačar.
Sorry, this is the tale of the tape, not prediction time. We are just under three weeks away from the flag dropping, and there is still time for evidence gathering. Pogs is scheduled to ride the Tour of Slovenia, where he will probably just confirm what we knew all along, though if not then things will get rather intriguing.
I do think this exercise is worth shining a light on all the reasons to believe in Roglič. I agree that he shouldn’t be favored, but I also can totally see a nip-and-tuck race that tilts to Primo in the final ITT, a delicious story of revenge served cold AF. Or a million other things can happen, and probably one or two of them will in a way that creates enough separation for us to get a winner. Like a crosswinds event or something. Anyway, I suspect we will all be rooting for the rematch we didn’t get last year, it should be one for the ages.