Barring catastrophe on today’s sprint stage in Pasadena, 20 year old Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) will win the Amgen Tour of California. I had no idea who he was.
Perhaps if you’re an obsessive cycling fan that scours the results of under 23 races, you already knew he was the real deal. I suppose I should have been paying attention as last season he did win the hugely predictive Tour de l’Avenir. On top of that, this season he took out the overall in the Volta ao Algarve.
Still, I’m going to forgive myself for scoffing at the idea that this baby-faced kid who looks like he still belongs on a development squad could knock off powerhouse teams like EF-Education First and Trek Segafredo. It never occurred to me he’d ride experienced big names like Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte off his wheel.
Pogacar raced with confidence and tactical skill in what was arguably the most challenging and arduous Tour of California ever. Stage two to South Lake Tahoe was a leg breaker at altitude and stage three wasn’t much easier. The stages were longer in distance and even the cruise down the iconic coastal highway 1 was a challenging day beset by gusty winds and rain. Then there’s Mount Baldy, which as raced at such speed that gold jersey wearer Tejay van Garderen hit the wall and dropped unceremoniously out of the top ten.
It’s a bit of a shocker that at twenty years of age Pogacar will win a WorldTour stage race. Then again, look at the GC classification and you see the youth movement has pushed the older guys off the podium. Sergio Higuita EF-Education First), just 21 and riding his first WorldTour event, nearly wins on Baldy and should go into the books as finishing second, just 16 seconds behind the Slovenian. Had it not been for an unfortunate mistake on the final corner, he would have beaten Pogacar in the queen stage.
When the Colombian hit the gas and attacked late in the Baldy climb, it was like a flash-back, the second coming of Nairo Quintana. His sudden, vicious acceleration created an immediate gap and only Pogacar was able to respond, before George Bennett (Jumbo Visma) slowly clawed his way up. It was impressive work and a sure sign of big things to come. A good number of teams were interested in signing Higuita but EF-Education’s Jonathan Vaughers went early and won the Sergio sweepstakes. Will they fast track his learning curve and throw him into the Vuelta a España?
Rounding out the podium is the “oldster” of the three — the 24 year old Kaspar Asgreen (Dececuninck-Quickstep). Here’s another rider who appears to have burst onto the world stage. His surprise second place in this year’s Tour of Flanders announced him as a potential classics champion and yet another powerful rider for manager Patrick Lefevere’s Wolfpack. If not for the UCI judge’s bizarre re-interpretation of the 3K rule in favor of Tejay van Garderen, it would have been Asgreen wearing the gold jersey after stage four.
In the ten years I’ve been to the Tour of California, this has been the most exciting and surprising edition of the race. It was refreshing to see the fresh new faces.