On Pogacar and learning to love greatness

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

Arthur Schopenhauer was not talking about sports when he wrote these words. It is as if he were. Sports fans, and especially sports journalists, fetishize genius. It’s the climax reel, the image etched in the mind, the athlete emptying the bar. We equate genius with excellence in sport, and so often they go hand in hand. Genius, however, is not the next level of greatness; it is a different expression of competence.

Just like all great football/soccer teams want a George Best, a Diego Maradona, a Pelé, they all want a N’Golo Kante, a Carlos Dunga, a Lothar Matthaus. You need genius, sure, but you also need guys who do the simple things brilliantly – the hard tackle, the simple pass, the gap-filling. Moving from sport to unspeakable cricket, the England men’s Test team gave away their wicketkeeper gloves to the country’s most talented keeper late this week. For too long, Jos Buttler and Johnny Bairstow have been behind the stumps. Superb athletes and great defenders, they were electric to watch, diving everywhere and pulling off genius holds. They weren’t as good as Ben Foakes – who barely dives. His footwork is superior, his anticipation quicker, his hand movements earlier. To look at it is to see greatness as ordinary. You see the same thing in baseball – sure your shortstop will make 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 it from Simon Yates Saturday after the seventh stage of Paris-Nice. He couldn’t, he said in essence, do anything about Primoz Roglic. The guy had a track on him and just didn’t have to work as hard to climb the same mountain. He sat there in second gear, bided his moment and attacked. Yates would come back and win on Sunday, without taking the overall. You could have said the same about Tadej Pogacar, with the queen stage Tirenno-Adriatico coming later the same Saturday afternoon – and he was not remotely threatened on the final stage of a sprinter. On Saturday, however, both races were won by Slovenians who entered today’s race with a slight overall lead. Both saw the 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 liking. It actually wasn’t particularly exciting. It was unavoidable, impressive, dominating… but not exciting.

That’s greatness. It doesn’t always excite you. I will turn to Frankel again, as I do so often. When he won his 2,000 guineas, we saw the equine equivalent of genius. The horses just don’t go that far off the field and win comfortably. Like all geniuses, hubris nearly got him off the ground, as Jason Queally almost rode him too hard at Royal Ascot on his next start. It was the closest he’s come to losing in his entire career. After that, for two long and glorious seasons, we saw genius replaced by greatness. The horse and jockey waited for the right moment, then left and never returned to the peloton. Just like Pogacar on Saturday. Just like Pogacar the previous Saturday too.

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As a horse racing fan, you learn to love competitive racing. Betting on a big handicap is exciting. Finding the horse no one else is backing against the favorite 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 playing or finishing close, it was about seeing something special. Something that doesn’t happen too often. There were days in Doncaster, Newmarket and Newbury when just a few of us watched him in the paddock, and those are the days I remember. Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods… the world has watched their greatness. But in niche sports, we don’t just watch, we are part of it. Sharing a rare experience.

Tadej Pogacar is going to be at the top of this sport for a very long time, we hope. To continue to sell the races, we will talk about his opponents. We will try to find weaknesses. Opponents like yours will point out that he was very lucky to avoid injury and illness. We’ll worry about what his dominance means for fantasy sports. We will worry as more and more big names decide to race the Giro and skip the Tour. We’ll be annoyed if he somehow is not it win Milan-Sanremo or La Ronde.

We can even call it boring. It is very good. Remember that you can watch your chosen sport for a very long time without seeing the true greatness. Even though it’s more boring than great, it’s worth appreciating when it shows up.

We are all witnesses.

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

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So, we saw greatness and dominance in the two GC no contests last week. A few other things that caught my attention:

the men’s sprint field is more confusing than ever. Fabio Jakobsen seems to be the fastest man in the peloton this year, but he only managed to take part in one stage of Paris-Nice (he won it, with a very clever switch from his own train to that of Jumbo). Elsewhere we saw Mads Pederson making a convincing impression, Kristoff, Caleb Ewan and Tim Merlier asking not to be forgotten and Phil Bauhaus winning a thoroughly chaotic final sprint on Sunday. No one has 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 under Jakobsen, but I enjoy watching.

From fast women meanwhile, we have an emerging battle for sprint dominance. Lorena Wiebes seems to have won hands down, twice, and that’s really impressive, but Lotte Kopecky (who, it turns out, is amazing on the climbs too) and Elisa Balsamo aren’t far behind. Bundle finishes are less common in women’s cycling, but they’ll be just as fun when they happen.

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

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 colder races, but the peloton has been hit very hard this year. It seems that globally we are seeing a big and inevitable increase in non-Covid bugs this year and that will be a theme for the cycling season. Still, expect to see a few big names go empty when you might otherwise expect big performances in the coming weeks. 95 of the 154 riders failed to finish Paris-Nice and while some were tactical (why would a sprinter take the final two stages) and some were undoubtedly an abundance of caution, it was a sickly peloton.

There is always a bit of an after-show air from the mayor between the end of Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. We have been spoiled for the bike these last few days. Always, the race is coming it looks funny. The men’s Nokere Koerse saw a few riders drop off the start list, but it’s still an entertaining race, and the women’s field is much stronger and should give us another round of Lotte against Lorena. Also Wednesday, Miano-Torino is the best opportunity for climbers to get involved this week. I’m looking forward to Merlier against Jakobsen (against the pitch I guess) in Koksijde on Friday. I can’t claim to be particularly excited about the male version of Drenthe, but I’m sure I’ll be watching, and early indications are that we’ll have another good field for the ever-watchable Denain. It could be much worse – and there are only a few days left until the first monument of the year!

As we all breathe after Tirenno-Adriatico, Paris-Nice and others, what do you have left to think about?

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