Roglič vs Pogačar: Who Was the Better Climber in 2021?
Breaking down the best climbing performances from the 2021 season to discern the sport's best climber
New BTP Podcast: Breaking down the most interesting stories so far from the transfer market & Movistar’s strange new hires.
With the fantastic 2021 WorldTour cycling season behind us, one major question I’m left with, and one that has been asked by many readers, is who was the better grand tour rider this year between the two Slovenian superstars Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič.
Even with modern performance tracking tools, this is still somewhat unknowable and a fundamentally flawed exercise. However, to simply state that and stop there would be bereft of fun. So, using the available information and a few estimated power numbers created by some clever online cycling numbers crunchers, we can create a surprisingly accurate picture of how Pogačar and Roglič stacked up against each other at their strongest points as climbers over the course of the season.
The brain trust behind Vamhunters.blogspot.com recently compiled a list of the best climbing performances as judged by pure watts per kilogram over the course of 2021. The list ranks all the climbing performances over the 2021 season using a calculation that estimates the watts generated by each rider on each climb. Of course, this pseudoscience isn’t 100% accurate and should be taken with a grain of salt, but, many times, it can give us a surprisingly accurate external picture of biometric performances.
One major point I’d qualify is that while the list ranks all performances equally, there is a major difference between watts generated in grand tours, week-long stage races, and one-day races. An explosive finish atop the Mur du Huy at Fleche Wallonne is much different than sustaining power on the final climb of a multi-mountain stage deep in the third week of a grand tour. So, for this comparison, I’ve filtered out (almost) all non-grand tour efforts in an attempt to find the most like-for-like, and in terms of best grand tour performances, the most pertinent samples.
Using the handy list of best performances, we can ascertain Pogačar’s and Roglič’s best climbing performances at grand tours occurred at stage 8 of the Tour de France and stage 17 of Vuelta a España respectively.
Side-by-Side Rog vs Pog Best 2021 Climbing Performance Comparison
Tadej Pogačar Stage 8 Tour de France:
Col de Romme: 27:06 @ ~6.42w/kg (423 watts) 1809 VAM
Col de Colombiere: 21:42 @ ~6.22w/kg (410 watts) 1778 VAM
Primož Roglič Stage 17 Vuelta a España
La Collada Llomena: 22:58 @ ~6.45w/kg (420 watts) 1517 VAM
40:00 @ ~5.8w/kg in between climbs
Lagos de Covadonga: 35:00 (estimate) @ ~6.15w/kg (400 watts) 1600 VAM
In my opinion, what makes these performances so impressive and such outliers is that they weren’t performed over a single climb, but multiple climbs at the end of extremely tough stages. The ability to generate such high wattage numbers at the end of a multi-mountain day deep in a grand tour is what separates these two from the rest of the field.
So, Who Was Better?
If we combine these two impressive climbing performances and average the outputs, Pogačar slightly edges Roglič from an output perspective (both raw and weighted) while Roglič’s time of output is significantly higher (18% greater).
Total Combined Climbing Effort: 48:48 @ 6.33w/kg (417 watts)
Total Combined Climbing Effort: 57:58 @ 6.27w/kg (408 watts)
Best Climbing Performances From 2021
An important thing to note is just how hard Roglič was riding in between his two efforts, while Pogačar was mainly freewheeling on a descent.
Unfortunately, this exercise leaves the ultimate outcome somewhat ambiguous, since once we factor in variables like altitude (Pogačar’s effort was slightly higher), weather (Pogačar’s was performed in the rain), and racing situation (Pogačar was able to go “all-out” due to being solo while Roglič had to measure his effort more due to the presence of Bernal), it becomes almost impossible to one performance as ‘better’ than the other.
This might be a slightly unsatisfactory answer, but, it isn’t necessarily a negative. It signals that Pogačar’s future dominance isn’t pre-ordained since there is another rider in the peloton who could potentially match what was a devastating effort for the rest of the field.
An interesting angle to this comparison is to reflect back on just how devastating Pogačar’s attack on stage 8 of the Tour de France was. In one fell swoop, he put minutes between himself and his closest GC rivals, essentially winning the overall in a single stage. This dominance raised the eyebrows of many fans and pundits, which caused Pogačar’s coach Iñigo San Millán to push back by saying Pogačar’s performance wasn’t out of this world, but that everyone else was simply lacking. San Millán caught a lot of flack for this statement at the time, but this comparison would tend to support his statement since it signals that if Roglič hadn’t been suffering from his crash on stage 3, he would have been able to match his countryman’s climbing efforts.
Other Great Climbing Performances For Context
The other ‘great’ climbing performances I chose for the graph above are listed below:
Egan Bernal Stage 14 Giro d’Italia
Monte Zoncolan: 40:02 @ ~6.1w/kg (365 watts) 1700 VAM
Miguel Ángel López Stage 18 Vuelta a España
Gamoniteiru: 50:00 @ 6w/kg (354 watts) 1700-ish VAM
While Padun’s effort wasn’t produced at a grand tour, I included it to show just how impressive he was in the final weekend at the Dauphiné (which oddly wasn’t ever re-produced by him afterward, or in the six stages beforehand) but also just how poor the competition was at that race. Padun easily won the final two mountain stages of the event and appeared to be the best climber in the world, but when placed in context, it is clear he would have been topped by the two Slovenians at their best.
Bernal’s performance from stage 14 of the Giro, while impressive, shows us his limitations relative to Roglič and Pogačar. If he is going to win a Tour de France in the coming years, he will have to either force them to make a mistake, hope they crash, or take time on flat to intermediate stages that explode unexpectedly (i.e. crosswinds).
Miguel Ángel López’s Vuelta stage 18 numbers show what we already know: that he is one of the best climbers in the world when an effort is close to, or over, an hour in length. But, it is worth noting that Roglič was right behind López on that stage, and likely could have matched López’s pace had he been closer on GC. López winning on a difficult summit finish while effectively out of contention for overall victory is a common theme, and one which I believe artificially inflates his value as an elite climber.
Coming up next…premium subscribers will receive my take on Movistar’s move to fire Jose Luis Arrieta and hire Leonardo Piepoli, along with part 2 of the Weekly Transfer Analysis. See part 1 here.