In a stirring display of athleticism, Tadej Pogačar claimed victory at the Saitama Criterium on Sunday, signaling the end of his tenure in the iconic white jersey of the Tour de France. The UAE Team Emirates rider's success in Japan marks the final occasion he will don the garment reserved for the race's best young rider, a classification he has dominated for an unprecedented four consecutive years since 2020.
Under the gleaming lights of the Saitama Super Arena, Pogačar edged out competitors Sepp Kuss of Jumbo-Visma and cycling luminary Peter Sagan of TotalEnergies, as his teammate Davide Formolo cheered him on from the sidelines.
The race capped off a season where the 25-year-old Slovenian's palmares burgeoned with triumphs across prestigious events, including the Vuelta a Andalusia and the Tour of Flanders. Pogačar's ascent in the competitive cycling world has been meteoric.
"It was a great start to my career with the white jersey, but it's time to say goodbye," he stated post-race, reflecting on his achievements with nostalgia and accomplishment. His career milestones, noted by his manager Alex Carera, have etched his name into the annals of cycling history, surpassing legends like Jan Ullrich and Andy Schleck.
Pogačar's dominance has been remarkable given his adversity, including a fractured wrist he battled to secure second place in this year's Tour de France.
Sagan's New Horizon
While Pogačar celebrated his continued ascendancy in the cycling world, the event also marked a poignant transition for Peter Sagan.
The celebrated rider is pivoting from WorldTour prominence to pursue a new challenge in mountain biking, eyeing a spot in the upcoming Paris Olympics. Amidst the fanfare and competition, the Saitama Criterium, a spectacle beloved by fans since its inception in 2013, has soared in popularity.
Last year's race drew an estimated 150,000 spectators, with numbers this year expected to match or exceed that turnout. The affection for the sport in Japan was evident, as riders like Jumbo-Visma’s Attila Valter remarked on the unexpected but fervent Japanese fan base.
An array of festivities surrounded the criterium, with Bahrain-Victorious taking the team event and local hero Yukiya Arashiro showcasing his skills before a home crowd. The spectacle was complete with the Tour's fabled roadside Devil and a Japanese female counterpart delighting the masses.
In closing, Sagan's heartfelt farewell resonated with the crowd of supporters, hinting at the enduring legacy and evolving journey of cycling heroes. As the sun set on this chapter of the Saitama Criterium, fans and riders alike look forward to the sport's vibrant future on the global stage.