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When Tadej Pogacar slipped behind Jonas Vingegaard on the Col de la Loze mountain pass through the Alps on Wednesday, eight kilometers and a world away from the top of the hot, punishing climb, it was only briefly unclear why. Pogacar’s own voice, over his team’s radio and broadcast on television during the Tour de France’s 17th stage, provided an immediate explanation for the rare sight of him being left behind like a mere mortal.
“I’m gone,” he told his team. “I’m dead.”
It was an astonishing bit of television, a moment that will be replayed on every Tour broadcast for decades.
Most of Pogacar’s teammates did not wait for him. They did not try to help him. What would have been the point? There was no saving his race. Pogacar, the 24-year-old from Slovenia who usually rides with a smile on his face, perpetually unbothered, tufts of hair peeking out of his helmet, was gone.
Vingegaard quickly rode away from him, and rode away with his second consecutive Tour victory.
The Tour ended Sunday with pomp, aerial shots of the Eiffel Tower and eight furious laps on the cobbled roads of central Paris, capped by a sprint down the Champs-Élysées. Vingegaard, ahead of Pogacar by 7 minutes 29 seconds, rode easy in the leader’s yellow jersey, sipping Champagne while surrounded by his Jumbo-Visma teammates.
There were, as is always the case in a three-week race, several noteworthy stories. Jasper Philipsen won four stages and proved that he is the best sprinter in the world. Thibaut Pinot rode his final Tour de France with his typical verve and panache, while Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish ended their illustrious careers not with a bang but with a whimper. Hopefuls crashed and breakaways surprisingly succeeded.
Pogacar’s teammate, Adam Yates, finished a distant third, but from beginning to end the Tour was about Pogacar and Vingegaard. The decisive 17th stage and the gap between the two — the winning margin was the Tour’s largest since 2014 — belies what was, until then, one of the most tense and exciting races in years.
After beginning in Bilbao, Spain, three weeks ago, the Tour followed an unusual cadence. Instead of most of the decisive mountain stages being stacked in the last week of the race, hard climbs were scattered throughout, as were hilly, punchy climbs packed with intrigue.
It led to Vingegaard and Pogacar trading blows, heavyweight fighters (though they look more like featherweights on bikes) slugging it out.
Vingegaard struck first, on the Col de Marie Blanque in the Pyrenees during the fifth stage. Jai Hindley, a fringe contender who ultimately finished seventh, won the stage in a breakaway and for a day wore the yellow jersey. On the steepest part of the climb, Vingegaard surged away from Pogacar, gaining over a minute on his rival.
Despite Pogacar’s pedigree — he won the Tour in 2020 and 2021 — questions were asked as to whether the race was already decided. After a blistering spring season that saw him win two stage races and three of the more prestigious one-day classic races, Pogacar broke his wrist in late April, and it was not fully healed when the Tour began. If Pogacar could not stay with Vingegaard early in the race in the Pyrenees, how would he possibly fare in the Alps?
The next day Pogacar gave his answer. Vingegaard tried attacking twice, dropping the field, but Pogacar stayed glued to his wheel. Three kilometers from the end of the stage, as fans set off flares beside them, Pogacar flipped the script with a surprising counterpunch and won the stage, gaining 24 seconds back.
“If it’s going to happen like yesterday, we can pack our bags and go home,” Pogacar recalled thinking during one of Vingegaard’s attacks. “Luckily I had good legs today.”
Slowly but surely, Pogacar chipped away at Vingegaard’s advantage. On stage nine, up the famed Puy de Dôme extinct volcano, he gained back eight seconds. Four stages later, he clawed back another eight seconds on the mountaintop finish on the Col du Grand Colombier. Twice he launched devastating sprints near the end of stages, and twice Vingegaard was unable to stick with him.
Only in retrospect, with the full results known, was it possible to look at these stages in a different light. Vingegaard has traditionally been stronger than Pogacar on long mountain climbs where he can grind away, whereas Pogacar is a more explosive rider who pulls away with impossible-to-follow bursts. But while Pogacar gained time on Vingegaard across three stages, he was unable to bury him. Vingegaard lost a few seconds, but did not let a loss turn into a rout.
Vingegaard, a quiet 26-year-old from Denmark, first showed what would eventually become his dominant form on the only individual time trial of the race, one day before he shattered Pogacar on the Col de la Loze. Starting the time trial second to last, Pogacar was faster than the rest of the field by over a minute. He had a good day. But Vingegaard had a great day.
Starting last, Vingegaard rode to his limit, taking impeccable lines at unbelievable speeds during the downhill portion of the course and showing off his climbing skills on the uphill finish despite riding on a heavier time trial bike. In the end, he gained almost two minutes on Pogacar. He was so fast he thought his equipment was malfunctioning.
“I think it was one of my best days on the bike ever,” Vingegaard said after the stage.
The next day, Pogacar would, by his own words, die. For two weeks, Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma team had set a relentless pace, aiming not necessarily to help Vingegaard win stages or gain time but rather to drain Pogacar of energy, to put his healing wrist under pressure, so that he was deeply fatigued by the time the race got to the Alps, Vingegaard’s territory.
On the long hot stage, the food Pogacar ate stayed stuck in his stomach, he later said, and never made it to his legs. Vingegaard never attacked. He did not need to. Pogacar could not stick with him up the Col de la Loze, and as soon as Jumbo-Visma saw this, Vingegaard’s domestiques increased the pace to assure that Pogacar would fall farther behind. He never stabilized; instead, second by second, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, he seemed to fall back down the mountain.
On the 20th, and penultimate, stage on Saturday, Pogacar did not try attacking Vingegaard early on the Col du Platzerwasel mountain pass. There would have been no point; he was not going to gain back minutes. Instead they climbed the mountain together, passing opponents until the end, where Pogacar beat Vingegaard in an uphill sprint to win the stage — a final prize, but only a consolation.
Vingegaard and Pogacar have combined to win the last four Tours, and neither has yet reached the age when cyclists typically peak. “It’s been an amazing fight we’ve had since Bilbao, and hopefully also in the future,” Vingegaard said after his victory was assured.
The only shame is that the next episode of this fight will not take place for another year.
Posted on 23 Jul 2023 21:59 link