VINGEGAARD IS THE ONLY RIDER WHO CAN KEEP UP WITH POGACAR
With two stage wins and the yellow jersey already in his custody, there was simply no stopping Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) during the first week of the Tour de France.
It wasn’t just in the back-to-back stage wins at Longwy and the La Super Planche des Belles Filles summit finish that he stamped his authority on the race. In a week of varied terrain and circumstances, he has gained time everywhere, from the opening time trial, to the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, to the punchy uphill finishes.
But Pogačar being imperious on all terrain is hardly some new revelation this opening week. Instead, the real story of interest this week in the GC race has been the one man who’s been able to compete with him — Jonas Vingegaard.
In light of his Jumbo-Visma teammate Primož Roglič’s crash on the stage five cobbles, Vingegaard has emerged as Pogačar biggest threat, and so far he has impressed with his ability to keep the defending champion within sight. Aside from the 8 seconds lost in the opening time trial, and the 13 seconds he lost in the aftermath of a mechanical on the cobbles, the only time the Dane has lost to his rival has been through bonus seconds.
Other GC contenders David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Romain Bardet (DSM), Enric Mas (Movistar) and the Ineos Grenadiers duo of Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates have all expertly negotiated the opening week hazards to enter the rest day inside the top ten on GC, but are all already over a minute adrift of Pogačar, and haven’t yet looked capable of going toe-to-toe with the Slovenian the same way Vingegaard has.
To win yellow, Vingegaard will of course have to not just continue limiting his losses to Pogačar but actually gain time, which still feels like a herculean task. But Vingegaard has proven that he’s as good as, if not better, than last year, and is keeping this race very much alive.
VAN AERT RELSHING FREEDOM IN ONE OF ALL-TIME GREAT OPENING WEEK PERFORMANCES
The only thing that feels more trite than reiterating just what a good bike rider Tadej Pogačar is is saying the same about Wout van Aert. But what we saw from the Jumbo-Visma rider last week surpasses even the highlights from his past Tours.
Van Aert has been let off a leash at this Tour, and during the first week relished every second of it. A run of three runner-up places in the opening three stages was remarkable (albeit frustrating) enough, but the way he obliterated the field and rode away from everyone on what appeared to be a benign hill to take the victory on stage four was jaw-dropping stuff, made all the more memorable by the fact he did so wearing the yellow jersey.
It’s not just the consistency and all-rounder ability that has wowed, but the hunger and willingness to keep attacking and keep entertaining. The fact he got into the breakaway at the start of the day on stage six epitomised this, even if converting that into a win proved to be a bridge too far.
And for all that individual brilliance, he has still fulfilled the role of being an invaluable teammate. He practically saved Vingegaard’s Tour on stage five on a day that he himself was hurting following a crash earlier, by almost single-handedly closing the gap between the Dane’s group and Pogačar’s following a mechanical.
His primary goal of winning the green jersey already feels like an inevitability provisioning he can make it safely to Paris, with a huge lead of 135 points over nearest rival Fabio Jakobsen (Quic-Step Alpha Vinyl). But one suspects Van Aert has ore on his mind than just that sealing that jersey, and will be eyeing up more stages to add to the two he’s already taken.
A LEAN TOUR SO FAR FOR THE SPRINTERS
It’s fair to say the 2022 Tour de France has not been one for the sprinters. In fact, since arriving in mainland France following the first rest day, there hasn’t been a single bunch sprint, and even taking into account two Danish stages, this has been the leanest opening week for the sprinters in any Tour since 2008.
In the two sprints that have happened, no clear hierarchy has been established among them. Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) won the first only narrowly ahead of Wout van Aert only to be caught out of position the following day, when Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) triumphed narrowly ahead of Van Aert having himself been out of position the day before.
That’s consistent with the sprints from recent Tours de France, in which, with the exception of Mark Cavendish’s stunning comeback last year, hasn’t seen one sprinter dominate above the rest and pick up huge hauls of stage wins.
The one sprinter you might have expected to was Jakobsen. Given how prolific he’s been in the sprints this season, and the success of Quick-Step at last year’s Tour thanks to Cavendish, the stage had seemed set for the Dutchman to really establish himself as the world’s best on the biggest stage of all. Claiming a stage win on your debut Tour can hardly be considered a disappointment, but Jakobsen has the confidence and self-belief to want more than that.
As for the other sprinters, Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) continues the pattern from last year by getting close but not quite winning, Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) continues to mix misfortune with looking out of sorts, and Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) has partially rediscovered his old form without ever quite threatening to win.
IT MEANS MORE WHEN IT'S AT THE TOUR
One of the reasons the Tour de France is the best race in the world is just how much it means to do well here compared with other races.
The emotions expressed on crossing the line, talking in post-race interviews and standing on the podium can be overwhelming and are always intensified here, and the opening week of this year’s race had a typically bountiful number of great stories.
Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Alpha-Vinyl) set the tone with his emotional celebration upon shocking the favourites to take the opening time trial. “I’m just a farmer’s son from Belgium,” were his words at the finish, as if he couldn’t quite take stock of how his life had brought him to this moment, the pinnacle of his career.
Later in the week, Simon Clarke (Israel-PremierTech) was a similarly surprising winner of the cobbled stage five, competing a Hollywood-worthy comeback having possibly been on the brink of retirement during the offseason while struggling to find a new contract.
And then yesterday Bob Jungels (Ag2r-Citroën) put years of illness problems behind him by winning in especially spectacular fashion from a long-range solo break in the Alps. The romance of these zero to hero arcs is part of the romance of the sport and why we love it so much, and the Tour keeps delivering these unparalleled heart-warming stories. All we need now is a Thibaut Pinot win.
GC HOPES FOR SOME ALREADY OVER OR ON LIFE SUPPORT
There are always victims during the first week of a Tour de France, and the cruel gods of misfortune have as ever taken it upon themselves to ruin the GC chances of some of the top pre-race favourites.
Fortune was especially harsh on Australians this time. Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) was the first rider to abandon the race following a crash on the cobbles, making it two successive DNFs in a row at the Tour.
And then there’s Ben O’Connor, who enjoyed such a fantastic Tour last year, has also found himself in the wars all week. Although the 26-year-old also crashed during the first week of last year’s race prior to bouncing back and winning a stage and finishing fourth overall, he seems much worse off this time around, and is already almost an hour down on GC. At this point, simply surviving the rest day and recovering enough to be able to continue racing during the first week would be an achievement, let alone thinking about winning a stage.
Other top riders have seen their hopes plunged into peril, but not quite been terminated. Primož Roglič is the headline case in the sense, and has done well to keep his deficit to 2-52 while, in his own words, riding as though “every pedal stroke is like a knife in the back.”
Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), who was in such fine form prior to the Tour, is also just about saving his chances for a high GC finish despite suffering the after-effects of a crash. He ends the week in twelfth, 3-12 down on Pogačar.
And the spectre of Covid looms ominously. It’s already taken Guillame Martin (Cofidis) from the race, who was handily placed at fourteenth on GC. It’s hard to believe the next two weeks won't see at least one top contender have to withdraw because of the virus.
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