POGACAR IS HUMAN AFTER ALL
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) began the second week with a lead of 39 seconds over Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), over a minute over his other rivals, and, perhaps most importantly of all, an aura of invisibility. The defending champion had spent the previous week attacking at will, chasing seconds wherever he could gain them, all while seemingly immune to ever feeling any kind of fatigue.
That aura was dramatically and definitively shattered on the slopes of the Col du Grandon during Wednesday’s stage 11, a day that will be talked about for years to come. It turns out that the 23-year-old does have limits after all, as he appeared to pay the price for chasing down Jumbo-Visma’s attacks earlier in the stage by blowing up completely on the final climb.
The sight of each of the other GC contenders one by one riding away from Pogačar on the climb, having time and time again been so humbled by him over the last few years, was startling, as if he had suddenly been exposed to the same forces of gravity that the others have been subjected to the whole time.
The huge 2-51 he lost that day to Vingegaard put Pogačar in a situation unprecedented in his career so far, and also posed a big question about his character and temperament. But so far he’s passed that test with flying colours, continuing to ride with a care-free, fun-loving attitude, and showing no signs of entitlement or wounded pride despite for once not having things all his own way.
It might be that he overturns the 2-22 deficit he now has to Vingegaard in the final week and win a third successive yellow jersey after all. But even if he does, this week will always be remembered as the one where Tadej Pogačar was proven to be human after all.
VINGEGAARD EMERGES FROM POGACAR’S SHADOW
Before last week, Jonas Vingegaad’s career had above all been defined by finishing second to Tadej Pogačar.
That was of course the outcome of his breakthrough ride at last year’s Tour de France, where he also twice placed second behind him at summit finishes in the Pyrenees as well. But the Dane has also been edged into a runner-up spot by his rival an additional four times — on the GC and in two stages of this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, and on La Super Planche des Belles Filles earlier this Tour.
Victory on the Col du Granon was therefore the first time Vingegaard has fully emerged from Pogačar's shadow, and really come to our attention as someone more than the Slovenian’s eternal bridesmaid. For all he has impressed over the last few years, he’s never landed really big wins, with only a stage win each at the 2020 Tour of Poland and this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné to his name at World Tour level, and nothing at Grand Tours.
To register a first, and take the yellow jersey in the process, was a huge breakthrough in his career.
Since that day, Vingegaard has also looked very comfortable in yellow, following Pogačar's attacks on l’Alpe d’Huez, and sticking resolutely to his wheel on stage 14’s steep finish to Mende. As was the case in the Pyrenees last year, he’s been equal to all of Pogačar’s moves in the mountains, and if he can continue to do that during the final week, then a famous Tour de France title awaits.
DENMARK IS THE NEW SLOVENIA
From the huge crowds that turned up on the roadside for the Copenhagen Grand Depart and following two stages, you sensed that this was going to be a special Tour for the Danish. But even considering the high expectations, the second week saw an especially sensational run of results for the nation’s riders.
Vingegaard’s triumph on stage 11 and subsequent four days wearing the yellow jersey have of course been the highlight, but either side of that were two other stage wins that saw Danish riders take the top step of the podium three times in four days.
The week began with Magnus Cort (EF Education-Easypost) winning stage 11 from a breakaway, continuing his eye-catching race that had already seen him wear the polka-dot jersey for a week. Then, two days after Vingegaard’s triumph, Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) landed the stage he’s been chasing all Tour.
These riders are all part of a golden generation of Danish talent, that also includes Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen, two-time Tour stage winner Søren Kragh Andersen and Amstel Gold winner Michael Valgren. They’ve provided great entertainment in recent years, and have epitomised the aggressive racing and all-or-nothing attitudes that has become the staple of contemporary cycling.
But it’s Vingegaard’s breakthrough that has really put the nation on the map. He’s now on the brink of becoming only the second ever Nordic winner of the yellow jersey (following the now disgraced Bjørn Riis), a result that could elevate the sport in much the way Bradley Wiggins’ victory did for Britain in 2012, and Tadej Pogačar’s result in 2020 did for Slovenia.
Remembering the emotional scenes at Copenhagen, when the 25-years shed tears from the raucous reception given to him, it will be something special if he can seal overall victory.
FRUSTRATED SPRINTERS TAKE MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS AND WIN FROM BREAKAWAYS
Much like the first week, chances were few and far between for the sprinters this week. In fact, it took until Sunday’s stage 15 for there to be a bunch finish (won by Jasper Philipsen, Alpecin-Deceuninck), and even that was contested by a reduced bunch missing Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal).
In this unfavourable terrain, some of the fastmen who are also capable climbers took it upon themselves to hunt for victories another way by targeting the breakaways instead — and to great success.
Magnus Cort set the precedent by winning from the break on stage 10, using his fast kick to take the win from a small group that came together at the top of the Montée de l'Altiport de Megève.
Then Mads Pedersen got into the break on stage 13, somewhat counter-intuitively considering that it looked like a likely day for a bunch sprint, and how Pedersen had already come close to winning stage two’s bunch sprint. But the way he helped the break stay clear, before smartly launching his own attack to rid himself of all but two of his breakaway companions, both of whom he comfortably out-sprinted in the finish, proved he’d made the right call.
Perhaps inspired by Pedersen’s bold ride, Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) then got into the breakaway the following day, and procured an even more surprisingly aggressive performance. He launched a seemingly kamikaze solo attack long before the final climb, yet still had the legs to attack Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Easypost) despite being caught by the Italian on the final climb.
Matthews would already have had two stage wins were it not for the unreasonable talented Tadej Pogačar and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who beat him into second at stage 6 and 8 respectively, and his inability to beat them was evidently frustrating the Australian. Rather than chance his luck in another group finish, he deduced that his best chance to win would be from a break, and was rewarded handsomely for his boldness.
PIDCOCK CONFIRMS STAR STATUS ON GRANDEST CLIMB OF THEM ALL
Alpe d’Huez is a climb where legends are made, so the fact that 22-year-old sensation Tom Pidcock claimed his first Grand Tour stage here feels prophetic.
Pidcock had already greatly impressed on Tour debut, starting that stage in eleventh on GC having negotiated all the tests the first half of a Grand Tout throws up.
But what he did on the Alpe was something else. Known previously for his punchy riding style and talent over the cobbles, this was Pidcock as pure climber, and he flew up the climb to take victory of esteemed climbers Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), and none other than Chris Froome (Israel-PremierTech).
Froome’s presence in the break alongside him felt especially symbolic, as if the old British star was handing the baton to the nation’s next generational star. It was the kind of ride that suggested Pidcock could one day replicate Froome’s feat of winning the yellow jersey, which sounds like a premature prediction to make, but feels justified considering Pidcock’s own blithely confident manner.
To do that, the Ineos rider would have to specialise more as a Grand Tour rider, which doesn’t seem on the cards for now, especially as he continued to harbour ambitions away from the road. For now, what remains so special about him is his versatility — as was on display during the stage, when he descended mesmerically to get to the front of the race prior to the final climb.
If we weren’t sure of it already, it’s even clearer now that Pidcock is the future of British cycling.
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