Tadej Pogačar sits staring into space as the furore around Jonas Vingegard refuses to leave the press room. The man with the yellow jersey is in demand, a few questions from Danish television need to be asked, which apparently couldn’t be done anywhere else.
UAE Team Emirates' Pogačar, for the second year running, will not finish the Tour de France in yellow, but instead in white, hardly a consolation prize for a man who has experienced the high of winning the whole thing. He sits, and just thanks to a cruel twist of fate and scheduling, has to watch his biggest rival, the man who has beaten him twice, face the adulation and rigmarole of winning.
He just sits there, staring, as his press conference is delayed. He might be thinking about how boring this is, what the journalists will ask him. He could be thinking about what he’s going to do post-Tour, about how England's cricket team are doing at Old Trafford, or about how 800 people competed in a running race from Belfort to Paris in 1892. We don’t know.
Eventually, after what feels like an eternity, Jumbo-Visma's Vingegaard is moved on, and Pogačar can begin his interrogation. We do know that the Slovenian has twice now been defeated by the Dane, that in successive Tours he has blown up, this time catastrophically on the Col de la Loze. We know that for all his accurate claims to be the best bike rider in the world, that he has failed - by his own standards - in not winning the world’s biggest bike race. He might be the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, Paris-Nice, Il Lombardia, and Slovenian national champion, but he does not have the yellow jersey.
Despite all this, Pogačar remains cheery. While Vingegaard seems hard pushed to look happy at winning the whole thing, his opposite number tries to remain positive, to show his best side, even in defeat.
He did win two stages, including stage 20, a victory which seemed to provide some kind of catharsis for the 24-year-old, judging by his celebrations as he crossed the line. Finally, an edge over the immovable object that is Vingegaard.
“Today I felt like myself again,” Pogačar explained. “Sometimes, this is just bike racing. All you want to do is to feel good, and it was pretty s*** when I didn’t feel good. Today I was feeling like myself again. That’s why I have my smile back on me.
“Overall this Tour was great for the team. Obviously we came for victory, but people close to me already said after [the Col de] Joux Plane after the Colombier that I didn’t look good.
"I didn’t notice that I wasn’t not me, I was going day-by-day, and I was just feeling worse. On Col de la Loze, I don’t have an explanation really, I think everybody experiences something like this in their career. I was super happy that now towards the end I could recover and I felt like myself again. I finally got colour on myself again after one week of being white in the face.”
Just like last year, Pogačar vowed to come back better, and beat Vingegaard. 2023 began so well, with an avalanche of wins, and was looking like an all-timer until the Slovenian broke his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. That injury prevented him from racing from April until the end of June at the Slovenian nationals. That lack of preparation ended up hampering him.
“If everything goes to plan next year, I will try to come back and I hope that I can come back stronger and without injury,” he said. “You never know in cycling. You just go day-by-day and hope to be in the best preparation for next time, for the next battle with Jonas, with Jumbo. We will see how it’s going to be next year. Maybe there will be other youngsters coming for a mix up. I think we have a good future ahead of us.”
While Vingegaard focused his whole season around his sole goal, the maillot jaune, Pogačar dabbled across the board, hence why his claim to the best rider is more solid.
Asked if he would rather have focused on just the Tour, he answered: “I like challenges in my career. This year was a big challenge to win Paris-Nice and try to do my best in the Classics. Then go to Ardennes, try to win all three and then go to the Tour de France. Sometimes, challenges are challenges, and they’re too hard to finish, or something like injury can happen and make it even harder.
“It was a good year until now and I still have some more challenges to the end. Maybe next year we do it differently, we do some different challenges. We will see. It is too early to see about next year, but I am 90% sure I will come back to the Tour and try to win.”
Pogačar shipped five and a half minutes on the Col de la Loze, possibly as big a setback as he has ever faced. The fact he remained in the race and was still able to win a stage at the end of three hard weeks is testament to the racer he is.
"It was really tough last week, but I got through with all the support from my team, from my family, from my girlfriend, from the fans, from social media," he explained. "Everybody kept motivating me and I was also just trying to push through because second place after a really bad day is still a really good result.
"I was trying to get through the worst moments, and I was always hoping for a better moment. In the end it worked."
There were also lessons learned from the traumatic experience of the third week, lessons which might enable Pogačar to come back stronger, to grow from. He is, of course, only 24. There is still growth to come.
"I can suffer [through] when I’m super super s*** and low," he said. "I pushed through it, and this was a big lesson for me. We will take some good points from this Tour for sure."
The Slovenian will be back at the biggest bike race in the world in 2024, he all but confirmed this. Next year, he will hope to be the one creating the commotion rather than the one looking on. It might be that simple.
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