The Swedish artist Carl Gustaf Pilo had a solid line of work in paintings of members of the Danish Royal Court in the 18th century, works of art that were clear in their elevation of kings and queens above their subjects. He painted monarchs like Frederik V of Denmark, who so liked being puffed up by the Swede that he purchased 50 of them between just 1748-1767 alone.
Pilo would do great paintings of Tadej Pogačar and Wout van Aert, the two men who are markedly above everyone else at the Tour de France so far, almost on a different plane, as if they are absolute monarchs. Van Aert's win on Saturday was his second in five days; it broke a streak of two consecutive wins for Pogačar.
Between them, they have won half of the available stages so far, and there is a sense that this Tour has not really even got going yet. Van Aert finished second on three consecutive stages at the beginning of the race, and Pogačar was third today, on a day for riders more like the Belgian who won.
Van Aert, the Jumbo-Visma rider, has the green jersey, and is 115 points ahead of Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), his nearest rival in that competition, while Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates is in the yellow jersey, with half a minute on Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).
However, the Belgian was dismissive of the idea that this day was "easy" for him, despite the fact he won it at a canter.
"It’s quite obvious it’s never easy to win a bike race, and it’s never easy to win a stage of the Tour de France," Van Aert said. "Even though I don’t like to pick a stage where it felt easy, I felt on the limit on the last climb and I was focused on the last 300m. Before it was a fight to hang onto the wheel."
It was a different approach from stage six to Longwy, where the Jumbo rider went up the road instead of hanging back in the bunch until the stage finish. On this form, he looks like one of the only men capable of challenging Pogačar on that kind of terrain, but he gave up that opportunity to head into the breakaway.
"For sure we could have done differently in Longwy," he said. "But if you see today how many efforts it takes to chase down the break, we had help from BikeExchange to create a good situation, and this was impossible on the road to Longwy.
"It was impossible to create a situation and then chase down the breakaway... I have no regrets, and I’m just glad today it worked out today."
There were doubts before this Tour that Jumbo-Visma's split strategy at this Tour would see them come undone - how could one target stage wins and points at the same time as going for GC? However, with Van Aert already comfortably in green, perhaps it has worked out perfectly.
"In the first week, everything after the rest day apart from yesterday was an opportunity for me," he explained. "That’s five stages, where I won two. That’s crazy stats in the Tour de France. Today was on our mind to grab a lot of points in the points classification, and I think I have a good margin now, and hopefully from now on I can grab points here and there, and watch my competitors. That’s kind of my plan."
It is crazy stats. Saturday's win was Van Aert's eighth Tour stage win, the same number as Pogačar, which puts them both second on the list of active riders in terms of Tour stage wins. At only 27, the Belgian might keep going up the rankings.
"I believe it brings a good vibe in the team," he said of the two wins so far. "It’s maybe a better question to my teammates, but all the guys in every team, and especially our team like to race for the win, and are committed to give their all 100%. I’ve done 4 Tours de France and have always been able to take a stage win. I believe we will try to do this again now."
Due to the team's split strategy, Van Aert was only assigned Nathan van Hooydonck for chasing down the break today, but this did not prove too difficult a task for his compatriot.
"Tonight I will say a big thank you to him and hand him a nice glass of champagne, but I’m already thinking about a bigger nicer present for all my teammates, and maybe a double present for Nathan," he said post-stage. "For BikeExchange, one guy was tired, then another, and still Nathan was on the front. He confirmed 100% of his Tour selection."
Back to Pilo and his paintings of absolute monarchs. Van Aert and Pogačar have established themselves as the pre-eminent riders in this year's Tour, and might just emulate those paintings not just as kings of Denmark, but kings of France too.
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