Tomorrow at 4.05pm local time in the Haute-Savoie battle will resume in the most finely poised Tour de France in decades.
After nearly three days worth of frantic pedaling action (62 hours, 34 minutes and 17 seconds to be exact), only the best Olympians can run 100m in the time that separates first and second place.
At the average speed Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar climbed the final climb to Saint Gervais Mont Blanc on Sunday their 10 second time gap equates to just 60m. The length of five double decker buses.
Ostensibly, the most coveted piece of sportswear is on the line, the Tour de France yellow jersey. Both men already have one hanging in their closets back home in Jutland, Denmark and Monaco respectively. That fact is part of why there is a good natured mutual respect between the pair.
But on this three weeks of racing hangs much more than just the Tour de France title itself. It’s the status as the World’s Best Stage Racer Right Now.
It’s a title that lives only in coffee shop conversations, in cycling club discourse while out on the road or in cycling press opinion pieces. But it matters. It might not matter to the men racing, but it matters to their legacy. In years to come, who will be remembered as the better of the two?
While the Tour is unquestionably the biggest race in the world, a stage race like no other, the winner of it cannot always claim that 'Best' title outright. Crashes, mechanicals, illness, misfortune, doping can all serve to cast doubt on the Tour winner’s prowess. Either at the time, or in the years after.
That’s not to say they don’t deserve the Tour win - the only thing you need to do to deserve the Tour win, is to win the Tour - but it is to say that unless you beat the best and there were no viable excuses, you cannot claim the title of World’s Best Stage Racer Right Now.
You can put one hand on it, put a down payment on it, but not hold it aloft on the podium in Paris. To do that you have to win it in that rarest of things - a cycling unification bout. That’s the kind race Pogačar and Vingegaard are currently engaged in.
It's the kind of race that helps settle the question, but it's a kind of race that not everyone gets to compete in, not even some of the greats who held that 'World's Best' title. For all his dominance, five-time winner Miguel Indurain was never really challenged, that is until he reign was over.
Jan Ullrich, winner at the age of 23, briefly held the 'World's Best' title until his demons got the better of him while Lance Armstrong held it for seven years, then lost it. For a short while it lay unclaimed, until Alberto Contador and then Chris Froome came along, each winning multiple Tours, along with the Giro and La Vuelta and often in impressive fashion.
Fast forward to 2023 and the records of our two protagonists suggest Pogačar is the better. Already a two time winner, he has also won on the cobbles of Flanders and the hills of the Ardennes, his 2023 palmares looking like something from the junior ranks.
It contains a win-rate of a once in a generation rider (14 wins from 21 race days prior to the Tour) with an insatiable hunger for dominance.
Meanwhile, Vingegaard, the less impetuous of the two, has a record of measured, calculated consistency with GC wins in every stage race he’s done, bar a lone loss to Pogačar at Paris-Nice. But if Vingegaard can beat Pogačar then the Dane's achievements are all the more impressive.
In retrospect, it was the perfect pre-amble to what has been, after two weeks of racing, a Tour de France showdown for the ages. At the end of it one can legitimately claim to be the best stage racer of their generation, at least until there’s a rematch, the other will lose. But whatever the result, we, those that get to witness it, all win.
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