Everyone expected this year’s Tour de France to be a two-cyclist race between the defending champion, Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark, and the 2020 and 2021 winner, Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia. And everyone expected the first true test for them to come on Days 5 and 6 in the Pyrenees mountains.
Wednesday was Vingegaard’s day, but Thursday was Pogacar’s, and the Tour looks as if it could be a ding-dong battle between them for the next two weeks.
First blood went to Vingegaard on Wednesday. Jai Hindley of Australia won the stage and, temporarily, the leader’s yellow jersey, but the real battle took place a little farther back down the road. Vingegaard powered away from Pogacar with a mile to go to the summit of the Col de Marie Blanque and turned an 11-second overall deficit to his rival at the start of the day into a 53-second advantage.
Thursday brought an even more punishing stage, with climbs up the famed Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet and, crucially, an uphill finish to Cauterets-Cambasque.
Aspin was plenty steep, but knowing there were two stern climbs to come, neither Vingegaard nor Pogacar attacked. Things heated up on the Tourmalet, which has been a part of more than 80 Tours since 1910.
Climbs on the Tour are rated Category 1, 2, 3 and 4 depending on their severity. The Tourmalet is one of a handful rated “hors catégorie,” or “beyond categorization,” so difficult that they defy classification. Its summit is at nearly 7,000 feet.
Vingegaard, helped by his strong Jumbo-Visma team, attacked with about two miles to the top of the Tourmalet, dropping the race leader, Hindley, and others. When his final teammate, the American Sepp Kuss, fell behind, it left only the Tour’s two biggest stars together. Vingegaard kept the hammer down. But unlike on Wednesday, Pogacar was able to cling to him all the way to the top. “You really put Pogacar on the limit,” Vingegaard’s team radio told him, hopefully.
After a speedy ride downhill, eight riders joined together in the lead at the bottom of the final climb, with President Emmanuel Macron of France, a cyclist himself, enjoying the race in an officials’ car behind them.
The group followed the determined pace of Vingegaard’s teammate Wout van Aert until three miles to go, when Vingegaard took off. Pogacar followed, and only Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland could hang with them.
Vingegaard tried again as the climb cruelly hit its steepest part two miles from the top. Again, Pogacar matched him, as the best cyclists in the world struggled behind them.
Vingegaard seemed to be the driving force of the stage, but with a mile and a half to go, the tale took a twist when Pogacar made a surprise attack. Vingegaard seemed to be caught unaware and couldn’t keep up. Pogacar raced on to the stage win at the summit.
“I feel a little bit relieved; I feel much better now,” Pogacar said after the stage. “The display Jonas showed yesterday was incredible.”
Kuss, Vingegaard’s teammate, said: “We wanted to make it a tough race, especially on the Tourmalet. But Pogacar was really strong today.”
Because he was ahead of Pogacar by 53 seconds going into the stage, Vingegaard took the yellow jersey as the overall leader, but Pogacar lurks just 25 seconds behind. Hindley fell to third, 1 minute 34 seconds behind.
After a couple of flatter stages, Sunday’s climb of the Puy de Dôme looms large. And there are five more stages with significant mountain climbs after that.
Had Vingegaard left Pogacar behind on both of the big midweek stages, the Tour might have felt all but over. Instead, as Pogacar said, “It’s going to be a big, big battle until the last stage, I think.”