OPINION: Selfish Vingegaard versus Callous Pogačar?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The first two stages of this year’s Tour de France were quite extraordinary, and not only because they went against long tradition by being very difficult and forcing teams to show their GC cards early. After only two days of racing, the two yellow jersey favorites, Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar, and their teams, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates, have also been subjected to criticism.

Vingegaard has been slammed by commentators and even his own teammate for not lifting a pedal to aid his Tour de France lieutenant Wout van Aert win stage 2, which had been the Belgian rider’s goal. That Vingegaard would have made a difference was evident in the finish of the stage, when the French Cofidis rider Victor Lafay, riding in a greatly reduced peloton that included van Aert and the two favorites, made a bold solo dash to the finish with about 700m to go.

Van Aert, who had personally chased down solo moves by Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek), had only teammate Wilco Kelderman to help him go after Lafay. But Kelderman is not the fastest of riders and he had exhausted himself on the last climb of the stage. Eurosport commentator Adam Blythe, on the post-stage “Breakaway” show, said this was due to Vingegaard’s inexperience.

“[Vingegaard] is very new to cycling and all he is concerned about is, yes, I want van Aert to win the stage, but I have to cross the finish line safely,” Blythe said. “I think that is purely down to [lack of] experience.”

To which fellow “Breakaway” commentator Robbie McEwen replied, “But had he led through the final corner with van Aert on his wheel, that’s 400 or 600 meters to go, he’s not going to lose any time and he could have changed the outcome for Wout van Aert. That’s the criticism he’s going to get, and I think it’s just. He could have made the difference and he didn’t.”

McEwen and Blythe agreed that this issue was certain to add to pressure on Jumbo-Visma. “Lack of success for one of their marquee riders, he’s here to ride in support of Vingegaard, but he’s also here to win stages and have his own chances, and this was one,” McEwen said.

Blythe added, “They have to remember they need a happy Wout, they need a Wout that needs to work for Jonas later to win the race. I think they could speak to Jonas and say, ‘Look, in these situations, you’re allowed to help. Don’t risk losing time. You need to think about how to help your teammates.”

In fact, the team spoke to Vingegaard, in the person of Kelderman, who had been placed in a no-win situation. “I was on the limit, I no longer had the gear to jump with those guys,” he said. He added that Vingegaard helping van Aert “certainly could have made the difference. We would have had that victory in our pocket.”

Vingegaard felt obligated to respond to the criticism, saying: “I think I already did something for Wout. I could have thought of myself and rolled with Pogačar. So in a way, I helped by not relaying Pogačar. I just have to focus on the general classification. Of course, we have different objectives and we are all disappointed, so am I. We really wanted Wout to win today.”

Van Aert’s frustration was palpable as he made a chopping gesture with his right arm while crossing the finish line well behind Lafay, who won his first Tour de France stage and the first Tour stage victory for the French Cofidis team in 15 years. “When I made my effort, I wasn’t thinking about winning or not, I was just focused on doing my maximum effort,” Lafay told journalists. “I saw the line, I saw the countdown – 500m, 400m – and I saw my watts were dropping a little bit. I said to myself, ‘Allez, allez, allez’ [Go, go, go] and I believed until the finish.”

Van Aert’s frustration could not have been eased by a video clip showing Pogačar mocking him in front of teammate and race leader Adam Yates. No one as yet has criticized the two-time Tour winner for his callous lack of sportsmanship, but someone should take him to task because mockery, especially in a public setting, runs counter not only to the spirit of the Tour, but of sports in general. Pogačar appeared to show a little frustration himself at the end of the stage, when he tried to beat van Aert to the finish line, but couldn’t.

He and his team were faulted by the “Breakaway” commentators about their strategy of burning through their domestiques for the dubious honor of having Yates in yellow during the early stages. It is a three-week race, and Team Emirates riders have been riding very hard, and will continue to do so if they want to defend the yellow jersey. As the commentators noted, that strategy probably contributed to the Slovenian’s loss in last year’s Tour, when he had no domestiques to help him and no legs left when Jumbo-Visma ambushed him on stage 11, where the race was effectively won.

Pogačar is no doubt still smarting from that defeat and the manner in which it came about, with Vingegaard and Primož Roglič playing cat and mouse with him on the ascent of the Col du Granon. There have also been questions raised about his fitness due to the lack of racing coming into the Tour after he broke his wrist when crashing in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April. So much of the Tour de France is psychological, and the Slovenian is an intense competitor and sensitive to how he is perceived. He may be trying to score early victories in the battle of the minds. But, as McEwen said on the “Breakaway” broadcast, it doesn’t matter who wears the yellow jersey in San Sebastian after stage 2. “You want to be wearing it in Paris, after the last stage.”