This year, the Tour de France opened with two stages that contained hills and mountains, as the ASO route planners apparently wanted to have a race that produced from the start the kind of fireworks that usually occur in the high mountains and in the final week of the race.
Well, they got their wish. The sparks began to fly right already at the start of stage 1, which offered five categorized climbs and an uphill finish, making it the ideal arena for a successful breakaway. But apparently, the breakaway riders hadn’t counted on a yellow-jersey battle breaking out so early in the race. And that is precisely what happened, with Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates drawing first blood over the Jumbo-Visma of his GC rival Jonas Vingegaard as Adam Yates took the stage and the yellow jersey (and also drew first blood over his twin brother Simon who finished second).
The GC battle began in earnest on the second stage, which also contained five categorized climbs, as Pogačar raced to steal seconds from Vingegaard and ended the second day 11 seconds ahead of last year’s Tour winner. There were still 19 days of racing to go and all eyes were already on the fight for the yellow jersey. Stage 2 was also noteworthy because it was the first of at least four stages thatJumbo-Visma’s super-domestique Wout van Aert had targeted but failed to win. The Belgian’s quest for a Tour stage win, even as he works for Vingegaard, has become one of the noteworthy sub-narratives of this year’s Tour.
The battle for the yellow jersey took a dramatic turn on stage 5, 162.7 km between Pau and Laruns, which already featured a Beyond Category (HC) mountain, the Col du Soudet (15.2 km at 7.2%), at the halfway mark. But it was on the final climb of the stage, up the Col de Marie Blanque (7.7 km at 8.6%), that the mano a mano exploded into life when, 3 km from the summit, Vingegaard stepped on the gas and left Pogačar spinning his pedals.
At the end of the stage, the former Giro winner Jai Hindley (BORA-Hansgrohe) won the stage and wore yellow and Vingegaard had taken more than 1 minute from his rival. Hindley led the race by 47 seconds over Vingegaard, with Pogačar sitting in sixth, 53 seconds behind Vingegaard and already written off. So powerful was Vingegaard’s burst on that final climb (he gained 1 minute on his rival in just 1 km), and so weak was Pogačar’s response, that commentators concluded that the UAE Team Emirates leader had not fully recovered from the broken wrist he suffered in a crash during the Liège–Bastogne–Liège in April, and that the training and race time he had lost as a result had left him lacking in racing fitness.
Then came stage 6. The stage covered 144.9 km from Tarbes to Cauterets-Cambasques, included another HC climb, none other than the legendary Tourmalet (17.1 km at 7.3%), and a summit finish. Jumbo-Visma had prepared an elaborate plan to take advantage of what they assumed was Pogačar’s febrility to already gain an insurmountable lead in the GC. They sent Wout van Aert into a large breakaway and pulled the peloton along at an impressive speed, which ultimately led to Pogačar being isolated on the final climb (15.9 km at 5.4%) and the tireless van Aert pulling Vingegaard up towards the finish line until he nearly fell from his bike from exhaustion. Then came the moment when Jumbo-Visma and most observers thought Vingegaard would put Pogačar to the sword again and seal his GC victory.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Paris. It was Pogačar who soared up the climb and Emperor Vingegaard who discovered he had no legs. At the end of the stage, the Slovenian had reduced his gap to Vingegaard to a mere 25 seconds and, more importantly, the Tour was alive. And there was more GC drama on stage 9, the last stage of a jaw-dropping first week. The two main contenders for the yellow jersey went at each other again on the final climb, the third Beyond Category mountain of week 1, the legendary volcano Puy de Dôme (13.3 km at 7.7%). And again Vingegaard was found wanting, as Pogačar gradually distanced him on the very steep final kilometre of the ascent and took back another 8 seconds. He now trails the Dane by a mere 17 seconds ahead of the first rest day, with Hindley now a distant third, at 2 min 40 sec.
And that rest day is fully deserved and required, not only for the riders, most of whom have emptied their tanks but also for us, the spectators, who have been treated to a breathtaking first week of road racing. And there are two weeks left in the Tour. Thank you, ASO!
But spare a thought and a tear for Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan) who was racing in his last Tour de France and was on a mission to win his 35th stage, which would finally pull him ahead of racing great Eddy Merckx in the number of Tour stages won. During a relatively unhazardous phase of stage 8, with the peloton moving at a brisk but not perilous pace, the 38-year-old Brit and MBE crashed and broke his collarbone, putting an end to his quest for the record and perhaps even to his career – unless he changes his mind about retiring and takes up Astana’s offer of a contract extension for 2024. “We want Mark to continue in 2024 and race his 15th Tour de France to win his 35th stage,” team general manager Alexander Vinokourov told L’Equipe.